In American Christianity, hospitality has not only lost its moral dimensions, it no longer plays an integral role in informing a church’s missiology or ecclesiology. Hospitality has been reduced to cozy dinners with friends or associates who closely resemble the socio-economic status and socio-political worldviews of their hosts. Perhaps more detrimental, hospitality has been relegated as one of many Christian practices from which Christians can choose, a practice most generally situated around various forms of table fellowship. In this paper, I hope to offer a more robust theological framework, one that extends back to the creation narrative, through the Israelite narrative, and is both epitomized in and central to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Hospitality understood in this way necessarily becomes the primal posture of Christian witness in a post-Christian culture and promotes a missiological impulse powerful enough to reorient a congregation to engage holistically and embrace those suffering social displacement due to homelessness, mental illness, and intellectual disability.
Today when our society speaks of hospitality, we do not normally think of a love for strangers, which is the meaning of philoxenia, the biblical Greek word usually translated hospitality. Instead, hospitality arouses images of what Henri Nouwen described as “tea parties, bland conversations and an atmosphere of coziness.” A culture of xenophobia pushes back against the impulse to make room for strangers with a welcoming embrace. In a post 9/11 world, fear has cast out love (1 John 4:18), thus relegating Christian hospitality to a romanticized ideal consigned to one of many possible Christian practices rather than an alternative way of being in society. Christine Pohl argues that hospitality has become an industry of business and a practice of relational networking in our upward-mobility-driven system. Yet, this was not the view of hospitality in the early church. The early mothers and fathers of the Christian faith practiced a way of being that welcomed others with relational embrace, including strangers and those incapable of reciprocity.
They believed that transcending socio-economic and ethnic boundaries by sharing meals, homes, and worship with people of different backgrounds was a significant identity-marker of the Christian faith.They extended hospitality to strangers and those incapable of reciprocity by welcoming them into their homes and sharing their resources as a covering of friendship. Early Christian hospitality bore witness to the legitimacy of the Christian faith powerful enough to capture the attention of onlookers. This is evident in the comments of the fourth century Roman emperor Julian when he instructed the high priest of the Hellenistic faith to emulate Christianity’s practice of hospitality, and asked, “Why do we not observe that it is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism?” He commanded that a new government sponsored program be established to distribute food to the poor and that hostels be established in every city for strangers. He wrote: “For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galileans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us. Teach those of the Hellenic faith to contribute to public service of this sort.”
Hospitality was, more than just a practice, a way of being for the early Church. It encompassed the whole person as it addressed the social, emotional, cognitive, physical and spiritual dimensions of personhood. To early Christian writers hospitality was a moral obligation brought forth by the inbreaking of God’s kingdom and was a fundamental expression of the gospel and vital for faithful Christian witness.
For the people of ancient Israel, understanding themselves as strangers and sojourners, with responsibility to care for the vulnerable strangers in their midst, was a significant part of what it meant to be the people of God. Jesus, who was dependent on the hospitality of others during much of his earthly sojourn, also served as the gracious host in his words and in his actions. Those who turned to him found welcome and rest and the promise of reception into the Kingdom. Jesus urged his human hosts to open their banquets and dinner tables to more than family and friends who could return the favor, to give generous welcome to the poor and sick who had little to offer in return. Jesus promised that welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry person, and visiting the sick were acts of personal kindness to the Son of man Himself.
When the early church extended gracious hospitality to others they were affirming a common humanity brought forth in the reign of grace. We see this taught in Paul’s letters as he urges the Christian community to welcome one another as Christ had welcomed them (Romans 12:13; 15:7). This is the hospitality modeled by his incarnation and is central to the gospel. Therefore, it is essential in our understanding of witness, leadership, and power.
A critical aspect of missional renewal in a post-Christian culture is the recovery of hospitality as an essential ecclesial posture. Taking the incarnation as a theological paradigm, I argue that hospitality is a holistic congregational engagement in witness, homemaking, and leadership. After discussing each dimension of hospitality, I consider barriers to embracing this robust practice of hospitality. Finally, I provide one example of overcoming those barriers.
