The Healthy Church: Embodying Hospitality

Christine D. Pohl

Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities, writes that “welcome is one of the signs that a community is alive.” To invite others into our lives “is a sign that we are not afraid, that we have a treasure of truth and of peace to share” (Community and Growth [rev. ed.; Paulist, 1989] 266-67). A healthy church practices hospitality in response to the transforming work of Christ. Such welcome both reflects and embodies the gospel.

From the story of Abraham, Sarah, and the strangers/angels in Genesis 18, to the picture in Revelation of Jesus standing at the door, knocking, and promising to come in and eat with us, images and practices of hospitality are woven into the Scriptures. We find descriptions of the Israelites as strangers and sojourner; God’s chosen people called upon to welcome and to care for other strangers. In the Gospels, we encounter Jesus feeding the crowds and welcoming the lost. We also see him as guest and stranger with no place to call his own, but often included in dinners hosted by friends, outcasts, and religious leaders.

For Israel, God was host in the wilderness, supplying manna every day, and centuries later, Jesus described himself as the “bread of life,” the “bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:35, 51). Jesus is portrayed as stranger, guest, host, and meal; it is not surprising that hospitality is a central motif of the Scriptures and Christian tradition. In response to the welcome offered in and by Christ, Christians share in the Eucharist, remembering God’s costly welcome and regularly experiencing the hospitality of the kingdom. Central to the gospel and enacted in the Eucharist, hospitality is meant to spill into daily life and relations.

The earliest Christians recognized the importance of the practice of hospitality. As believers fled persecution or traveled to share the gospel, they found welcome in the homes of other believers. They often ate together so that the poor would be fed and so they could keep their new Christian identity alive in a hostile world. In those first centuries, they worshipped in homes. Additionally, hospitality was the context within which Christians worked out how rich and poor believers could be equals in the community of faith, and how Jews and Gentiles could be truly one in Christ.

Christians from various backgrounds struggled to learn to respect and value one another as God valued each of them. Their triumphs and failures are recorded in the Book of Acts and in the letters to the Corinthians and Galatians. According to several early apologists, including Justin Martyr and Aristedes, hospitality marked the gospel as authentic. That Christians from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds loved one another and welcomed strangers into their homes, churches, and lives was a central witness to the truth of the gospel.

Based on Matt 25:31-46 and Luke 14:12-14, the ancient church was convinced that Christians had to open their doors to the poor and to strangers because it might be Jesus who was knocking. The tradition was also shaped by Heb 13:2—the warning to be careful not to neglect hospitality to strangers, because in welcoming strangers, we might be entertaining angels without knowing it.

In the ancient world, offering hospitality to strangers was viewed as a pillar of morality and most societies understood the practice as a form of mutual aid. Although hospitality was very important for the first 1500 years of the church, it was in the patristic period that leaders explicitly contrasted conventional and Christian hospitality. Conventional hospitality, they said, was “ambitious” and was offered to gain advantage. In contrast, Christian hospitality offered welcome to “the least” and to those who could not repay the kindness.

During the late Middle Ages, hospitality became primarily identified with lavish entertaining and was used to reinforce hosts’ power and influence. For several centuries, the distinctively Christian connection of hospitality with caring for the poor, reinforcing equality and identity, and crossing status boundaries was nearly lost. Although some of the values and commitments embedded in the ancient practice of hospitality were eventually reformulated into concerns about human rights and provision of social welfare, people continue to associate hospitality with entertaining and with the “hospitality industry” of restaurants and hotels. The vibrant practice, with its shared meals and conversation, protection, sanctuary, and recognition, has been trivialized and commercialized.

Nevertheless, in recent decades, a renewed interest in hospitality has emerged. Intentional communities have formed around offering hospitality to strangers—like the Catholic Worker, L’Arche, L’Abri, Jubilee Partners, and others. Through their witness and life together, they help the church to see that a recovery of the hospitality tradition can be powerful and relevant in contemporary society.

Better than most congregations, these communities understand the importance of friendship, gestures, and relationships. Many of us have mistakenly thought that human transformation happens on one or two levels. We help individuals to become Christians and then their lives are changed from within, and/or we work for justice for persons in economic and political relations, education, and health care. But there is another level of transformation that deserves much more attention (Cf. G. Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation [rev. ed.; Orbis, 1988] xxxviii).

