From beginning to end, the Bible teaches us how to be hospitable. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, we find stories of people acting as hosts, welcoming strangers, and discovering that there is something truly holy in their acts of hospitality. Yet, we have largely forgotten this in the life of the church.
As hosts, we are constantly challenged to be concerned about the well-being of others. And when we do this, God is always present in surprising and wonderful ways.
Unfortunately, many Christians today go to church with the attitude of a guest, not a host. We are concerned more about ourselves than about those who visit with us. Consider this mindset: As guests, we are focused primarily on having a good time. We enter the church, and look for our friends. We pass personal judgment on the furniture, decor, and feel of the place. We sit where we want to sit, with little regard for making room for others. We listen to the church’s music, and decide whether we enjoy it or not. As guests, we are basically consumers, concerned about our personal comfort. The experience is all about us.
How different it is to be a host. In that role, we are focused primarily on serving others. We greet our guests at the door, and seek to connect them with people they would enjoy. We make sure that the church is set up in a welcoming way — decorated appropriately, well-lighted, and conducive to people getting to know one another. We sit in places that will leave room for others, and help them to feel comfortable. As hosts, we are concerned about the comfort of others. The experience is all about them.
This means being on the look-out for strangers instead of friends, making the church hospitable, ensuring that worship is welcoming, and picking music that our guests would enjoy. Just imagine that! Actually picking music for others, not for ourselves. As hosts, we are constantly challenged to be concerned about the well-being of others.
And when we do this, God is always present in surprising and wonderful ways. When we show hospitality to strangers, we are really entertaining angels. When we welcome a newcomer, we are actually welcoming Jesus. Hospitality to people is the very same thing as hospitality to God. If you want an authentic experience of God — and I think we all do — then the place to begin is by welcoming strangers.
This article is adapted from Henry’s new book, The Welcoming Congregation: Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality (Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), and used with the publisher’s permission. It is available at The Thoughtful Christian and Amazon.