A Theology of Hospitality
Hospitality begins in creation. In the Genesis narrative we see God making room in his infinite and omnipresent life for a finite and limited creation, including us.He did so, not stoically or out of obligation, but in love and out of desire. He embraced us from the moment he first thought of us. As a “homemaking God who creates a world for inhabitation,” he welcomes us into his life to share in all that he is and all that he has, including his good creation. Our God is a homemaking, hospitable God, and hospitality is central to his triune being.
Later in the Genesis narrative, the Lord comes to Abraham and Sarah as “three strangers,” and they welcome them to dinner (Gen 18:1–8). In a simple reading of this text one might conclude that Abraham and Sarah extended hospitality. But read in light of the creation narrative, God extends hospitality. All of creation is his, yet he chooses to come and dine with them. The welcome and embrace of God is concrete and particular, as particular as his incarnation, revealed to the world through a Jewish man named Jesus, born in a small town called Bethlehem of a woman named Mary. In the incarnation we see what humanity-affirming, dignity-restoring, homemaking hospitality looks like; we see the hospitality of God.
Matthew wants to be sure we know God’s intention with Jesus from the beginning: he is Immanuel, God with us (Matt 1:23). John tells us that in the beginning was the Word and the Word was both with God and was God. This Word, the divine logic of God, became flesh and took up residence among us. In Jesus the living Word, God, “came to His own,” yet they did not respond as Abraham and Sarah. Jesus was not welcomed. Despite God’s hospitality and willingness to make room for humanity in his life, there was a stubborn refusal to make room for him. Humanity was inhospitable to its hospitable Creator (John 1:1–14).
After pronouncing that God’s kingdom will welcome all who repent and believe, he gathers blue-collar workers as his first apprentices. He invites them to learn the way of God’s welcome alongside him as he teaches the worshippers in synagogues, heals unclean tormented people, journeys through Galilean neighborhoods, touches lepers with his own hand, shows compassion to the vulnerable, and shares a table with sinners (Mark 1:14–20, 23, 27, 29–41; 2:15–17). Jesus challenges the narrow definitions of hospitality and inclusion as he presses his hearers to move outward to the margins of society and welcome those with whom they least desire to have connections, especially those incapable of reciprocity (Luke 14:7–23, Matt 25:31–46). He teaches us not to view people marginalized and displaced by socio-cultural or socio-economic realities as a projects to fix or problems to be solved. Rather, they are to be joined with and welcomed into the presence of a friend, because friendships and places of welcome are where human flourishing takes place. As a friend of sinners Jesus is found in the presence of liars, thieves, prostitutes, and those who do not believe; the rich, the poor, the powerless, and the divorced; the widow, the child, the religious elite, and those left out; the murderer, the immigrant, the racist, and unrepentant. By welcoming and embracing sinners Jesus reveals that contrary to the prevalent religious narratives of exclusion and hospitality, God is willing to make room in his life to welcome all. Home, that is, human flourishing, is found in the welcoming presence of God along with all others who welcome Jesus as Lord. The early Christian writers bear witness to this and summon all others who have received the gospel to do the same. This should affect how we understand and implement the gospel.
Hospitality As Witness
Today we must rediscover the formative nature of Christian witness and move beyond an understanding of witness as mere observation. Witnesses are actively involved in making someone or something known to everyone around them. It is a participatory role, one that presupposes an experience, which in turn necessitates a proclamation or demonstration of that experience for the benefit of others. As we experience God’s welcoming embrace despite our brokenness and ungratefulness, we are compelled to bear witness to this experience by extending his welcome to others where together we make our home with God. As the apostle Paul has said, we welcome one another as Christ welcomed us to the glory of God so that our way of being in the world will overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit working within, between, and among us (Rom 15:7, 13).
