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Hospitality: MennoNerds Synchroblog

Hospitality. Today is the second contribution to the MennoNerds Synchro-Blog on Missional Spirituality. My topic for today is Hospitality. This is mentioned seven times in the New Testament in the NET version. (Acts 28.7, Romans 12.13, 1 Timothy 3.2, 1 Timothy 5.10, Titus 1.8, 1 Peter 4.9) One clear theme is that this trait is expected of those trusted with leadership. What does it mean? What doesn’t it mean?

I look at hospitality as welcoming the “other” into our midst. There are two ways that we might do this that are not, in my view, hospitality. Highlighting these departures may help to illustrate what I think this term should mean to a follower of our Messiah, Jesus.

Mistake 1: Openness in Name Only

One way that I have seen hospitality interpreted within the Church is to have an “open door” policy. That is, we say that others are certainly welcome, and we would never tell anyone to leave. However, we make no attempt to actually connect with any guests. We don’t ask to hear their story, or attempt to provide context for ours. If a visitor is to come, they are welcomed to fit into our style and practice, but we make it clear in subtle, and not so subtle, ways that we like who we are and how things work around here. If our style doesn’t work for you, we really don’t want to hear about it. We’ll be happy to simply suggest that maybe we aren’t the church for you, and you ought to try out Church X across town where the style, theology, ethnic makeup, or such might be more to your liking and you might fit in better. That is, of course, if we even notice that you aren’t happy here and have a conversation with you about why that might be.

How this might seem to us to be hospitable is a mystery to me. Too often, however, this is what I’ve found among a large number of Christians. Let me provide an example or two from personal experience.

  • I have a friend who is a gay Christian. He would like a church where the words of Christ, and scripture in general are taken seriously. He would also like to be valued as a person within the church he attends. While I disagree with him on some issues of biblical interpretation, he is my brother. Sadly, many of the churches he has contacted that value scripture and the example of Christ have taken the approach to hospitality mentioned here. You are “welcome” to come worship with us, but if you aren’t willing to change to “fit in”, you won’t be truly included as one of us.
  • Another church I am familiar with has taken something of this approach with race. Looking around on a Sunday morning would provide a view of almost entirely white faces. In conversations with staff, a friend of mine was told that of course anyone, of any race, was welcome to worship at this church. However, no space was intentionally made to acknowledge the difference in experience of various racial groups in our culture. In hiring, promoting from within is was valued, and bringing in diverse staff voices to create an atmosphere of true welcome for racial minorities in this congregation didn’t seem to be on their radar.

These churches would have said they were hospitable, but were they? It is my view that hospitality is better judged from the perspective of the other, and how they would feel, rather than how we can justify ourselves as hospitable, yet maintain our comfort. These churches don’t really make the “other” feel welcomed or valued. They may go away thinking that we were nice to them, but they won’t feel like they’ve been included. They will walk away with a clear sense of the “other-ness” to us, and unlikely to want to come back.

Mistake 2: Openness with No Identity

The other extreme is to be so open as to simply accept anyone and anything as able to be included in our family. In this model, we don’t want to offend anyone else who might come into our Church, so we decide to water down any evidence of claim to unique belief or level of certainty. Some might call this “seeker centered”, but I’ve seen evidence of it outside of that particular context. Strong statements of belief will naturally divide, so this type of church tries to avoid that. Mission statements and sermons steer clear of exclusive claims to truth and end up sounding a lot like general “self-help” type advice. How does this look from the other?

  • This is the other extreme that my gay Christian friend has found frustrating. Churches that will happily welcome him, and his partner, into their midst and include them in ministry proved to stand for very little. My friend lamented the lack of challenge he felt when attending these congregations. The messages didn’t challenge him to take the call of Christ seriously. He wasn’t challenged to be more like Christ, more loving, more sacrificial, more devoted to others. He wished for a church that was willing to take scripture seriously, challenge him to live his faith, and be willing to engage on the disagreements that made him “other” to them.
  • Other churches I’ve seen like this can become great at welcoming non-Christians into their midst. They have a coffee-shop in the lobby. Everyone dresses down and comfortably. Things are set up not to present a hindrance to accepting Christ. None of this is bad, in itself. The problem is when this carries over to the message. The message may mention Jesus, but certainly not in a way that makes it seem like you’ll have to sacrifice anything should you choose to accept Him as savior. This phrase is telling, in itself. The emphasis is on what Christ can do for you, never what He might ask you to give up and do for the Kingdom of God. He’ll help you break bad habits, perhaps, but not to give up the habits you like.

