Hospitality Is Messy

Creating Space for the Stranger

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it (Heb. 13:2).

These days hospitality may most often be associated with a Martha Stewart-esque home decor complete with fluffed pillows and fresh flowers placed just so. In Scripture, though, it means something quite different than creating the perfect environment. Instead, hospitality refers to creating a space in which relationships can develop.

Hospitality flows out of an obedient relationship with God and is exemplified in our worship. Each week in worship we rehearse the story of our faith: we were lost and unable to save ourselves, but God has graciously shared his riches with us, resulting in our salvation and adoption into God’s family. God is the host, and we experience God’s gracious hospitality. As recipients of God’s hospitality we also act as hosts as we welcome the alien and stranger among us.

Stranger Becomes Host

Such hospitality is exemplified in the account of the Emmaus Road found in Luke 24. Two followers of Jesus were leaving Jerusalem after Jesus’ death. They were dismayed, confused, maybe even feeling betrayed. Nothing had turned out the way they had expected; Jesus had died. While returning to their homes they were suddenly joined by the resurrected Jesus, whom they did not recognize. They made room for Jesus to join them as they walked, they included him in their conversation, and they invited Jesus, a stranger, into their home.

It is interesting to note what Jesus did during his time with these followers. First, he explained “what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (v. 27). Second, “when he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them” (v. 30). Through his actions Jesus revealed his true identity and the eyes of his followers were opened. The stranger became the host, and the original hosts were the ones to receive the blessing. That is the way of hospitality.

In worship there is a sense in which we play both roles in the Emmaus account. Jesus is the host and we are his guests. We are the ones who need to be receivers of his hospitality. We are the ones who come to him empty, sinful, broken, in need of grace and healing. But at the same time we are to be hospitable to those worshiping with us. It is important for us to recognize our dual role. In order for us to be a true host we need to recognize our own brokenness and imperfection before Christ. We are both giver and receiver. We must learn to humble ourselves so that Jesus and others can minister to us.

When we recognize our need of constant forgiveness and healing we are better able to walk with strangers, to answer their questions by sharing ourselves, and then to invite them into our home, the church, so they can witness God’s grace at work in our own lives. Through the proclamation of the Scriptures and the breaking of the bread their eyes can be opened to recognize Jesus. Then they too can join us each Sunday as we proclaim, “It is true! The Lord has risen” (Luke 24:34).

How Do We Practice Hospitality in the Church?

All practitioners of hospitality agree on one thing: hospitality is messy. It’s messy because we have to take risks, and not every stranger will reciprocate or respect our values. Regardless, hospitality is a primary means for us to reach out to others as Christ taught us. If we understand the great gift of hospitality Christ has given us, we will extend this gift to others not as the fulfillment of a command but as an expression of our thankfulness and a sharing of Christ’s blessings.

To be a hospitable church we need to learn how to balance a carefully thought-out worship service with room for the unexpected. Our worship needs to be planned, yet allow space for the Holy Spirit to work. If we are serious about hospitality we are going to experience surprises and find ourselves in unique situations. Consider the following scenarios based on real situations:

An inner-city church started a ministry to the local youth. As relationships developed, some of the staff started taking kids to church. These youth had never gone to church. They wore their baseball hats and jeans with holes, they talked, and they did not sit still. But they were accepted into the fellowship of the church. Adults would talk to them after church and sometimes invite them to their homes for dinner. As young adults some of these same youth are professing members and serve as leaders in the church’s ministries.

Another church ministers to a number of cognitively impaired adults. These adults do not always conform to the ways of the church. Sometimes Jeff will stand up in the middle of the sermon, Carl will start crying for no apparent reason, Michelle will have a seizure, or others will start talking in the midst of silence. But the congregation joyfully greets them every week. These adults are accepted. And the worshipers are enriched with a greater understanding of the body of Christ.

Some churches make a point of incorporating children and youth in their worship services. They invite young people to lead worship and give them assistance and training. They express the significance of children by including their concerns in prayer. They have discovered that there is no shortage of ways to involve all members of the congregation (see RW 76 for more ideas on intergenerational worship).

Hospitality in church means, first of all, that we do not screen people out. It means we pay special attention to the “alien within our gates,” the vulnerable and those who are not like us. To be hospitable we need to treat others as our equals and not be patronizing. We need to leave room for everyone to share their gifts; to enfold every individual to the point that he or she no longer feels like a stranger. Handing out “Welcome to Our Church” pamphlets may be helpful, but it is only a beginning.

To be a hospitable church we need to develop a strong sense of community where we can tell our stories. We need to tell the story of how we were strangers but then were welcomed into God’s house. And as we share our stories with each other and act as both guest and host in God’s house, we will indeed be blessed.

What Hospitality Isn’t

  • Entertaining
  • Gourmet meals
  • Redecorating the house
  • Expecting others to be like us
  • “Putting up” with others
  • Paying someone else to do the “work”
  • Easy
  • Giving a token “hello”
  • Allowing someone to be present but not including them in the conversation
  • Only taking care of those we know

Group Discussion Guide

  1. What comes to mind when you think of hospitality?
  2. Has your life been enriched through hospitality, either as a host or stranger/guest?
  3. Discuss the following invitation found in a church bulletin:
    To all who are spiritually weary and seek rest;
    to all who mourn and long for comfort;
    to all who struggle and desire victory;
    to all who sin and need a Savior;
    to all who are strangers and want fellowship;
    to all who hunger and thirst after righteousness;
    and to whoever will come—
    this church opens wide her doors
    and offers her welcome in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Does your church welcome all the above individuals?
In what ways does your church do these things?
What would your church need to do to embrace these things more fully?
What difference would it make to your worship?

Rev. Joyce Borger is senior editor of Reformed Worship and a resource development specialist at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

Reformed Worship 81 © September 2006, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.