The practice of hospitality is older than the Bible. Certainly in Genesis 19 and probably in Genesis 18, we see righteous men offering food and lodging to strangers gratis (I say “probably” because I’m unsure whether Abraham is aware from the beginning that he’s talking to God). Christians are instructed to be hospitable in multiple New-Testament passages.
However, in our own time, hospitality has largely fallen by the wayside. Most Christians will no longer invite unfamiliar people into their own homes (and the Greek word for hospitality, xenophilia, literally means “love of strangers”); many Christians won’t even invite their friends. This is a problem. It’s good for us to follow the pattern of the first-century church, but we ought to pay equal attention to imitating the example of first-century Christians.
I think this inhospitable trend exists for two reasons. The first is social pressure. Unlike the nations of the ancient Near East, our own society is not at all given to hospitality. I remember reading several years ago that on average, an American family will have others over for a meal about once a year. The trend is reflected in our architecture. New houses come with gargantuan master-bedroom suites and ever-shrinking public spaces. Many such homes don’t even have formal living and dining rooms, the very rooms that used to be devoted to entertaining guests.
It’s certainly true that in striving to be hospitable, we are swimming against the cultural current. However, this should be a familiar activity to disciples of Jesus. Rather than being conformed to the world, we are supposed to be transformed to be like Him. Certainly, Christians have always had mixed success in putting this into practice, but at least they’re generally aware that they ought to be doing better. When it comes to hospitality, this awareness doesn’t seem to exist.
This, I think, points to a deeper problem. Christians aren’t hospitable because they haven’t left space in their lives to be hospitable.
Make no mistake about it; hospitality is a demanding art! Its demands begin with the two or three hours of the getting-to-know-you meal, and for most, making conversation with strangers is an effortful activity. However, even before guests arise, hospitality requires an even larger investment of time and effort in meal planning and preparation, housecleaning (normally, at least one spouse in every marriage recoils at the thought of inviting strangers into an uncleaned house), and making arrangements. Lauren and I are old hands at hospitality by now, but even for us, if we’re having people over for Sunday dinner, we’re generally going to spend Saturday getting ready.
That’s a big debit of time and energy, and for most Christians, it’s time and energy that they don’t have. They have fallen prey to the cultural conceit that we have to be overscheduled and horrifyingly busy to justify our existence. If we aren’t all working stupid hours, with our kids enrolled in 50 different activities, such that every day is a race to meet multiple deadlines, we just aren’t working hard enough!
Commonly, brethren embrace this lifestyle without considering its consequences, particularly the way it interferes with our service to God. If we’re living life at a dead run, with every day scheduled to the minute, there simply isn’t going to be a way to carve out a whole day for any activity that isn’t also a federal holiday. In Stephen Covey’s words, the urgent crowds out the important. Many areas of our lives will suffer if we live this way, and hospitality is certainly one of them.
The cure for the disease begins with radical change. Dare to do nothing, because only then will we have time for the non-routine. Live thoughtfully. Ask, “Why am I doing this?” Is it because it brings joy and meaning to my life, or is it because I’ve found myself doing it and don’t know how to quit?
I’m certainly a fan of the decluttering movement, but I suspect that as beneficial as decluttering our houses is, it might be even more beneficial to declutter our schedules. If our lives don’t line up with our priorities (pleasing God by being hospitable, for instance), it’s time to start cutting things until they do. If less overtime means less disposable income, oh well. We should be more interested in going to heaven than going to Disneyworld.
After this, the only way to learn how to be hospitable is to jump in and do it. Hospitality is a skill, made up of a bunch of lesser skills. The more we practice, the better we get. Some of these skills are obvious (knowing how to cook); others are less so (knowing how to put others at ease and make them feel welcome). Even if we aren’t gifted in either of these areas (and I’m not!), we will still improve with repetition.
We aren’t going to master these things overnight, but the goal of being effectively hospitable is worth striving toward for months and even years. I don’t know of any faster way to form a connection with another human being than to share a meal with them, and human connection is the foundation of our usefulness in the kingdom. When we connect with our brethren, we can edify, exhort, and even reprove them. Indeed, in every congregation I’ve ever been a part of, the most influential Christians were also the most hospitable. When we connect with outsiders, we can lead them to the Lord. I just about won’t study with somebody these days unless I’ve had a chance to eat with them first.
Hospitality is one of the most powerful and versatile tools we have, but too many Christians are content to leave it in the toolbox. It could be usefully applied to many of the greatest challenges facing the church, but we aren’t doing it. This is a shame. If, however, we clear our lives and open our homes to others, our rewards will be great, both in this life and in the life to come.