By Jeff Brumley
Hospitality to a lot of Christians means taking a meal to a sick church friend or inviting neighbors over for a barbecue on Memorial Day.
But neither of those meanings come even close to the spiritual practice of hospitality as it’s described and, some Baptist pastors say, commanded in the Bible.
But more and more believers are becoming aware of the disconnect between the popular and the scriptural notions, often resulting in fear and outright refusals to learn more.
That’s a struggle that is needed, said John Carroll, pastor of First Baptist Church in Danville, Va.
“We have to wrestle with a biblical model of hospitality and a cultural concept of hospitality,” said Carroll, who preaches regularly on the subject, and whose church partners with a nearby intentional community called Grace and Main that practices extreme forms of hospitality.
Opening hearts and homes
But Carroll is far from a lone voice crying in the wilderness on this issue. Calls for rediscovering biblical hospitality have been voiced in various Christian movements for centuries.
More recently they have been raised by participants in the new monastic movement and other intentional Christian communities that promote opening hearts, homes and kitchens to the poor.
The discussion and practice of hospitality have received extra energy recently with related political and social debates around topics like immigration, homelessness, gay rights and race relations.
And churches and other religious organizations are taking note. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina, as an example, will host “Hospitality as a Spiritual Practice” May 2-4 in Sophia, N.C.
‘Not about … casseroles’
Presenter Jim Dant says the adult retreat will introduce participants to biblical teachings on hospitality and provide suggestions on how to implement them.
It’s an especially needed topic given societal and political tensions, he adds.
“We live in a culture — and in a religious culture — that has lost its civility,” said Dant, an author, speaker and co-owner of Faith Lab. “The hope is that this brings a new … civility to whatever we do.”
Content for the retreat will come from the biblical book of Ruth. Participants will see how the story is one in which readers are challenged to be welcoming to strangers and foreigners as well as to God’s presence and even toward whatever culture they live in, Dant said.
Dant said Ruth and passages in other Old Testament books reveal that being hospitable doesn’t necessarily imply approval. Instead, believers are directed to be compassionate.
“Most churches feel we have to condone or condemn what our culture does,” Dant said. “But we are actually called to be hospitable to the culture we live in.”
Christ models that attitude in the Gospels, including when he meets the woman at the well. He neither condemns nor condones her life, but instead offers her understanding and compassion in directing her to repent.
“When he comes alongside her, that’s an act of compassion,” he said.
Biblical hospitality in turn changes those who practice it, Dant said.
“It’s not about learning to make casseroles or being nice to people but having an internal transformation to be truly hospitable in a biblical sense.”
‘Essential to seeing Christ’
For some, being “truly hospitable” requires totally redesigning their lives by joining intentional communities where welcoming the stranger — in whatever form he or she takes — is front and center.
“Our stance from the beginning has been learning to welcome and embrace that which is different than you are — that you might not be comfortable with,” said Jason Williams, a co-founder of the Hyaets Community in Charlotte, N.C.
More recently, Williams helped establish the Little Tree Community, a rural offshoot of Hyaets that emphasizes hospitality, simplicity, peacemaking and other spiritual practices in its community farming practice.
In addition to opening their homes to those in need at the Lincolnton, N.C., ministry, hospitality is also expressed by giving clients leadership roles in running the food growing and operations.
That’s also part of hospitality, Williams said, because it gives him and others an experience of what it is like to receive help.
“I submit to their leadership and wisdom, which places me in equitable relationship with them,” said Williams, a graduate of the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. “That makes us uncomfortable — which is essential to seeing Jesus Christ in the person who comes to your door.”
Such practices, however, are often frightening to everyday Christians, said Carroll. That’s why they often cling to the more common practice of simply showing generosity to friends.
“It’s easy to do because we have things in common with them and we can be around them without delving into who they are.”
But church members must be educated about the model presented in Jewish and Christian scriptures and sometimes nudged to take “baby steps” into uncomfortable directions and situations.
Carroll said he’s being doing that at Danville’s First Baptist by urging those who serve a Sunday morning meal to those in need to begin interacting more with diners.
While certainly providing an important service, food is handed to clients through a window.
“Instead of serving through a window, how about crossing a boundary from the kitchen door and sitting down and having a meal with them?”
There are other non-radical ways of practicing hospitality, he said.
One is inviting a co-worker “we don’t know so well” over for dinner. It’s even better if they are of a different race, age, socio-economic level or sexual preference.
“That’s a good place to start,” he said. “There’s risk there, but I don’t have to open my house to let someone live there.”
The goal is to feel the discomfort that comes with hospitality, he added.
“Hospitality in a biblical sense moves us from a place of hanging out with people we like to creating a common space where we can meet people who are different from us.”