Self-serving agendas and strategies to get them “coming to” church are relinquished because the church has formed a different imagination and understanding of witness. A theology of hospitality offers a different way of seeing, which when embraced by a congregation, adequately upholds the prophetic witness of Christ’s church. A witness formed by hospitality subverts the narrativized systems of anxiety, coercion, scarcity and exclusivism. It disrupts the status quo as it tears down walls of division, closes the gaps between between proximity and neighborliness, and makes reconciliation between all people possible.
The church whose posture is formed by hospitality reorganizes her life for the practice of presence with others, trusting that the Spirit of Jesus is mysteriously at work within, between, and among them. As the congregation catches a glimpse of the Spirit’s work it will humbly, boldly, and lovingly bear witness to his work and invite others to see and hear what God is doing and saying. When gathered as a people, the church serves both as gracious host to God and the other while simultaneously receiving the hospitality of God; they make room in their communal life for the other with a welcoming embrace.
Hospitality as witness helps a congregation contextualize the gospel. In listening and being present with others, the church gives up settling for abstract propositions that are disembodied from real life but labeled as gospel. Rather, it will hear where the bad news is felt and known—where the reign of sin and death is clearly having its way in the lives of the socially displaced and marginalized—and bear witness to good news in a way that offers a new vision of life and love where all can be welcomed and at home with God through Jesus Christ as Lord.
Hospitality as Homemaking among the Socially Displaced
Over and again in the biblical corpus God is seen as a gracious and generous homemaker whose hospitality is connected to his sovereign presence and provision.From the wilderness of the Exodus to Galilee, God provides sustenance to the hungry and often ungrateful. Like Israel our identity with God includes being displaced foreigners and strangers who are wholly dependent upon his welcome and provision. No longer estranged he has adopted us and called us his children (Gal 4:4–6; Eph 1:4–6). No longer displaced, he has naturalized us as citizens of his kingdom (Eph 2:12–19). If we are like Israel, then our displacement and estrangement also makes us accountable for our treatment of the displaced and estranged. As a people who find ourselves at home with God we are called as a community of hospitality to become homemakers.
Cultivating a culture of hospitality in the congregational context is particularly important in a post-Christian culture of social displacement. A community which embodies hospitality contradicts contemporary messages and systems of coercion and exclusion that tell us who is valuable and invaluable, significant and insignificant, worthy and unworthy. Such a community becomes a sign of hope that proves self-giving love is possible. The church becomes a community where all are included, where the world is not irreversibly categorized between classes, races, genders, sexual preferences, or other identity markers.This kind of relentless hope found in communities organized around hospitality as witness allows all people, guests and hosts, to flourish in challenging and transformative ways. The homeless can find a home with a community of hospitality. The mentally ill and intellectually disabled can find importance in a community of hospitality. In such communities, the power center of society has been redetermined, and all are welcomed into a life of cruciform power, because all that we have can be leveraged for the good another as together we make our home with God. If, however, hospitality is to become a fundamental expression of congregational witness, it must become the fundamental expression of congregational leadership.
Hospitality As Leadership
As Jesus came to the end of his earthly ministry he entrusted his work to twelve apprentices. In his practice of hospitality, he taught them that if they were to lead others in and to the kingdom, they must receive hospitality as a way of being. Perhaps this lesson in leadership is most evident when Jesus washes their feet in John 13. I believe the message of this text is much deeper than mere servitude. I suggest it is a text on hospitality as leadership. For the sake of space, I will highlight what I believe is a pivotal phrase that turns us toward considering hospitality as leadership: “And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself” (John 13:3–4). Jesus was fully aware of his place, authority, influence, and power. “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). Instead of leveraging his power to be served, to receive embrace, he leveraged it for the good of everyone else. In this practice of hospitality reserved for a house slave, Jesus made himself vulnerable as their slave by washing their feet. As the incarnation of God, Jesus’s posture was one of hospitality, so it makes sense that his leadership would be grounded in the same. To make sure his apprentices understood what happened, Jesus told them to go and do likewise. Later they would learn that power is cruciformity.
