We’ve been invited to a church member’s home for a meal just three times in three years. As an accidental experiment in the Colorado city where we moved three years ago, we visited 17 churches, landing at 2 for about a year, 3 for a month each, and visited the others once or twice. Not including small groups, newcomer’s luncheons, parties, or planned church functions, we’ve experienced the organic, old-fashioned “can you come over for dinner this Sunday, and yes, thanks for asking, you can bring dessert” just three times in three years.
I recognize that inviting a family with three small children to your home for a meal can be slightly intimidating. Add to that busy schedules, food restrictions, a desire to keep our homes a sanctuary from the world’s frenzy, and less than Pinterest-perfect food, houses or table settings, and we eventually stop asking. In fact, inviting a stranger to our homes is nothing short of countercultural in the West, even if that stranger is just a new family at church.
But, the more I ask questions about community, church, and how we are to move as reflections of God’s love in the world, the more I discover that hospitality is not optional for God’s children. It is not for those who feel called or gifted. It’s not for the gregarious extroverts with huge houses and overflowing bank accounts. It’s not for the people with angelic children, respectable roommates, or perfect marriages. Hospitality is for every person who calls themselves a follower of Jesus. Contrary to the popular spiritual gift tests that name hospitality as a special gift for some, nowhere in the Bible is it named as such. Instead, hospitality is a command (Rom. 12:13; 1 Pet. 4:9).
Hospitality has slowly trickled down the drain of our culture until there is little of it left to speak of. Our individualism, grip on our time and privacy, technology addictions, and lack of stable community are either reasons for or consequences of our lack of hospitality in the world. And we are lonely—even in the church. In fact, according to the American Psychological Association, loneliness has been named as an epidemic in our society today. An article put out by the Association cites the AARP’s Loneliness Study, concluding that “approximately 42.6 million adults over age 45 in the United States are estimated to be suffering from chronic loneliness.”
The Bible has a solution for our loneliness and lack of community: hospitality. When I started thinking about how few times we had been shown hospitality since our move, though we invited others to our home over a dozen times, I asked my son if he could remember going to anyone’s home for a meal.
“Well, we went to Ali and Ava’s house,” he said.
Ali and Ava are the 3- and 5-year-old children of our Iranian international student friends. In fact, international students from China and Iran have invited us into their sparse university apartments as many times as we have been invited over by someone at church.
Other cultures from all different religions take pride in their identity as hospitable people. I’ve experienced this hospitality in the course of the past 20 years as I’ve traveled and lived in other countries. Though I was not always comfortable, I was always astounded by the generosity of others toward me, a stranger. I drank fresh coffee with warm goat’s milk and raw sugar cane in a farmer’s home in the countryside of Costa Rica. I ate sweet muffins and drank cold, orange Fanta soda in the mud hut of an old woman who gave me a dozen fresh brown eggs as a parting gift in Uganda. I ate pink birthday cake at a nursing home in Nicaragua to celebrate a woman’s 100th birthday.
I visited many of my female college students’ villages in China during the five years I spent there, sharing beds with them and their mothers, chatting with their aunties, and eating steaming bowls of cilantro lamb jiaozi (dumplings) by the coal stove. On a backpacking trip in Northern Ireland, my friend and I knocked on the door of a hostel perched on a cliff on Whitepark Bay, though there was a “no vacancy sign” in the window, but when the group there learned we were Christians, they welcomed us in to join their retreat. And in Tajikistan, two students prepared a picnic lunch of spiced tomato and cucumber salad to eat at a park on a blanket.
I always thanked my hosts profusely, telling them I loved the food and appreciated their kindness to me, a stranger. In many cases, my hosts would give a haunting reply,
“My pleasure. Besides, I know that if I went to your country, you’d do the same for me.”
But would I? Would we? Most international students who study in America will never enter an American’s home, even if they spend four years here. Rather than welcome the stranger as the Bible commands us to do, we fear the stranger. Instead of throwing open our doors to Jesus in disguise, we build bigger walls.
The Bible tells us that sometimes when we show hospitality to strangers, we are entertaining angels without even knowing it (Heb. 13:2). Other times, as in Jesus’ description of the “least of these” in Matthew 25, we are entertaining Christ himself in the form of the thirsty, hungry, and imprisoned. Journalist, activist and Catholic thought leader, Dorothy Day, wrote in Little By Little, “Giving shelter or food to anyone who asks for it, or needs it, is giving to Christ” (94). She believed the strangers they welcomed were not just representatives of Jesus but were Jesus himself. “He made heaven hinge on the way we act toward Him in his disguise of commonplace, frail, ordinary humanity … it is not a duty to help Christ, it is a privilege” (97).
God wants us to practice hospitality inside, outside, and even on the wayside. The Greek word for hospitality, philoxenos, literally means “love (philos) of strangers (xenos).” We begin with a simple invitation—just six words–and leave the logistics to later: “Can you come over for dinner?” A booklet I read recently about hospitality told the story of a couple who did not feel at home at their church. But instead of leaving, they committed to inviting a new person to their home every single week for a year. And after that year, strangers had become guests, and guests had become friends.
Certain stages of life make it difficult to invite people over frequently, but being more intentional right where we live can also be a form of hospitality. Kristin Schell bought a 100 dollar picnic table from Lowes, painted it “nifty turquoise” and started hanging out in her front yard. She wrote a book about it called The Turquoise Table, and she started a group called “Front Yard People” comprised of those who are being intentional about getting to know their neighbors by hanging out in their front yards. Pastors Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon wrote a book called The Art of Neighboring where they encourage churches to get out of their cliques and intentionally develop relationships with their neighbors by simply learning names and hosting occasional block parties, book clubs, or other get-togethers.
In Making Room, Christine D. Pohl suggests that “hearts can be enlarged by praying that God will give us eyes to see the opportunities around us, and by putting ourselves in places where we are likely to encounter strangers in need of welcome” (152). Hospitality begins with first opening our heart, eyes, and ears to the people around us who are made in the image of God.
God challenges us to see the dignified face of Jesus in every smelly homeless woman, immigrant, international student, refugee, sex-trafficked girl, drug addict, and ex-con. He calls us to love the stranger with the extravagant love he showed us when we were strangers to God. In my stage of life with three tiny children, this means noticing the people I rub shoulders with every day—the cashier at the grocery store, the tired mom at the park, or the neighbor four houses down from us I’ve never met before. It means asking questions and being generous with my time and attention as I honor them by listening and making space for them in my life. And it means finding opportunities to get proximate to the poverty of the vulnerable and marginalized I may not encounter as I zip in and out of my garage in the suburbs every day.
At this stage of my life, God is probably not asking me to open a soup kitchen, start an ESL class, or fund a pregnancy center, but he may be asking me to join one of these preexisting networks. And, he is certainly asking me to be alert to ways I can show hospitality inside, outside, and on-the-wayside of my right-now life.
In Saved by Faith and Hospitality scholar and theologian Joshua W. Jipp writes, “Few Christians today understand that hospitality to strangers and the marginalized is a constituent component of their faith” (9). We, who call ourselves Christians, show hospitality because we are welcomed by a hospitable, inviting God. We begin by practicing hospitality within the church, but we do not stop there. Jesus is hiding out in plain view in the faces of every person we meet in a day—and even the ones we may never meet unless we intentionally put ourselves in their path. Hospitality is God’s plan to revitalize the church and radically transform culture. All it takes is for us to step out of our comfort zones, get near the hurting, the strange, or the neighbor down the street and string together six simple words: “Can you come over for dinner?” And we trust God with the rest.