Prior to my arrival to the Wesley Seminary at IWU, I served as a denominational congregational development coordinator. When I visited churches I often asked them to describe their congregation. As if reading from a common script, the church’s responses included descriptors like “friendly,” “hospitality,” and “welcoming to visitors”. Without much prodding, someone would then recite a laundry list of “hospitality tasks” the church performed.
We have greeters and ushers. We have lounge lizards (people who roamed around and greeted folks). We have good signage. Our nursery is top notch. The bulletin is “user-friendly”. We have coffee hour before (or after) service. We “mug” first-time visitors (i.e. give them a church coffee mug). We have lots of visitor parking spaces close to the sanctuary…and the list would go on. (Personal correspondence)
Each of those actions are good expressions that signal a congregation’s desire to make a good first impression. Beyond these acts of kindness, I encourage churches to consider how Christians have extended hospitality historically.
Jews functioned under a grand narrative that reminded them that they were once nomads and strangers who should extend hospitality toward others. The following Old Testament passage illustrates the importance Hebrews placed on hospitality. “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt” (Exodus 23:9, NIV).
New Testament Scripture equates hospitality to entertaining God’s messengers. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2, NIV). Hospitality was a cultural expectation in biblical times, just as it is in some contemporary cultures.
My wife and I served as missionaries to Ghana West Africa for four years. In Akan, the most predominant Ghanaian language, akwaaba means welcome. As a visitor, we learned the depth of Ghanaian hospitality during our first visit. We arrived at our hotel late one evening; long after local restaurants had closed. Naively, I asked if there were any snacks or anything for sale from the hotel. The clerk, seeing how “new” we were to the country, told us to wait a moment and disappeared behind a door. Our stomachs would argue that she was gone much longer than the actual five minutes we waited. When she returned, she led us to an empty dining room. She turned on the lights, seated us and about 30-minutes later the cook brought us out a delicious, made-from-scratch, fish dinner. It was then that we realized the desk clerk had awakened the cook to prepare a meal because two strangers were hungry. There was no commotion, objection or attitude exhibited by the cook or the clerk. Each person extended hospitality with a smile and genuine pleasure. Welcoming the stranger was customary.
As you think about the type hospitality you and your church offer, consider the following questions:
- How often have you been a stranger?
- What level of hospitality did you receive from others when you were the stranger?
- How do believe U.S. culture regards strangers?
- What value do you believe your local church places on hospitality?
- Is hospitality a task or a lifestyle for you?
In her book, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, Christine Pohl says hospitality is not an option for Christians, nor is it limited to those who are specially gifted for it (1999). Quoting from ancient church fathers, Pohl notes “In a number of ancient civilizations, hospitality was viewed as a pillar on which all morality rested; it encompassed ‘the good’” (1999, p. 5). Old Testament expressions of hospitality included support systems to protect aliens from poverty and abuse, opening privately owned fields to strangers for gleaning, tithes of grain set aside for the poor and sojourners, and the prohibition of exploitation of foreign workers by employers. There was a communal dimension to hospitality.
In biblical culture, the household was the center of social and family activity. Into that intimate space, Hebrews and later Gentile Christians such as Lydia (Acts 16:16; 40), cared for strangers. Food was an important aspect of welcome. To break bread (have a meal) with others was a covenant-making activity in some ancient cultures. In short, through hospitable acts like housing, feeding, and providing justice, people experienced what meant to be treated as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Given this short-list of highlights about biblical hospitality, I invite you to consider what welcoming the stranger should look like when we practice it in your churches and in your communities. What would happen if we extended hospitality to others as if they were our brothers and sisters in Christ?
Pohl, Christine. (1999). Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans