My wife and I were nearly in shock. We had just exited the train that had taken us from Milan to Venice, Italy. As we stepped out of the station we were nearly swept away by the churning stream of tourists. We hadn’t prepared for Venice. We didn’t know where our hotel was or how we would get there. We had no map and no plan. Within moments of our arrival, before we had taken more than a few dozen steps, we felt lost. Then, above the clamor of the crowd we heard a voice: “Travelers, come to me.” We traced the words to a man with whom I had very briefly chatted on the train. Amy and I looked at each other in wonder. We didn’t know if we should go to the man, but we didn’t know what else to do. We went to him. He generously offered us a ride through the canals on his boat taxi. Within fifteen minutes we were on land again, pointed in the direction of our hotel, and already loving Venice! We no longer felt like strangers. The Lord had cared for us by giving us human love in the midst of confusion and uncertainty.
This is a picture of hospitality. Really, it is a picture of God. The Lord “loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing” (Deut. 10:18).
Is it any wonder that God obliges his official ambassadors in the church to reflect his effusive love of strangers? It shouldn’t surprise us that God makes hospitality a requirement for elders. “A bishop must be . . . hospitable” (1 Tim. 3:2). An elder cannot possibly be salt and light in the world if he doesn’t love strangers, if he doesn’t share God’s love for the lonely, the misfits, and the disconnected. Elders must set the example for the rest of the church in forming a culture of hospitality (Phil. 3:17). While hospitality is not explicitly mentioned in the list of qualifications for deacons, it is the actual reason for the formation of the original diaconate. The apostles were overburdened by the worthy task of serving tables (Acts 6:2). So, deacons were appointed “over this business” (v. 3) of caring for widows and others whom the church needed to invite to God’s plentiful table. If the first deacons were the table waiters of the church, then an inhospitable deacon is oxymoronic. Our families and congregations will struggle to obey God’s hospitality command if God’s officers aren’t facilitating their growth in this vital discipline. Put more bluntly, “If the local church’s shepherds are inhospitable, the local church will be inhospitable.”1
So, why do we struggle to practice hospitality?
The Barriers to Hospitality
Most of us do not find ourselves naturally given to hospitality. And our struggle has not gone unnoticed. It is hard to argue with this assessment: “Unfriendliness stands out as one of the most common criticisms people have of local churches. It doesn’t take people long to figure out that there is a ‘churchy’ love among Christians that ends at the back door of the sanctuary.”2
Recognizing our barriers to love sincerely the strangers God places in our path can prepare us for lasting change. Not everything that follows will be true of you. But it is hard to escape concluding that these realities genuinely jeopardize our calling to love strangers.
• We are afraid of unfamiliar people. Some of us are intimidated by those outside our trusted circle of comrades. The rapidly deteriorating mores of our culture tempt us to withdraw into our castles eventually rendering us less able to interact meaningfully with others. We prefer to speak at culture rather than care for the people of our culture.3 We fear that we have nothing in common with those coming from outside our affinity groups, forgetting the radically equalizing reality of image-bearing. We feel antagonized by different opinions and practices.
• We are comfortable, maybe too comfortable. Jordan Peterson has popularized the ancient theory that to flourish we need a healthy blend of order and “chaos.”4 We can atrophy from too much comfort. Growing people gain new social aptitude by constantly challenging themselves, pushing their own boundaries of comfort. If necessary they take baby steps and keep persevering.
• We are too busy. Butterfield makes the point that if our schedules are packed too tightly we rule out providential hospitality encounters.5 We need to build sufficient margins into our schedules to have time to be surprised by the guests God sends our way.
• We fail to plan. Practicing hospitality requires “giving your selves to hospitality” (Rom. 12:13; Geneva Bible). “We are to think about it, plan for it, prepare for it, pray about it, and seek opportunities to do it.”6 “No planning” usually means “no hospitality.” Planning means asking, “How many people can we meaningfully host in the course of a month?” Pick a number, consult your calendar, and start sending invitations.
• We fail to budget. Hospitality comes with a cost that we will be unwilling or unable to bear if we don’t budget. Let’s not look at hospitality costs as wasted money but as an investment in eternity that has guaranteed returns.7 Your church might consider providing a “hospitality scholarship” that helps offset some of the costs that repetitive hospitality will incur.
• We are unmoved by the gospel. This reason for a lack of hospitality is surely the worst-case scenario. But is it not possible that some who hear the hospitality command have never come to treasure the hospitality of God? Is not an inhospitable Christian a contradiction in terms?
Butterfield sums up our shortcomings well: “Certainly there are unavoidable, legitimate barriers” to hospitality. “But so often the barriers are a false sense of entitlement based on gifts and interests, the danger of bad habits and hidden sin, counterfeit hospitality, and the idols of achievement and acquisition. Daily, we fight these sins that stand as barriers to hospitality.”8
A Pathway to Genuine Hospitality
So, how can God’s people, and their leaders, recover the hospitality ministry of the early church (see Acts 2:46–47)?
Invite guests to church. One of the best ways to show strangers that you love them is to tell them that they are wanted at your church.
Commit to engaging church guests. Don’t assume others will do it. In fact, assume they won’t. Discipline yourself to approach new people at church, meaningfully entering into their lives. Offer to sit next to visitors to help them participate in worship or to show them around the facilities.
Learn names. People regularly tell me I’m good at names. I’m not. But I do care, so I use tricks.9 I try to pay attention when I introduce myself so I won’t miss the person’s name when they share it. I might pause for a brief moment, pondering the name. Then I try to use it in the initial conversation (sparingly; it can be creepy if a new acquaintance repeatedly uses your name). After the conversation I try to jot down the name on a post-it note on the inside cover of my Bible. I also try not to be afraid to ask for a reminder if necessary. If you pray for the guests throughout the week their names will become more meaningful to you. You will also be able to tell them later, “I’ve been praying for you.”
Invite church guests to your home or out to coffee.10 Without extended fellowship with new people it is very difficult to move from friendly to friend. Extended fellowship provides a new shared experience, introduces more meaningful themes, and creates greater comfort even with someone you’ve only known a brief time. “Narthex friendships” are rarely deeply meaningful.
Help other members who struggle with hospitality. Those gifted with hospitality need to learn to bring others into conversations with new people. Not only does this help protect hospitable people from relational overload, but also it mentors those who are less confident. Do the same at home. Identify a few families or individuals who could possibly become friends and help them meet.
Integrate guests into your community quickly. We must not blur the line between membership and non-membership. But we do want guests get to know members immediately. We should want non-members to feel like they have a place with us even before they fully embrace our beliefs.
Reject the false dilemma of family versus hospitality. It is possible for hospitality to compromise family fellowship. But it doesn’t have to. My wife and I frequently invite people over for some “adult time” after our kids are in bed. Otherwise, we try to include our children in our fellowship. They are learning to appreciate the beauty and challenges of hospitality at a much younger age than I did.
Be a good neighbor. Here’s a shockingly simple question: When Jesus said love your neighbor as yourself, “What if he meant that we should love our actual neighbors? You know, the people who live right next door.”11 Elders and deacons should know and love their neighbors, even those who reject our beliefs. We affirm the image of God in our neighbors by engagement and kindness. Engagement might well lead to worldview clashes. That’s why “practicing hospitality in our post-Christian world means that you develop thick skin”12 and that we welcome thoughtful discourse and even disagreement. To be good neighbors in this post-Christian age we will need to learn to distinguish between acceptance and approval. We can accept our neighbors without approving of their lifestyle.13 Amy and I have loved getting to know our neighbors through annual block parties and taking opportunities to stop and talk with neighbors we meet on regular walks.
Develop habits and strategies that help overcome your hurdles. Why do you shy away from hosting? Do you worry you won’t know what to say or that the evening will be awkward? Consider playing a game or using conversation starting cards. Do you feel overwhelmed at the thought of getting to know the many people under your care? Why not invite groups from several households over to your house at once? Are you concerned about how your guests will respond to your faith? If you have family worship after meals, explain your custom to your guests and ask if they would mind participating. Your familiar devotional habit might just open a door for sharing your hope in Jesus.
Hospitality isn’t merely a command. It is also one of the ways that God invites his children to flourish as we share his provisions in anticipation of the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9). In the gospel, God says, “Travelers, come to me.” “In biblical hospitality, the gospel of Christ becomes visual, concrete, and practical to the stranger”14 and to the host.
This article is adapted from a chapter in Reformed Fellowship’s forthcoming book Faithful and Fruitful: Essays for Elders and Deacons, edited by William Boekestein and Steven Swets, a follow-up to Called to Serve: Essays for Elders and Deacons.
1. Alexander Strauch, The Hospitality Commands (Littleton, CO: Lewis and Roth Publishers, 1993), 44.
2. Strauch, The Hospitality Commands, 17.
3. Rosaria Butterfield pulls no punches: “Only hypocrites and cowards let their words be stronger than their relationships, making sneaky raids into culture in social media or behaving like moralizing social prigs in the neighborhood.” The Gospel Comes with a House Key (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 13.
4. “We require routine and tradition. That’s order. Order can become excessive, and that’s not good, but chaos can swamp us, so we drown—and that is also not good. We need to stay on the straight and narrow . . . the dividing line between order and chaos.” Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2018), xxxiv.
5. Butterfield, The Gospel Comes with a House Key, 12.
6. Strauch, The Hospitality Commands, 35.
7. See Jesus’ parable of the shrewd steward (Luke 16:1–13). Jesus wants his people to be generous so that “when the givers die, there will be a grand welcome for them. Those heavenly inhabitants who, while still on earth, benefited by the kindness of these big-hearted ones will then be welcoming the new arrivals.” William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Luke, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978), 770.
8. Butterfield, The Gospel Comes with a House Key, 214.
9. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/managing-your-memory/201807/how-remember-names, or any number of websites offer helpful techniques for better remembering names.
10. For a brief guide on inviting people into your home see Bryan Elliff, “Creating a Culture of Hospitality,” at https://ftc.co/resource-library/blog-entries/creating-a-culture-of-hospitality.
11. Jay Pathak and David Runyon, The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2012), 15.
12. Butterfield, The Gospel Comes with a House Key, 62.
13. Butterfield, The Gospel Comes with a House Key, 13.
14. Tony and Arley-Ann Zekveld, Open Heart Open Home (Grand Rapids: Reformed Fellowship, Inc., 2015), iv.