When you think of hospitality, what comes to mind? For me, several things run through my brain. I think of my grandmother who loves Miss Manners and Emily Post and all of those complicated rules about where the forks and knives are supposed to go at a dinner party. I think of the famous “Seattle Freeze” and the reputation we have for being an unfriendly city. And I think of my former coworker talking about all that famous “southern hospitality” in Texas being a fraud, because people will be welcoming and kind to your face but rude and unloving behind your back.
The bible actually has quite a bit to say about hospitality. And the longer that I read the Bible, the more I’m convinced that practicing hospitality is not merely something a pastor or a Christian should do, but that it points to the heart of the gospel itself.
How Should We Define Hospitality?
One the challenges we face when practicing hospitality is understanding what it is. I have found it helpful to think of hospitality in contrast with fellowship. Yes, fellowship is a “churchy” sort of word, but it is also a deeply biblical word. Simply put, fellowship is when people who are already known come together to enjoy one another, build each other up, and grow the relationship to new depths. This is the kind of fellowship that the early church modeled in Acts 2:42-47. But the distinguishing mark of fellowship is that it is based on an already-established commonality. The original Greek word that is translated as “fellowship” is koinonia, or “common.” (The same root word is where we get the word koine, as in koine Greek, or the common language of the day.) Fellowship is a very important part of the Christian life, but by itself it is incomplete.
Hospitality, by contrast, is focused on the one who is not already common. Verses like Matthew 25:35 and Hebrews 13:2 talk about welcoming and showing hospitality to the “stranger,” or the xenos in Greek. Xenos is where we get our modern word xenophobia, or fear of the stranger. Where fellowship is focused more on an already-established group, hospitality is focused on new people, outsiders, and those who are foreign to us.
Hospitality, therefore, is taking upon yourself the responsibility to help someone move from unknown to known, from stranger to family.
And the two are definitely interrelated. Romans 12:13 instructs us to “contribute to the needs of the saints (fellowship) and seek to show hospitality” (parenthetical comment and emphasis mine). Practicing fellowship without hospitality turns us into a clique. Hospitality without fellowship means that you’re neglecting your Christian responsibility to care for and build up your fellow believers.
Invited to a Table
So, what do you do when you want to get to know somebody who is currently unknown to you? The answer is still basically the same as it has been for thousands of years in most cultures throughout the world: invite them to share a meal. Of course there are other options, but a shared meal is one of the easiest ways to get to know someone in a non-threatening way. The bible frequently speaks about people sharing a meal together. Yes, some of the stories or images would fall under the category of fellowship, but it is interesting to think about how many times the shared meal is between people who were previously unknown to each other. Consider these examples:
- Abraham and Melchizedek sharing bread and wine | Genesis 14:1-24
- David inviting Mephibosheth, the son of King Saul, to his table | 2 Samuel 9:1-13
- Elijah feeding the Syrian army after they came to kill him | 2 Kings 6:8-23
- Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners | Luke 5:27-32
- Jesus summarizing his mission with the parable of the Great Banquet | Luke 14:12-24
- Peter being told by God to eat with the Gentile Cornelius | Acts 10
- John’s vision of the end of the age as a wedding feast | Revelation 19:9
Actually, things get really interesting when you realize that in some of the examples above, an invitation to the table is not merely extended to a stranger, but to an enemy! Does this not sound like the heart of the gospel itself? It could very easily be said that the message of the gospel is that Jesus moves us from the position of a stranger to the position of a brother by inviting us to his table. It’s no accident that one of the ordinances that Jesus himself instituted is a sacred meal: “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). In Christ, God takes us out of the category of a stranger or enemy and moves us to the category of a family member: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19).
Your practice of hospitality is far more than something to fill your time or a strategy for church growth. When you practice hospitality, you are imaging Jesus and showcasing the gospel.
I Have Some Objections
This might sound good to you, but in the back of your mind you might have some objections. Here are the four most common objections to regularly practicing hospitality that I have heard in my time as a pastor.
Objection 1: But I’m an introvert!
I must admit, as a raging extrovert myself, I struggle to identify and empathize with this objection. However, I do know that being an introvert doesn’t mean that you don’t like people, but that you simply need time alone more frequently in order to “recharge your batteries.” I would encourage you to think about your pacing; maybe you aren’t the type of person who can have new folks over for dinner every single week. Maybe you need to not invite people over on Saturday night right before you have to preach on Sunday. And perhaps you need to be intentional about when you do interact with people and when you get time away. After all, Jesus himself—while constantly being involved in the lives of strangers—would often withdraw to solitary places to pray and reconnect with God (Luke 5:16).
Objection 2: I really hate small talk.
Admittedly, most people hate this, including those people who you’re inviting to a meal. So, let me offer three suggestions to help you with this. First, see it as an opportunity to build a bridge. That person has beliefs, feelings, and experiences that they may or may not want to share right away. Having something “small” to talk about (sports, life in your neighborhood, hobbies) can help build a bridge for deeper conversation. Second, foster genuine curiosity about people. If you are sincerely curious about what makes a person tick, you’ll find yourself asking better questions and giving them an opportunity to disclose more about themselves. And finally, don’t be afraid to go deep quickly. I often think of the example of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well. I would daresay that the conversation went deep pretty quickly! Of course, some people may not be comfortable going there, but you might be surprised how many people are actually willing to open up at a deeper level more quickly than you had thought.
Objection 3: I am afraid.
If your response to this encouragement toward a lifestyle of hospitality is fear, then you need to do some self-analysis. Is your fear based on a dislike of certain types of people? Then you might need to repent, because xenophobie is a real sin. Is your fear related to the unknown and an inability to control the outcome? Then you might need to pray and ask God to help you place your trust in him—the one who truly knows the future—and not on yourself. Are you simply afraid to try it alone? Then you might need to recruit a friend. There’s nothing wrong with that! Jesus sent his disciples out two-by-two for a reason. It’s normal to experience some apprehension when you’re first learning how to practice hospitality, but in Christ, our fears are overcome by love.
Objection 4: I don’t have enough time.
Our culture is notoriously busy: work, school, family, activities, hobbies (let’s be honest: Netflix). There are two questions to ask yourself as you establish a lifestyle of hospitality. First, ask yourself “what might I need to cut out to make room for hospitality?” There are many things—even good things!—that we can be involved in that might be less important than hospitality. If hospitality is a gospel issue and a priority, then it needs to be a part of the regular rhythms of our lives.
A second question that you can ask yourself is “what other natural rhythms of life can I combine with hospitality?” Do you enjoy being active and doing outdoor activities? Then remember to invite someone to go with you. Do you go to sporting events or concerts? Invite someone along with you! A woman in my community group recently met a new neighbor. Since both are stay-at-home moms, my friend invited her neighbor to go grocery shopping with her as a way to practice hospitality. You’re going to be doing things already, the hospitality-minded Christian will seek to find ways to bring people along with them.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
How does the gospel stir your heart towards a lifestyle of hospitality?
When was the last time you invited a non-Christian into your home for dinner? Is all your time spent with Christians or do you have substantive relationships with unbelievers?
How can hospitality be combined with other natural rhythms in your life?
What are some ways that you can develop genuine curiosity about others? How might this curiosity lead your heart towards deeper love and care?