How welcoming is your church to newcomers?
How hospitable is it?
In its structures, yes, but also in the relationships that established members seek to build with new people – whether Christian or not.
This post will seek to define hospitality, and show its importance biblically and theologically. I originally wrote it as a brief paper, so apologies if you find the language overly-formal.
It will then highlight ways that your church might strengthen its culture of welcome and hospitality, and so glorify God.
The word usually translated as ‘hospitable’ in our New Testaments is the Greek word ‘φιλόξενος’ (‘philoxenos’).
This is built from φιλό – love, and ξενος – stranger
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, hospitality is “a friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers”
According to Joe Thorn, an SBC pastor, it’s “Treating an outsider as an insider”
Do you see the weighting of hospitality? It isn’t primarily about having friends around. It’s first of all about loving and welcoming the stranger.
Perhaps the most famous Old Testament example of hospitality is found in Genesis 18, where the LORD appears to Abraham before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, when Abraham offers to serve with the washing of feet and a meal (Genesis 18:4-8).
This might be viewed as cultural and purely descriptive, but the writer of Hebrews uses this occasion to instruct his hearers to show hospitality to strangers (13:2).
A contrast can be drawn between the hospitality of Abraham, the man of God, and the inhospitable people of Sodom (Ezekiel 16:49-50). God’s people are those who are ready to show hospitality.
In the gospels, Jesus invites others to join him in his mission.
Luke 14:12-14 is an incredibly challenging passage, where Jesus’ command shows us our need of him again as we see how far short we have fallen of this (2nd use of the law). However, it certainly also ought to be informing the life and choices of believers (3rd use of the law).
After 11 chapters of laying out his gospel in the letter to the believers in Rome, one of the first imperatives Paul gives to believers is ‘seek to show hospitality’ (12:13). This is part of the renewal of the mind, and offering of self to God, that every believer should be pursuing.
Elders are to be hospitable (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:8).
Widows are also specifically highlighted as another group who should be (or, perhaps, should have been) involved in hospitality (1 Timothy 5:10).
Christians worship a Triune God who, though utterly sufficient and satisfied in the Father-Son-Spirit relationship, deliberately brings others into his family.
We worship Jesus – God the Son who makes a great sacrifice to bring enemies into the sphere of God’s love. He symbolises this sacrifice in serving the disciples with the washing of feet (John 13:1-17) and a meal (Luke 22:14-23).
Why are God’s people ready to show hospitality? Because they have been welcomed by God himself.
Practical advantages of a culture of hospitality
Ray Evans speaks of three quality indicators which, if worked at, will usually see a church growing – welcome, teaching, and hospitality (Ready Steady Grow, 29).
Primarily, a local church should be aiming to strengthen its culture of hospitality because hospitality is biblically mandated.
However, because hospitality is good and God-honouring, we can expect there to be advantages to its consistent practice. Some of these advantages, as I see them, will be laid out below.
– It is counter-cultural, and attractive, for people to invite others into their homes.
– Cross-generational hospitality helps people see the unity of Christ’s church, as he prayed for in John 17.
– If a person only knows a couple of individuals in the church, there is a danger of those individuals leaving, and the person feeling adrift from the life of the church. A strong culture of hospitality, though, will mean that people feel ‘connected’ to many different people in the church.
– Hospitality can be a context for discipleship (for example, during our home group meals, we sometimes read the Bible and pray with our children. I hope this is a helpful example for those there who may have children in the future).
– Those who exercise hospitality grow in their Christian walk, as it’s a very practical reminder that nothing we have belongs ultimately to us. It can also be a good place to learn patience!
How can we strengthen a culture of hospitality within our church?
If we want to strengthen a culture of loving the stranger, we need to both teach on its importance and model that importance in our own practice (particularly if we are part of the leadership. Elders whether full-time or not, are busy people. But we shouldn’t be so busy that we can’t practice hospitality).
It’s close to impossible to objectively state how well a local church is loving and welcoming strangers, both on a first visit and more regularly.
However, it can seek to be consistent in welcoming in all, helping them find connections to other people, and other areas of church life.
Here are some possible ways to encourage a culture of hospitality in your church.
– We believe in the transformative power of the word of God. So, teach on hospitality from the Scriptures. Here’s a sermon I preached recently on ‘sharing not only the gospel of God but our own selves also’ (1 Thessalonians 2:8). I hope I made the theological foundations clear – this isn’t just another ‘to do, but is soundly rooted in the gospel itself.
– Ensure all ministries are included in news sheet / web site, etc. (unless there’s a specific reason they aren’t). Ensure that they are genuinely open to all in that demographic.
– Ensure those on leadership are leading the way in hospitality (recognising that some will have greater opportunities than others).
– Teaching and discussion in home groups on hospitality
– Members’ packs for newcomers
– A hospitality Sunday a couple of times a year, where all regular attenders are specifically encouraged to invite someone/people over.
– Celebrate every occasion where you come across hospitality being well-modelled.
– Our fellowship group has found it helpful having a meal before the study each month. Consider whether something similar would be helpful in your context.
Do you have any ways you’ve seen a culture of hospitality grow in your church?
What reasons do you think Christians might have to be reluctant to show hospitality?