Few people in the church recognize the importance of community. Whether refugees, persons with grave disabilities, children from shattered families, or homeless individuals, the most vulnerable people in the world are those who live outside of every relationship. Almost every human connection has failed them and they are people without a place. More than a handout or a social program, such people need a home, friends, and a place to contribute.

A healthy church recognizes the significance of making room. Its members regularly ask, Who are the invisible people in our community? Who needs welcome? Who needs to know that they are precious to God and to God’s people? Whose absence is keeping my community and me from being whole? Such questions open our eyes to see the immigrants, single parents, elderly neighbors, and alienated teens around us.

Recovering hospitality is important in the church, not only for the most marginalized people, but also for the congregation itself. Hospitality is a means of grace for guests and hosts. There is a great deal of mystery in the practice of welcome; practitioners often comment that “we got so much more than we gave.” Hosts are surprised by God’s presence, by the experience of finding themselves standing on holy ground. Although hospitality often involves hard work, hosts find that the joys and gifts of its practice make them want to do more.

Because contemporary society is highly mobile, many people see themselves as “strangers” and feel quite disconnected from meaningful communities. Where families are fragmented and community ties are weak, even church members need the experience of being welcomed into a place with a rich tradition and a life-giving story. While the most vulnerable strangers are those with few resources, almost everyone today will flourish when welcomed into a setting in which they can contribute and in which they can learn to welcome others.

People are hungry for community. Old forms of apologetics are not very persuasive to a generation looking for more than words and arguments. In his book, Ancient-Future Faith (Baker, 1999), R. Webber writes that the most significant apologetic Christians will be able to offer in the 21st century is the quality of life and welcome within the church. A community that embodies the experience of the kingdom will draw people to itself. He continues, “In this sense the church and its life in the world will become the new apologetic. People come to faith not because they see the logic of the argument, but because they have experienced a welcoming God in a hospitable and loving community” (72).

But forming a hospitable church involves far more than adopting a new strategy. Hospitality is a way of life, not a means to an end. When hospitality is used as a strategy for evangelism or church growth, it tends to be short-lived and manipulative. If church leaders and members do not embrace hospitality as a way of life, they also fail to own its costs. When welcome becomes difficult, they quickly move on to the next strategy or target population. Hospitality must be cultivated over a lifetime and learned in community.

For congregations to practice life-giving hospitality, members must see it as a significant Christian practice that embodies the gospel. It is far more than a nice “extra” if we have the time. Under ordinary circumstances, we do not have the time for churches to take hospitality seriously, a different set of priorities will be required. Hospitality cannot be added to already overwhelmingly busy schedules. Making hospitality central to church life will provoke a rethinking of ecclesial priorities and structures.

For much of the history of the church, hospitality was practiced in the overlap of household and church. Because households are much smaller and more frequently empty today than in any time in history, it will not be easy to recreate this significant overlap. But it points to the ongoing significance of home-based, small group ministries, extended households, and common meals within the church.

Because hospitality has been generally neglected, we will need to give it specific attention to bring it back into the regular life of the church. Pastors can preach and teach on it, and name hospitality as a central Christian practice. Within worship, hospitality can be much more closely tied to the Eucharist. People learn hospitality best from others for whom it is a way of life; such persons can be encouraged to become mentors.

People often worry about the dangers or risks of welcoming strangers. Church leaders can help to identify environments and practices that reduce risk, and can create welcoming settings that are personal, yet somewhat public. To reduce both the risk and the work involved, people can be encouraged to form small groups out of which they can more readily offer hospitality.

One way to bring a tradition back to life is to recover stories. Congregations can make a practice of sharing their stories and experiences of hospitality, its moments of grace and difficulty, wonder and humor. Another dimension of recovering hospitality includes a renewed appreciation for the importance of shared meals in which strangers are welcomed, community relationships are strengthened, and distinctive identity is reinforced.

People often need help distinguishing between hospitality and entertaining; true welcome has nothing to do with elaborate preparations, well-furnished churches, or immaculately maintained homes. Christian hospitality is about making a life-giving place for others in our institutions, lives, and hearts; it is about sharing ourselves as well as our resources.

A congregation that neglects hospitality is “dying spiritually,” Vanier warns (267). A healthy church celebrates the centrality of this life-giving and life-affirming practice.

Posted Feb 01, 2003