In today’s Christian leadership culture, influence, authority, or power is often referred to as servant leadership. At first this sounds noble, even biblical. We lead by serving. So why doesn’t this work? Why do our notions of servant leadership fail to play out in such a way that it reflects what we see in Jesus? Is it solely based upon hierarchical structures prevalent in the North American Church, or is there more to it? I suggest that, among other implications, this kind of leadership can subtly abrade our innocence and original intentions to serve others, especially in hierarchical leadership structures. The preoccupation to influence others toward a predetermined goal results in a disordered love that gives birth to disordered hospitality. In essence servant leadership easily comes to be about receiving hospitality (by being followed) and less about extending it (by being present to mutually discern the Spirit’s work).
Hospitality as leadership moves beyond serving others. It is less about self-preoccupation and more about self-giving love. It is about making room for others to flourish based upon giftedness. Hospitality as leadership shifts from leading and facilitating projects to facilitating presence. It is leadership as cruciform power. As Jesus washed the disciples feet, death was working in him so that life could work in them. He demonstrates that when leaders view their interaction with others through the cross they seek to place themselves in postures of vulnerability rather than in positions of power. Therefore hospitality as leadership understands things this way: presence first, participation second, proclamation or bearing witness third. Practically speaking, hospitality as leadership is about listening, learning, loving, and only then leading.
Congregational Barriers to Hospitality and Home-making
Churches both have cultures and are cultures.If a congregation is to embrace hospitality as witness as a homemaking community for the socially displaced, it must confront significant barriers to hospitality and homemaking, including authorizing narratives and plausibility structures at work in the culture of the congregation. Authorizing narratives are the shared experiences or stories that possess authority in the life of the congregation. On another level, plausibility structures are culturally shared realities, or systems of meaning, that determine what a given society will accept as plausible—whether or not it is believable or makes any sense—in terms of beliefs and behaviors. Each play a role in creating the practices and values that form the church’s common life and missional orientation. In some cases these practices and values result in structures (i.e., programs and institutional commitments) that obstruct hospitality from becoming an ecclesial posture.
Like people, most congregations are unaware of their culture until it is challenged, until they experience a new one, or until it is made explicit. In my experience, nothing challenges congregational cultures more than the socially displaced and marginalized. Listening is a key practice for leaders who wish to open themselves to this challenge. Listening allows the congregation’s leadership to learn the unobservable and observable elements of culture. Listening also helps the leadership learn how to lovingly navigate the consequences of extending the welcoming embrace to the socially displaced and marginalized. This requires the congregation’s leadership to constantly push back against the default impulse of vision casting and persuasion from a top-down approach. Then the hard work of facilitating a culture of listening—whereby the Spirit can be discerned through the voices, concerns, fears, and excitement of his people—can begin. There are several listening practices a congregation’s leadership can employ, such as ethnography and Appreciative Inquiry, but it is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss them.
Ultimately, if the socially displaced and marginalized are to be welcomed and embraced by the church, a reorganization of priorities will be necessary as the congregation shifts from program-centered practices to the practice of faithful presence. When hospitality becomes the posture of the church and forms the congregation into a homemaking community, a new kind of Spirit-birthed power will overflow from within. Just as the gospel was born on the margins of the Galilean society, so too the church is reborn at the margins of its own society. Hospitality as witness and leadership leads the church to shine the light of Christ throughout its city as a prophetic witness of the inbreaking kingdom of God, and the dominant categories and systems within a culture of displacement will be subverted.
Williamsburg Christian Church and 3e Restoration Incorporated
The journey toward hospitality and homemaking began for Williamsburg Christian Church (Williamsburg, VA) six years ago, one year after my arrival to serve as a pastor. At the time, it was a program-centered church in steady decline, deep in financial debt, but unwaveringly committed to loving one another. They were what some might call a “country church.” The church was in need of new life—of missional renewal.
