Wednesday, April 27, 2011

What is Christian Hospitality?

I have a friend whose mother married a fairly wealthy man and moved into a suburban (not so) mini mansion. The house is far more space than the two of them need. I assumed that the additional rooms would be used as guest rooms for the children and grandchildren. I was told that was a wrong assumption. Instead the rooms were converted for various uses such as office space, workout space, and a walk in closet. (Yes, an entire bedroom converted into a closet.) When family members come to town they get hotel rooms or stay elsewhere. However, she loves to throw lavish dinner parties. As a Christian, she claims that this is because she possesses the spiritual gift of hospitality.

I distinctly remember listening to my friend tell this story and thinking "I don't think that's what that means." How often are we guilty of trying to force terms to mean what we would prefer them to mean rather than confronting the reality of the sacrifice and humility they actually require of us?

On the flip side, I think of my late grandfather. By many modern measurements of Christian Culture, he would not have been viewed as a "good Christian." He was Catholic. (strike one) He didn't speak openly about faith or lead his family in prayer or Bible study. (strike two). He cussed frequently and he hated Republicans. (strike three) But after his death, there was one thing that struck me in some of the stories shared. I heard family members and friends talk about he attitude toward others. My grandparents never had a lot of money they lived in a small house, mostly built by my grandfather, in a tiny town. When I go back and visit, I'm baffled as to how they lived in such a small space with two adults and four children. But when they were reminiscing about my grandfather, they spoke of the fact that even though the house was small and the table was cramped, if someone was in need, there was always room for one more. If anyone needed a ride to church, they would figure it out. He may have had little, but he always had some to share.

Recently I've been reading about the early church (100-499). I'm struck by the core idea that Christianity is a way of life and not an adherence to a specific doctrine. The author speaks of hospitality as being the major practice of Christians at that time.

"We tend to equate hospitality with parties and social gatherings or gracious resorts and expensive restaurants. To us hospitality is an industry, not a practice, one that summons Martha Stewart to mind more quickly than Jesus Christ. But to ancient Christians hospitality was a virtue, part of the love of neighbor and fundamental to being a person of the way. While contemporary Christians tend to equate morality with sexual ethics, our ancestors defined morality as welcoming the stranger.

Unlike almost every other contested idea in early Christianity, including the nature of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity, the unanimous witness of the ancient fathers and mothers was that hospitality was the primary Christian virtue."
(A People's History of Christianity, Diana Butler Bass)

I can't help but think of all the times in the Gospels when Jesus speaks of the importance of loving God and loving your neighbor in the same thought. It's as if the two ideas are irrevocably connected. You can't truly be achieving one without the other. (1 John 3 seems to suggest that this is indeed the case.)

So what is Christian/Biblical hospitality? Is it free gifts for visitors at our church services? Is it cookies and coffee in the lobby? Is it the art of throwing the perfect dinner party and always having your house in perfect shape for one? Or is it this idea that the love of God is deeply intertwined with the love of others? Is it found in the way we think of and treat those our society considers the "least of these"? Is it found when we hold our personal possessions loosely and put the well being of others above our own? Is it when we weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice? Do we find the true meaning of hospitality in the moment when we realize that we are all woven into the same tapestry that tells the story of the love of God?

In all my years at a Christian college, there was a lot of time spent debating theology and the idea that right thinking would lead to Christian living. Although I understand their logic, I'm beginning to question that notion. Have we spent so much time trying to think correctly that we neglect to act in the way we should? Are we more concerned with convincing others that we are right than behaving justly towards them? Have we stressed the importance of telling others about God over treating them as God would have us do so? I think of all the years I wasted worrying about having the right answers for people when I needed to learn how to love them. A lot of modern churches talk about their ties to the early church, but I sincerely hope that we see a trend of more and more churches moving back to the ancient practice of true Christian hospitality. Can you imagine  how beautiful that would be?


  1. excellent post! In the past year or so I've been learning that loving God really means loving others, and if you don't love others, you don't love God.

  2. love this post! so much is said about hospitality but too many never stop to ask themselves "am I loving?"

  3. Many people choose to focus on what they don’t have instead of focusing on sharing the blessings of God.