Although our trip to India was many years ago now, one of the strongest impressions that remains with Jenny and me is the experience of being welcomed into the home of people much poorer than we were and treated as special guests.
More than once, people gave from the little they had to serve a meal fit only for dignitaries. Their hospitality was a great blessing that changed our lives.
A quick look at church history shows how hospitality has always had a central place when the church has engaged well with its community. Throughout history faithful followers of Jesus have welcomed others into their lives, homes and churches and demonstrated the love of Christ in practical ways.
In the Bible hospitality is focused on . . .
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Writer Henri Nouwen once noted that hospitality means,
“The creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.”
In other words it is the art of creating an environment where people feel valued, cared for, comfortable and become open to change.
I believe God wants every church to be like that, including amongst the gathering of Christians I lead at Hobart Baptist. People remark how friendly our church is and that’s great feedback. But not an excuse to rest; we have still more to learn. It is easy to let our friendliness gravitate to being friendly to each other and forget about our guests. I often wonder about the number of people who have recently moved to Hobart and visit us for one or two Sundays but never return. I ask myself, do they find us friendly?
The apostle Peter hints that creating an environment where people feel valued, cared for and comfortable is not easy. In one of his letters he encourages Christians “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:9) suggesting he knew it would be no easy task and one we can easily allow to fall away.
Although we may be a “friendly” church, I’m not sure every visitor experiences us that way. There are many reasons why, but one has to do with the fact that friendliness means different things to different people. Some visitors are more reserved and find too many conversations and too much fussing somewhat overwhelming, whereas others enjoy lots of contact and being made a fuss of.
Similarly, some are motivated by the gaps they see in a church and so feel wanted, whereas others will easily feel overwhelmed by the needs and sense they being “recruited” by well-meaning folk even on their first Sunday with us.
Such diversity in peoples’ likes and dislikes calls for great sensitivity on the part of the church. Creating the environment where people feel free to enter and explore according to their own pace requires sensitivity to know how to talk with people being careful not to overwhelm them with our enthusiasm.
Some of us are more gifted and sensitive in this regard than others. Some have the ability not only to enjoy meeting new people and helping them feel welcome, but are able to set them at ease in unfamiliar surroundings. Others of us don’t find it quite as easy, feeling a little overwhelmed ourselves at the thought of making the first move to greet another. Yet this is no reason not to try. Those who are more gifted can be an inspiration and model to the rest of us.
I heard recently the suggestion that the expression of hospitality is a sign of a healthy church. Just like Jesus was open and sensitive to people around him, the church that offers a welcome displays a heart like Jesus’. It is not surprising that words hospitality and hospital have a similar Latin root; and interesting in that they both lead to the same result: healing.
Hospitality is not an option for us. It is an extension of Jesus’ work through his Church. As we were welcomed by him into God’s family, he calls us to welcome those he brings into our midst. Whether that is before, during or after our service; we need to be alert for visitors standing by themselves. They can’t be left like that, but greeted with a smile and a sensitivity that doesn’t overload or overwhelm them.
Peter reminds us that hospitality is not an option. So let us be encouraged to get on with it and be alert, welcoming and sensitive. Let us work together to create an environment where people feel valued, cared for, and comfortable, and let’s get on and do it without grumbling.
Everyone has had good and bad experiences when visiting new churches. What’s your story?
Stephen L Baxter