Hospitality is not a means to an end; it is a way of life infused by the gospel1
In recent years there has been a steady flow of books and articles considering the nature of Christian hospitality and, in some cases, its specific relationship to mission. Hospitality has been variously understood as a form of missionary activity, an opportunity for witnessing and mission, and even as a metaphor or image for mission itself.
This article draws together these and other strands of thinking about hospitality, in the form of five reflections: (1) understanding hospitality as a practice or gift;
(2) regarding hospitality as a way of opening new missionary or evangelistic opportunities; (3) developing the concept of mutual hospitality and a blurring of the distinction between host and guest; (4) exploring what might be termed religious or interreligious hospitality and an openness to accommodating the ‘other’; and
(5) reflecting on what is meant by divine hospitality, and how this informs our understanding and practice of mission.
1. The gift of hospitality
At its most basic level, hospitality can be understood as using what one owns or has access to, in order to welcome and sustain another person. This may focus on any immediate material needs – accommodation, food, clothing, and so on – but can also involve meeting needs we have as social beings, by providing friendship, dialogue and social interaction. In certain contexts, hospitality will also offer security, safety and protection for the guest.
The New Testament very clearly encourages believers to “practise hospitality” (Rom 12:13b; see also Heb 13:2), and at the very least this exhortation encompasses fellow Christians. There is a clear expectation that we will use the means at our disposal to bless and sustain others (1 Pet 4:9); church leaders have a special responsibility in this regard (1 Tim 3:2, Titus 1:8).
Such hospitality was very much a cultural norm in the Middle East at that time, whether offered to friends on a reciprocal basis or, less frequently, to occasional strangers. In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Mt. 25:31-46), Jesus explicitly linked our provision of hospitality (vv.35-36,42-45) to our faithfulness to him: such kindness and love for others is evidence of our ‘righteousness’ and is welcomed by Jesus as something done for him.
Given the clarity of biblical instructions to be hospitable, and the association of hospitality with righteous living and our being ‘Good Samaritans,’ it is disturbing to realise how negligent many Western Christians and churches are at providing hospitality.
As Ross Hastings laments, “the biblical vision of hospitality that welcomes the stranger is largely missing in many churches.”2
Reading missionaries’ descriptions of their cross-cultural experiences, it is striking how time and time again they praise the warm, generous and often sacrificial hospitality of their hosts. This has been true of accounts from Korea, Ukraine, Senegal, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Kenya, Romania, Pakistan, Ghana, the Dominican Republic, China, Mexico, Sierra Leone and many other countries. There may be exceptions but it does seem that the churches and believers of the Global South better appreciate the significance of hospitality and excel at providing it. In contrast, many Western believers fail to practise hospitality: we may be more protective of our possessions, more tied to routine, more averse to uncertainty and more influenced by individualism.
One encouraging development, however, has been the growth of missional churches or missional communities that have different priorities and new ways of working. Often these are intentionally more ‘seeker-friendly’ and open to strangers; they may be more orientated to their communities and deliberately seek to lower barriers preventing people from coming to church. In such churches, hospitality is often recognised as a Christian virtue and so homes – and lives – are opened and shared with others. This willingness to live a life open to others demonstrates what David Smith has called “a broader commitment to welcoming behaviour.”3 Such commitment challenges the superficiality or short-term nature of much of our hospitality, and Fagerli et al rightly observe that “the hospitality of friendship and fellowship is more costly than the hospitality of food, shelter, and clothes.”4
2. Hospitality as an opportunity for mission
The second way of thinking about hospitality sees it as an opportunity for the host: by welcoming the stranger into our home or church, we create an opportunity to witness to them. In this way, hospitality has been seen as a tool or strategy for mission or, more narrowly, for evangelism. As De Visser notes, “hospitality opens the door for many opportunities to witness” (2015, 281)5. Such witnessing will be through behaviour as well as words, and it has been suggested, for example, inviting non-Christians into our homes to see how Christian husbands treat their wife and children, as one way of communicating Christian values.
While pursuit of such opportunities may bear fruit, we must be wary of being too mechanistic or programmatic in our thinking. Henri Nouwen wisely counsels against using hospitality as a way of forcing or manipulating change in people. Rather, he says, it should “offer them space where change can take place,”6 an altogether gentler and more sensitive approach.
3. Mutual hospitality
Mortimer Arias, a bishop in the Bolivian Methodist Church, is one of several Christians to reflect on the bi-directional nature of hospitality, which he describes as “a two-way street.”7 Rather than dwelling on who is provider and who is recipient in the traditional sense, a change of perspective helps us appreciate that both parties are enriched by their shared experience. The encounter between ‘host’ and ‘guest’ can be one of mutual learning, enrichment, growth – and challenge. Surely this is a fundamental aspect of hospitality that is all too easy to overlook: it has the capacity to transform each participant.
Cathy Ross explains how we benefit from such encounters, in that we need strangers to help us see ourselves differently and even to change us. The stranger “may transform us and challenge us” in a “mutually transformative encounter.”8 In a profound way, this concept of mutuality challenges deeply held assumptions about the roles we perform and the power we hold.
