Hospitality has taken on fresh meaning to me lately. I’ll explain.
I understood hospitality to be mainly “friendship with the stranger,” and NOT primarily how to set your table to impress your dinner guests. Welcoming strangers, radical as that view seemed, isn’t broad enough.
Recently, while doing some research on church eldership, the word hospitality emerged again. I thought a practical, personal, and local expression of hospitality helps us engage with Christ’s mission. It does and it should. However, it should not be limited to a ministry of elders.
Of course, Paul’s instructions regarding elder qualification, at first glance, is rather unremarkable: “Don’t get drunk.” I’m pretty sure that didn’t mean everyone else should get drunk.
The elder, besides being “apt to teach,” must be hospitable. Certainly it means elders should be friends to strangers, including strangers from distant cultures, as part of Christ’s mission. Perhaps the broader meaning is given if we drop a letter, “r”. It’s not merely welcoming the stranger; it’s welcoming the strange.
Hospitality has been reduced in modern times; it’s about folding napkins and making table decorations. The original meaning of hospitality is much broader, tied to Christ’s mission.
That little “r”
The challenge to my missional view of hospitality is that even “friendship with strangers” is too narrow a definition. Drop the “r” and you get “friend of the strange.”
Our modern definitions of biblical terms tend toward reduction, therefore “Mission” has been reduced to reaching every individual from every nation. Sounds like a broad definition, doesn’t it? However, reducing the kingdom message of Jesus to individual decisions has contributed to a church of spectators and a society that demands their rights at the expense of others. As a result of the modern interpretation of mission, the modern church formation and leadership has separated out the missionary to go do missions elsewhere, not inside the church structure or the culture in which that church has settled.
Paul was not a modernist. What Paul instructed Timothy and Titus, and the members of the early church, was a Missional meaning to hospitality, that elders were to welcome the “strange.”
Certainly, the gospel and the message of the kingdom of God is a “strange” message; it’s “foolishness to the Greeks” and a “rock of offense to the Jews.” God’s message is fresh bread from heaven; we’re called to live by every word that proceeds from God.
That message from God will tend to be “strange,” shaking us out of our complacency and our tendency to settle into the surrounding culture, protecting our position, our power, and our privilege gained.
Hospitality is a vital part of leadership of a church community because an elder must be careful to listen for the word from the Lord, even though strange to the ear or delivered through a strange means. The message may come through a prophetic word, a tongue to be interpreted or a vision of something like a “sheet with animals”.
The elder must be hospitable, protecting the freedom in the Spirit for anyone to bring a word and not be hindered, including women and little children. The elders must welcome that strange word and test it carefully as a community, always ready for that teachable moment led the Spirit of God.
Now, the table is set. This is hospitality. Enjoy the feast!