Hospitality is the fertile soil in which relationships grow. This is true for friendships both new and unexpected as well as old and established. Show me a gathering of believers where there is warmth and love expressed through hospitality, and I will point and say, “Look there! On that hill! Shining brightly, as if a lamp, or a lighthouse, or a great kingdom with many feasts and festivals, the Church radiating!”
Conversely, show me a gathering of believers where hospitality languishes under the burden of sequestered affection and pocketed love, and there one will find safety in smallness, familiarity through cliques, and joy diminishing.
Something else important will be absent as well. And that’s newcomers- that stick, anyway.
Just think of it. If a newcomer stands in front of the church alone after the service and sees only the backs of the regulars gathered in tight circles of conversation, how long do you think they will stand there the next week, if there is a next week?
If a newcomer musters the courage to show up for a Fellowship Meal only to sit awkwardly alone with his own family, do you think he will ever come again?
If a newcomer attends church for several weeks without a single invitation to spend time with anyone, how likely is that person to think that there is real potential for new friendships and meaningful relationships?
Or if no one takes the time and effort to move beyond superficial introductions into meaningful conversation by inviting newcomers into their homes and lives, why would we expect those who are searching for the love and joy found in the fellowship of the saints to keep looking there?
I can’t think how it could be stated more pointedly: hospitality is the Golden Rule in action. It is love in motion. It is the church opening its arms to a world that needs embraced, as well as saints yearning for a good home.
But of course in order to show hospitality, one must try to imagine how the stranger in their midst feels. What could I do to make him feel more comfortable, included, even loved? Naturally, this requires a fair bit of imagination, or at least the not so distant knowledge of what it feels like to be a stranger. Here programs will not suffice. Nor brochures. Or a glancing “Hello.” Hospitality requires our being willing to make ourselves a little uncomfortable in order to make someone else feel a lot less uncomfortable. It means active, sustained pursuit. It means investing in their lives- burrowing right down into those heart-spaces labeled: “Intimate, even private, but eagerly waiting to be revealed.”
Don’t believe me? Just try it. It’s true 8 or 9 times out of 10. Granted, there are some real stinkers out there. But by and large, they’re the exception and not the rule. And besides, if you have a good nose, you can usually sniff them out quickly enough.
My wife once described the feeling of being a visitor to a new church perfectly. Imagine that you show up at an acquaintances’ family reunion. It’s obvious that all the people know each other and enjoy one another. They seem comfortable. But not you. You literally don’t even know where to stand as the people mill about and chat. Yes, you smile and shake a few hands, talking briefly (perhaps someone asks what you do for a living), but these conversations are short lived and somewhat strained. Soon you’re back to floating awkwardly about, wondering if you should leave or find a seat situated in the back where you can dissolve into the shadows.
This is exactly how many church visitors feel for quite some time.
Now re-imagine the above scenario. Imagine how you would feel if someone warm and inviting pulled you in to one of the groups, taking time to introduce you to their friends, intent on making you feel genuinely welcome. It would make a world of difference. It would all still feel a little weird, but you would walk away feeling loved. Like someone with whom they took genuine interest.
But make no mistake. While it is true that this kind of inclusion is absolutely critical, it isn’t enough. Hospitality is hungry for more. It beckons us to open our front door, and by extension, the front door of our life to others.
But of course inviting people into your home sometimes feels more than a little intimidating. What do I cook? Where do I seat everyone? Oh my, what if they see the backyard full of weeds? Or my unsightly couch? Well, in all fairness, maybe you do need to tidy up. Hoarders don’t have too many friends, after all. But setting aside having to tunnel through one’s living room in order to reach the kitchen table, experience has taught me that when people join our family for dinner, they are not looking to be wowed by the food, impressed by the decor, or fascinated by our skill as conversationalists. They are looking to be known. They are looking to form a new friendship.
We have a dear friend who reminisced about the first time we had them over for dinner. She remembered that we had bratwurst from the grill and macaroni and cheese. The simplicity of the evening was what she remembered with affection. She said she felt at home and at ease right away. If we had waited until we had plenty of time to entertain them in style, we would probably still be waiting, and it turns out we may have just made them uncomfortable! That evening when they walked in our door, we barely knew each other; by the time they walked out our door, we knew it was the beginning of a friendship.
And that’s, perhaps, the best part of eating a meal with someone both as a guest and as a host. The next time I see that person, gone are the awkward pauses and forced small talk. It’s replaced by easy smiles and a more comfortable conversation.
So are you sold yet? Or feel guilty enough? Because I’ll take guilt.
No, in all seriousness, God has called his people to not only declare the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness, but he has knit us together into a family that has been commissioned to grow through the ever deepening fellowship of the saints, and the unshakable expression of love to a dying and lost world.
We have a really good thing. And it’s meant to be shared. To both the familiar and the unfamiliar. And one of the best places to do that is around a meal in the intimacy of one’s own home.