Mutual hospitality can also mean taking it in turns to be ‘host’ and ‘guest’, in the way that Peter and Cornelius alternated in these roles (Acts 10), each learning how to accommodate the other. We may need to be reminded that “Mission is as much about receiving hospitality… as it is about going and giving to the other.”9
Mutual hospitality can also refer to an ambiguity over who is hosting who. In Luke 24:13-35 we see Jesus journeying with two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and then accepting an invitation to stay with them. That evening and during their meal together, Jesus’ role shifted from guest to host, and Christine Pohl argues that this “intermingling of guest and host roles in the person of Jesus is part of what makes the story of hospitality so compelling.”10 There may be times when for us too making a clear distinction is either not possible or simply unhelpful.
4. Religious hospitality
A fourth understanding of hospitality is connected to a theology of religions. A 2005 WCC Report11 explored the theme of hospitality as a “hermeneutical key” and emphasized that Jesus called for his followers to have an attitude of hospitality in their relationships with others (p.120). The “hallmark” of Christian hospitality is “our willingness to accept others in their ‘otherness’” (p.122), and the report calls for “religious hospitality” between the world’s religions, and a theology that is hospitable to ‘the other’. It does not escape the author’s attention that such hospitality is much needed within and between Christian denominations too, and Boersma (2004) has reflected on related issues of evangelical hospitality, baptismal hospitality, eucharistic hospitality and penitential hospitality, calling for the Church to be identified as the “Community of Hospitality” (pp.205-234).
5. Divine hospitality
Finally, but perhaps most significantly, we can also speak of a ‘divine hospitality’. Hans Boersma’s Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross (2004) examines the relationship between the atonement, hospitality and the Church, explaining how the atonement is “an expression of God’s hospitality toward us. Our hospitality only makes sense in light of God’s prior hospitality… God has come to us in Christ to invite us into his presence so that we might share eternal fellowship with him” (pp.15-16).
Luke’s gospel in particular has many examples of hospitality, both Jesus’ actual hospitality (which Boersma contends was also symbolic) and the divine hospitality Jesus alludes to in parables, such as the Parable of the Great Banquet (Lk 14:15-24). Here, the great banquet with many invited guests is symbolic of the kingdom of God, into which “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame” are ushered, and questions of power and worthiness are redundant. This is “the hospitality of God’s grace that beckons us into the eschaton of peace” (Boersma 2004, p.9) – the ultimate, and everlasting, hospitality.
We have seen that there are many different forms of hospitality, some of which differ significantly from a traditional understanding of what hospitality involves. In the same way that we “love because he first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19), we should be hospitable, just as God is hospitable to us. Hospitality is more than an aspect or tool of mission: it is both an openness and an invitation to the world; it is an embrace of the stranger who may enrich our lives more than we can know; it is emulating a God whose hospitality is as endless as his love.
- Pohl, Christine (2003) “Biblical Issues in Mission and Migration”, Missiology 31, p.11.
- Hastings, Ross (2012) Missional God, Missional Church, p.238.
- Smith, David I. (2009) Learning from the Stranger, p.117.
- Fagerli, Beate et al (eds., 2012) A Learning Missional Church: Reflections from Young Missiologists, p.123.
- De Visser, Deshabandu Adrian (2015) “Evangelism in Asia: Developing and Living Out Relevant Theologies” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 51:3, p.281. See also Park, Joon-Sik (2002) “Hospitality as Context for Evangelism,” Missiology 30:3, pp.385-395.
- Henri Nouwen, cited by Ross, Cathy in “Hospitality: The Church as ‘A Mother with an Open Heart’” in Ross, C. & Bevans, S. (2015) Mission on the Road to Emmaus, p.81.
- Arias, Mortimer “Centripetal Mission, or Evangelization by Hospitality” in Chilcote, P. & Warner, L. (eds., 2008) The Study of Evangelism, p.433.
- Ross, Cathy in “Hospitality: The Church as ‘A Mother with an Open Heart’” in Ross, C. & Bevans, S. (2015) Mission on the Road to Emmaus, pp.71,70.
- Oxbrow, Mark (2009) “Anglicans and Reconciling Mission: An Assessment of Two Anglican International Gatherings,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 33:1, p.8.
- Pohl, Christine (1999) Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, p.17.
- Matthey, Jacques (ed., 2005) “Come Holy Spirit, Heal and Reconcile! – Report of the WCC Conference on World Mission and Evangelism,” Athens, Greece, May 2005.
12 recommended resources on hospitality
Boersma, Hans (2004) Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic
Bretherton, Luke (2006) Hospitality as Holiness: Christian Witness amid Moral Diversity, Aldershot: Ashgate
Bryne, Brendan (2000) The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel, Revised edtion, Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press
Koenig, John (1985, 2001) New Testament Hospitality: Partnership with Strangers as Promise and Mission, Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock
Koyama, Kosuke (1993) “Extending Hospitality to Strangers: A Missiology of Theoligia Crucis,” International Review of Mission, 82:321
Newlands, George & Smith, Allen (2010) Hospitable God: The Transformative Dream, Farnham: Ashgate
Nouwen, Henri (1974) “Hospitality,” Monastic Studies 10
Ogletree, Thomas (1993) Hospitality to the Stranger: Dimensions of Moral Understanding, London: Westminster John Knox Press
Pohl, Christine (1999) Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans
Ross, Cathy (2016) “Mission in a Strange Land,” Missio Africanus Journal of African Missiology 1:2
Smith, David I. (2009) Learning from the Stranger: Christian Faith and Cultural, Cambridge: Eerdmans
Yong, Amos (2008) Hospitality and the Other: Pentecost, Christian Practices and the Neighbour, Maryknoll: Orbis