These churches would also claim to be hospitable. Are they? I’ve heard from friends who went to churches like these and left thinking “why bother?” If we just accommodate whatever they believe when they come in, what value do we add to their lives? Why take the time to come to church, other than to hang out with friends? Surely there is something we can add between sending them away without ever engaging with them and the opposite pole of welcoming them so openly that we add nothing of value to their lives. In the first case, they might get the impression that our Messiah might not be for them, since they are not one of us. In the second, they may get the impression that they don’t need our Messiah, because He doesn’t really say anything.

A Better Way: Christ-like Hospitality

A see the example of Christ as a model for us. Somehow he lived in a way that welcomed the “tax collectors and sinners” without ever compromising the difficulty of the message He was sharing and the sacrifice to which He called His followers. How can we look at this model and take a message for the Church? What we see is that Jesus clearly loved people, even those He disagreed with. No, He didn’t water down His message, and even told people at times not to come unless they had fully counted the cost. Somehow, despite this focus on the cost of joining the Kingdom effort, Jesus drew the “other” to Himself. Even those who disagreed couldn’t resist engaging Him in debate and conversation. While they were often shut down by Jesus, they kept coming back. What can we learn?

We need to make space to hear the “other”. By default, we as hosts have the power and authority. A truly Christian approach makes space to say welcome by inviting the other to have space to share. Yes, we can offer background on who we are and have been, but it is more work (and more important) that we make space for the voices of others to be heard. This is risky business. We might actually learn from them, and find we need to change. This challenge is healthy, and I would claim necessary. True hospitality involves vulnerability. If we are not willing to listen and learn, we have not really opened up anything to our guest.

However, this is not intended to say that we should predetermine that we will change to accommodate the other, regardless of view. We should suppose that we might have something to offer the other, just as they may have something to offer us. True hospitality is to offer the other the chance to teach and change us as we offer them the chance to be changed by us. Notice, these are offers. We must not use our power as host to insist that the other must change to accommodate to us, any more than we tell them that we will blindly accommodate them.

Defining Other

This applies to all sorts of “others”, not just race or sexuality.