After I asked the congregation to join me and my wife in walking from homelessness to holistic sufficiency with a set of grandparents, a daughter, and her infant son, we began experiencing missional renewal as a church. Men and women within the congregation began exploring how their vocation could be leveraged to equip this family toward holistic sufficiency. Others were simply seeking to be present with the family over lunches and dinners, while others offered transportation to various places or to help them take the necessary steps in the transition from homeless to housed. Challenges and conflict from within the church developed as underlying assumptions, taken-for-granted values, and stereotypes were uncovered. The culture of our church was becoming observable we began shifting away from facilitating programs to facilitating presence. A shared leadership approach was formed as we learned new listening practices to navigate the change in mutually submissive ways. Old authorizing narratives and plausibility structures resistant to change were confronted as new narratives created new movements that allowed us to establish new plausibility structures. Missional renewal was taking place, and it was happening from the margins. Consequently, men and women living through homelessness heard they could find a home with us, and so they have. This includes two group homes of mentally ill and intellectually disabled adults that were recently asked to leave two different local churches, making them socially displaced in a unique way. Now they have a home with us.
Word of what God was doing in Williamsburg Christian Church went out into the city, not only in the wooded areas, hotels, and under bridges where the socially displaced dwell, but into the business community and other faith communities. As Williamsburg Christian Church continued soliciting local businesses to provide various professional services and resources at free or discounted rates for our friends living through homelessness, a network of professional coaches developed. Christians and non-Christians alike began asking how they could leverage their vocational expertise to alleviate homelessness. Financial advisors, dentists, therapists, attorneys, job-training specialists, and other professional services necessary for the socially displaced to find healing on all human dimensions joined us in this Spirit-led work of hospitality and homemaking. A Restoration Process was eventually formed to guide our socially displaced friends living through this particular journey toward holistic sufficiency.
After walking with a few families out of homelessness and bearing witness to God’s restorative work among us, a twenty-church interfaith collaborative approached Williamsburg Christian Church to learn about our approach. They wanted us to equip each member church to walk with people living through homelessness to holistic sufficiency. So we did. Our collaboration led to the formation of a nonprofit organization called 3e Restoration Incorporated, which equips, empowers, and encourages local churches to walk in relationship with friends and families in need as they transition from homelessness to holistic sufficiency. Our work facilitates presence as a people of hospitality and homemaking rather than a program-driven approach. Hospitality in the name of Jesus is a dignity-restoring, homemaking practice that can begin healing the whole person—socially, emotionally, cognitively, physically, and spiritually.
Only three years old, 3e Restoration is staffed by two full-time employees working to actively equip seven local churches spanning four denominations in Williamsburg, Virginia, to become communities of hospitality and homemaking for the socially displaced. 3e Restoration’s work now extends to Dallas, Texas, and Fredericksburg, Virginia, where three local churches spanning two denominations are learning to become communities of hospitality and homemaking.
Our little congregation called Williamsburg Christian Church is still learning and growing. We are the mentally ill, the intellectually disabled, the homeless, the formerly homeless, the addicted, the recovering, the wealthy, the poor, the widows, the married, the never-been-married, and the divorced; we are the working, the unemployed, the young, and the old; we are private citizens, public servants, the “from-here’s” and the “come-here’s”; we are the wandering, the confused, the certain, the abused, the abandoned, and the hopeful; we are the struggling, the privileged, the prideful, the humble, the entitled, and the forgotten. But above all we are learning how to be loved by the Lord of heaven and earth and are discovering that our identity is in something greater than these labels most often ascribed to us. We know that we have been broken and bruised by sin, but we also know that in Jesus we have been given new life by the holy Breath of God. So we’ve decided to live as a committed family of witnesses to God’s gracious hospitality, and together we find our home with him as we proclaim with our lips and lives that Jesus is Lord.
