Why Biblical Hospitality Will Win the Day
Article originally posted on Outreach Magazine, January 2021.
These are the words a little boy said to my wife, Robin, and me, seemingly out of the blue. We had just boarded the plane. (Ah, remember when we used to fly places?) But I digress … We were already seated, in our own pre-takeoff, get-ready-mode. Then, as this boy and his mom were walking past us in that crowded shuffle, he stopped abruptly at our row and welcomed us.
Without missing a beat, he looked up at his mom for approval and grinned. I don’t know if he’d been told to be nice or this was just his normal approach to flying. The knowing smile on her face hinted this was not the first time her son had done something special.
Perhaps there was more to his story. Perhaps he was learning how to navigate a big world full of strangers. Or perhaps he didn’t even realize yet how wonderfully, shockingly different that moment was.
It was as if God spoke to my heart through that little boy.
I had just been welcomed aboard.
That simple greeting got me thinking—how many times could I be the person who enters a room with a different attitude? How many times could my words and actions be wonderfully different?
To fill the air with soft words?
To gently surprise another with a kind gesture?
To turn the volume of this world down just a notch?
To welcome someone?
Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
— Romans 15:7
The word Paul uses certainly means “welcome,” but can also be rendered “receive,” such as when you take someone into your presence, your home, your friendship. So, the thought here is to receive one another as Christ welcomed (or received) you.
What a standard.
How exactly did he welcome you?
Was it a provisional acceptance? (“Go clean up your life and then come back.”)
Were you on probation? (“Let’s see how this works out.”)
Was it packaged with never-ending guilt? (“You’re on board, but I’ll never let you forget how you shouldn’t be.”)
Of course not.
How did Christ receive you? With lavish grace and open-armed love.
With this verse, Paul reminds us of the standard. How many times could my words and actions reflect this love? How often could my welcoming ways be shockingly, soothingly different? The honest answer is every day. This could be the rhythm and cadence of my life. And yet, it often isn’t.
On this I’m not alone.
This verse, I believe, speaks to the lost art of hospitality. It’s more than art, really; it’s an ancient virtue with which we have almost lost touch. Let’s be honest, many of us weren’t terribly hospitable before a pandemic hit and words like social distance and quarantine became part of our everyday vernacular. So, what does that mean for us today as we wait for life to return to “normal” (whatever that will come to mean)? Are we supposed to postpone any attempts at hospitality until then?
Of course not. In fact, in these fractious and fearful times, there may be no more important distinctive of the Christian life than hospitality. This expression of God’s outrageous love has the potential to quench a thirst for justice and a longing for reconciliation. It has the chance to comfort tired souls and heal old wounds.
And who doesn’t need that?
How many times could my words and actions reflect this love? How often could my welcoming ways be shockingly, soothingly different? The honest answer is every day.
It’s certainly not news to you as a leader that we live in an era of very strong opinions and extremely short fuses. How we got to such a place would take much longer than this little article to discuss. But it is safe to say we have forgotten how to get along. Some will suggest this is nothing new—and they would be right. From the first moment of rebellion against a loving God, the cracks appeared in our relationships.
But it sure seems like it’s getting worse.
And life in this increasingly hostile world exacts a toll. While many social commentators have spoken to this trend fast becoming the “new normal,” researchers have long been touting what Daniel Goleman called “the medical value of relationships” while warning of their absence.
Studies done over two decades involving more than thirty-seven thousand people show that social isolation—the sense that you have nobody with whom you can share your private feelings or have close contact—doubles the chances of sickness or death.
The power of social connections is, quite literally, life-giving.
Some might think, I have friends and a loving family, so I’m good, right? For those blessed with true community, it is time to give thanks and not take such gifts for granted. After this last year, may we never take community for granted! But the journey into a difference-making new year will lead us beyond the safe confines of our familiar relationships.
One of the most shocking (or sometimes soothing) things we will do in the coming weeks and months is welcome someone because they are not in our circle of friends. You might ask, “Why crowd your life with the inconvenience of strangers?” First, it has been my general observation that an unwelcoming attitude at the fringes of a relational world soon eats its way inward. Unfriendly habits cannot be contained at the edge of a life. Soon they will show up much closer to home. Second, the scriptural mandate to welcome others explicitly includes those who are not easy and comfortable friends.
It is God’s way, and now it is to be ours.
Theologian Soong-Chan Rah warns about hospitality as a goal: “The church must decide what kind of hospitality it is willing to extend—traditional Western hospitality or a more demanding, biblical form of hospitality.”
If hospitality for you conjures up images of napkins folded into the shape of animals and cucumber sandwiches served at high tea, hit the delete button in your brain right now. (I know, for a minute it will be impossible to not think of those little napkin sculptures, but that is not the biblical concept of hospitality). It’s not even primarily the less formal backyard barbecue—though I’m praying for the day such times can return in all their smoked meat beauty. Biblical hospitality is not a never-ending series of potluck dinners chained together by guilt-tinged obligation. It is the start of something new and the taste of something more.
Hospitality is a godly way of navigating this world full of people we mostly don’t know (yet). It is about receiving others as Christ has received you.
Biblical hospitality is the comingling of lives, the place of laughter and tears, of stories and hopes. It is where vulnerability flourishes in safety. It’s a place where genuine conversations—even debate—can happen in the midst of very real (and sometimes messy) issues. But we will do this differently. Even when (and because) we passionately disagree on things.
This is what we long for.
This is what we are still called to do.
From the clear and consistent call of Scripture, practicing hospitality is to be woven into the lives of each of us who have been welcomed home.
Instead of building up our fortresses, pulling away from community, and ignoring those around us, what if in the most unlikely of times, the people of God started a movement, a revolution of biblical hospitality? Is such a thing possible? Why yes, it is. And it may be the most shockingly good and soothingly kind practice this year.
Don’t settle for a less-than life. Intentionally look for opportunities to welcome another, to listen to the stories and experiences of those who are different than you, to notice ways to bless and serve with no strings attached, to make room for God as you honor his image-bearers.
Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
— Romans 12:13
It is his way and now it is to be ours.
Made in the image of our Triune God, we were hardwired for loving community. On this much we agree. But God offers his love and the chance for relationship generously. So too must we. When we settle for less, life on this planet in tangible ways, dies off.
This must be why that little boy’s words startled me and stirred a longing in my chest. I didn’t need research findings to understand the importance of this; it was his sweet act of kindness that jolted me back to what I ached for and what the world desperately needs.
Remember, the next time it could be me (or you) welcoming someone; it could be me (or you) turning to sense the nodding approval of our Heavenly Father who saw it all.