The Hospitality Imperative
There is a crisis of confusion in American churches these years, including many outwardly healthy congregations.
By contrast, congregations in pursuit of a vibrant life are busy adopting the language of “guest” and “host.” These two nouns are the linguistic cornerstones of hospitality. They happen to be in keeping with the ministry of Jesus, who himself was a perennial guest in the homes of others. Though most churches may not have St. Benedict’s little rule posted beside their front door – Let all who enter here be received as Christ – every guest who steps inside will be able to detect if others, through generous hosting, actually noticed something of Christ in their presence.
We Are All Guests
The church’s imagination regarding hospitality expands whenever the concept of “guest” embraces every soul who walks through the door. Long-time members are guests in character and identity as much as first-time strangers. There is no permissible distinction when a Biblical sense of hospitality is at stake. Presumptuous behavior about how long- term membership might privilege one over some- one of briefer ties has no place in the church. We are all guests in the house of the Lord. Every week, we stand as guests before the mystery of God and within the ever-evolving dynamics of our particular faith community.
There is a second feature of hospitality that differentiates it from friendliness. When, to the eyes of an observer, the gap between guest and host becomes indistinguishable, true hospitality has arrived. A commitment to eliminating irrelevant barriers between two people takes effort. Mostly, it is an effort of each party delighting in the significance and profound humanity of the other. In the world of true hospitality, the needs and hopes of a guest receive an embrace that supersedes the preferences and preoccupations of the host.
In the Pentecost story of Acts 2, when the wind of God blows the doors off the house of those gathered, the Spirit could have required everyone to conform to the language, culture, and tradition of the disciples. The Jews who gathered in Jerusalem from near and far could have been forced to become just like the apostles: wearing their garb, reading poetry with an Aramaic accent, and adopting various Galilean customs of the day. But this isn’t how it went. The Spirit determined that the Gospel was not the exclusive domain of the apostles. Each of the hearers would be able to hear the Lord in his or her own native tongue and tribal way. The Gospel would not become the privileged property of a few, with everyone else looking in from the outside as strangers.
Unfortunately, friendliness in congregational practice often appears to incoming guests as clubbiness. Congregation members who love their church often think of it as family. But what social system is tougher to break into from the outside than a family? When established members become at home with certain congregational customs and traditions, they often function as if they “possess the goods.” They are more than happy to make these goods available to the stranger – “Let us introduce you to who we are.” But it connotes unilateral behavior. The member ends up acting as the teacher – albeit a friendly one who is excited to share about his or her church – while the guest serves as the student, with little to offer in return except the look of unfamiliarity.
What to do about this? Congregations might consider appointing a team of specially selected people who are naturally gifted to serve as Sunday hosts. Unlike ushers and greeters who seem to al- ways want to know their position – “Where should I stand?” – hosts make a point of fluidly moving to- ward any person in sight (members and newcomers alike) and initiating delightful conversation involving friendship, Sunday joy, and basic human interest.
The psychiatrist Alfred Margulies once proposed that “wonder” is what it really takes to understand another human being. Wonder, he writes, “promotes a searching attitude of simultaneously knowing and not knowing.”1 It blends astonishment with curiosity, thus fostering a deep appreciation of the other. This is hospitality. The other person becomes more important than we are, no matter how unfamiliar he or she may be to us. A sense of wonder keeps us from behaving as if we have other people figured out.
A Mamre Welcome
Attention to the needs, interests, and unique being of “the other” highlights a third feature of Biblical hospitality: guests never come empty-handed. They always come bearing certain gifts. Rich with experiences, questions, and deep meanings of their own, guests have something extraordinary to offer. Though other church members may be eager to compartmentalize them as visitors, and though guests may look as if they have little to offer aside from their overwhelmed faces, a gracious host will gently awaken the gifts of a guest, and in due course be changed personally by them.
In one of the great scriptural accounts of hospitality, Abraham and Sarah welcome, refresh, and feed three unknown guests under the Oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18). Their hosting efforts are noteworthy. Disregarding the heat of the day, Abraham and Sarah move toward their guests. This is the direction of all gracious hosting. They do not wait for the three to come to them; they initiate the encounter, eventually feeding these strangers with bread, a precious calf, and milk and curds. But the surprise of the story is found in the fact that these strangers come to give their host a gift. They do not come merely to receive. They come bearing the promise of a child – a gift that later will be wrapped in ribbons and bows with the name Isaac written all over it.
Congregational hospitality that is alive and well will always be more eager to receive from a guest than to dispense or deliver something to that same guest.
A final element of vibrant hospitality in a congregation will be evident whenever individuals create what Henri Nouwen calls “free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend.”2 This entails making room for another person to be who they truly are. A gracious host will offer sacred space for another human being to flourish.
Congregations that pride themselves on friendliness can be on the lookout for inadvertent behaviors that squeeze guests with oppressive gestures and do not allow sufficient space for “the other” to breathe. Hyper-friendly churches are often most guilty of ambushing the unsuspecting newcomer or the low-key member in ways neither ever asked to be treated. Who wants to be ambushed?
In the Torah, God reminds the Israelites not to squeeze or crush a stranger: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exod 23:9). There is a stifling quality to inhospitable activity. To be squeezed or stifled by another is to feel shut down or shut out.
Jesus offers an instructive word to his disciples when encouraging their ministry, even through in- hospitable territory. Knowing that they would face others unwilling to receive them, Jesus informs them, “If any place will not welcome you, and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them” (Mark 6:11). Though a first read of this sandal shaking act sounds like nothing but an inhospitable tantrum, Jesus is also reminding his followers not to become the wrong people.
It is as if he were saying: “When you find no hospitality extended your way, but only the littleness, the prejudice, the meanness, or the stuffiness of another person’s heart or mind, remember that the soil on which they walk is tainted by their whole outlook on life and their incapacity to receive others. If you carry that dust of their ground with you on the bottom of your shoes, the footprints you leave in the world will also be tainted. Your imprint on the world will be ‘soiled.’ So, shake off that dust, lest you lose a sense of who you are supposed to be in the eyes of God.”
We might think of hospitality first and last as a disposition – the predominant spirit of all who are bent on being the creatures God desires them to be for others. It could be that our footprints, constantly turned in the direction of the guest, will be that trace of God that gives our deepest identity away.
Peter W. Marty ’85 M.Div. is senior pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Davenport, IA, and author of The Anatomy of Grace (Augsburg Fortress, 2008). He was the visiting Hoskins Fellow at YDS in Spring 2009.
Quoted in Faith’s Wisdom for Daily Living, Herb Anderson and Bonnie Miller-McLemore (Augsburg Fortress, 2008), p. 71.
Henri J.M. Nouwen, Reaching Out (Doubleday, 1975), p. 51.