  • Do we make space to listen to women, not just men? I’ve experienced too many churches where only male perspectives are given the stamp of authority. We as men need to learn from feminine perspectives if we are truly to understand the fullness of the image of God that is found in both male and female.
  • Do we value the input of all generations? Some value the old at the expense of the young, while others reverse this. It ought to be true that anyone can share and teach the rest of us. I need to hear from the experienced voices in our congregation, but I also need to learn from younger adults, and even teens and young children. One of the times of greatest growth in my faith was when “leading” a youth small group of guys. The guys in my group taught me at least as much as I taught them. Receiving communion from one of these teens in our main worship service one Sunday was meaningful on many levels for me, as it reminded me of all this young man, and others in our group, had taught me before he even graduated from high school.
  • Do we value those who are single? Those who are single, whether never married or single again because of divorce or death, are often given the impression that they are less valued in their singleness than they would be married. This can be subtle, but it is still insidious. I’ve seen churches that will not allow a single adult to minister to youth, as if their singleness makes them more likely to be tempted to inappropriate behavior. In a previous church I sat in on discussions of what we were looking for in a new pastor, and it was clearly assumed that the pastor would be male and married. This was never directly mentioned, but all of the comments were about what “his family” would expect of us and what we wanted him and his family to be like. Childless couples are often not much better off after the first few years of marriage or if they have made it clear they do not intend to have children. Many churches naturally favor families. It is as if we believe that a married pastor can speak to anyone, but a single adult can only minister to other singles. I believe this is a lie of the enemy to keep us from learning from and valuing these brothers and sisters.
  • Do we who are the racial majority in this country realize how little we understand about being a minority in the US? We need to provide space to truly listen and learn from minority voices. Jesus was not white. He may have been in the majority in his area, but His race was not in power. The white, European Romans were in charge, and Jesus was a member of a group that was oppressed and controlled by others. How are we making room in our white churches to hear from racial minorities?
  • Do we make space in our comfortable middle-class and above churches to hear from the poor? Jesus wasn’t wealthy, by any account. He didn’t often hang out with the wealthy, and often warned of the dangers of wealth. Still, my experience is that it is easy to view the poor either as at fault for their own condition, or as a charity case to be given handouts. Neither of these value the poor as a person, or give them the impression that “us” could include “them”. (The racial minority and poor groups overlap way too much to be coincidence in the US.)
  • Do we realize that those with differing views on sexuality may still read and value scripture? Are we willing to engage in dialog to understand them and their views? Too often, we are not. My own experience thankfully gave me the opportunity to do this with the friend I mentioned above. We say down to talk statistics one night (we both hold PhDs in the field), and the conversation somehow (I think it was God who helped us get there) turned to faith and his sexuality. He opened up about his experience and his struggles. I listened. I learned a lot. While we still disagree on many things with regard to faith and practice, he is my brother in the family of God, and I needed to hear from him. I’m sure we will talk again and I want to learn more from him. I pray that he will find a congregation which will allow him to learn from them and will be willing to learn from him.
  • Do we welcome those with disabilities and insure that they have full access to participation in our community life? I’ve seen too many churches who use their old buildings as an excuse to allow those with physical disabilities to feel unvalued. Can we create ways for them to function fully in ministry and life within our church? What about mental disabilities? Are those with mental delays allowed to minister to others or simply looked at as someone to be ministered to? We ought to value and respect these people. Whether the disability is physical or mental, there is much those of us who are “abled” can and should learn from these brothers and sisters. When we allow our ability to prevent us from learning from others, we disable ourselves.
  • Do we welcome those whose views on origins, predestination, peace, etc. make them an “other” in our church? In my church, my openness to evolutionary science is a minority view. While I am accepted and included, I do not bring it up much because I have felt at times like this would result in a fracture of my relationship with certain other members of the congregation. I’m sure that there are those who would disagree without a break in relationship, but I also know that is not universally true. I also know that while we as a church do not believe in predestination (also known as Calvinism or Reformed Theology), there are those who worship with us, and have for a long time, who would at least endorse parts of that theology. Peace theology can be a harder line to walk. How do you invite those in law enforcement or the military into your midst if your congregation feels compelled by the peace teaching of Christ? A tough question, but a necessary one. Hopefully, one that can be answered without changing or hiding the stance on issues of correct practice, but also without losing the ethic of love that would still make the “other” in this case feel welcomed and valued in spite of the difference in opinion about the choice of career. Other issues would similarly need to walk the line of balancing faithfulness to our beliefs with flexibility to work with those in the family of God with whom we disagree.
  • One last area I will mention, but not discuss: Do those of us in churches where the congregation is mostly from the same minority group in the larger culture extend this hospitality to someone from the majority group joining them? I can’t speak to this much, since I don’t have the experience of being a minority or having attended such a church. I am looking forward to reading Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ, in which I believe that she addresses this issue. It is near the top of my to-read list.

I’ll stop there, though there are many others I could mention. I have already added more than the two or three examples I had planned, simply because it is so easy to think of people I’ve seen slighted by churches.

In short, we do not want to be so rigid in our confidence in our theology that we exclude others with whom we differ. Nor do we desire to simply accept all with no call to commitment and acknowledgement of the cost and necessity of discipleship. We must walk the walk, but with love, so that we may attract those who are to us “other”, and build relationships. This must value the “other”, without devaluing ourselves. We must see the value in relationship with others outside our own church if the body of Christ is to be built up through the hospitality that we see modeled by our Lord.

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I’d love to turn this into a dialog with my readers. Feel free to use the comments to respond to the following questions:

  • Have ideas that have helped your congregation practice hospitality? I’d love to hear them in the comments!
  • Have experiences where your congregation has learned from doing something wrong? I’d love to hear that as well so we can learn from each other.
  • For those who have been the “other”, where has the church gotten it right? Where have we gotten it wrong? Where do you resonate with my points above, or what have I missed or overstated?

Comments from those who have not commented before will be delayed briefly until they are approved, but I assure you that I will only filter inappropriate/hateful comments and spam. Honest reflections on the question, even in disagreement with my themes, will be approved and appear as soon as I can clear them through.

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This article is part of a MennoNerds Synchro-Blog on Missional Spirituality for the month of February.  MennoNerds is exploring through this event Spirituality through an Anabaptist lens and what it means concerning participation in the mission of God. My previous contribution on Family can be found here.

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