Fred Liggin is a multi-vocational pastor at Williamsburg Christian Church, founder and president of 3e Restoration Inc., and a mission specialist for church renewal with Mission Alive. He is currently pursuing a DMin in Contextual Theology at Northern Seminary.
† Adapted from a presentation at the Thomas H. Olbricht Christian Scholars’ Conference, Lipscomb University, Nashville, TN, June 8–10, 2016.
1 Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (New York: Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, 1975), 66.
2 Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 4.
4 See Aristides, Apology 15, and Justin Martyr, First Apology of Justin 67.
5 Julian, The Works of the Emperor Julian, Vol. 3, trans. Wilmer C. Wright, Loeb Classical Library 157 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1913), 67–71.
6 Shepherd of Hermas, Mandate 8:8–10. See also John Chrysostom, Homily 45 on Acts; Homily 14 on 1 Timothy; and Homily 66 on Matthew.
7 Pohl, 5.
8 The following is my own reading, though others have also argued that creation is a divine act of hospitality. See, e.g., Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast: An Invitation to Christian Spiritual Life, rev. ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2014), 135; and Veli-Matti Karkkainen, A Constructive Christian Theology for the Pluralistic World, vol. 3, Creation and Humanity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 73.
9 Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian J. Walsh, Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 14. I owe the language of “homemaking God” to the authors of this insightful work.
10 God’s sovereign presence and provision is especially evident in Gen 18:9–15, 1 Kgs 17–18, and 2 Kgs 4 where the practice of hospitality led to a tangible sign of God’s redemptive activity, resulting in a blessing for all involved.
11 Pohl, 10–11.
12 Scripture quotations are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.
13 By culture, I refer to the underlying assumptions, collective memories built upon shared experiences, taken-for-granted values, definitions and languages, expectations, conscious norms, rituals and symbols, artifacts, and explicit behaviors that shape the common life both embraced and pursued by the congregation. See Kim S. Cameron and Robert E. Quinn, Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass 2011), 14–21. In particular, the language of “taken-for-granted values” and “conscious norms” is based upon The Competing Values Framework proposed by the authors.
14 I first heard the term authorizing narratives from Dr. Mark Love throughout various lectureships at Rochester College. However, my understanding of how authorizing narratives work in congregational formation builds upon systems thinking, a contextualized variation of Murray Bowen’s eight concepts of family systems theory in Michael E. Kerr, One Family’s Story: A Primer on Bowen Theory (Washington, DC: The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family, 2000) and Appreciative Inquiry as set forth by Frank J. Barrett and Ronald E. Fry, Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Approach to Building Cooperative Capacity (Chagrin Falls, OH: Taos Institute, 2005) and Mark Lau Branson, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004). Performing ethnography as pastoral practice with these three theories in view uncovers a unified interest between meaning-making and power, social relations, and the interactions between humans and institutional processes, thereby forming a unique socio-cultural anthropology for congregational life. I believe there is a distinction between social imaginary and authorizing narrative. Alan J. Roxburgh, in his book Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood, brilliantly applies social imaginaries to congregational formation and demonstrates how they shape the congregation’s imagination for mission. For Roxburgh social imaginaries “create a taken-for-granted set of common assumptions about our normal expectations and common understandings around how things work and how we’re supposed to act in the world” (59). My view is that authorizing narratives play a significant role in the construction and deconstruction of a congregation’s social imaginary and will serve to either stabilize or destabilize plausibility structures.
15 My understanding of plausibility structures has been largely shaped by the work of Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Garden City, NY: Random House, 1990) and Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1989) who, when read together, offer a more robust understanding for cultural change strategies. Where Berger falls short in analyzing the role of the institutional frameworks (not institutionalization arising from habitualization) by leaning principally upon the role discourse analysis, Newbigin fills the gaps. However, where Newbigin falls short on the role of discourse analysis, Berger fills the gaps. When the two are read together in light of socio-cultural analysis, the interplay between discourse, habitualization, communal practices, and institutional frameworks coalesce into a broader understanding of why a congregation resists or submits to change.