Rediscovering Hospitality

In Japan lonely senior citizens (especially women) are shoplifting in search of the community and stability of jail. From 1980 to 2015, the number of seniors living alone in Japan increased more than sixfold, to almost 6 million. That’s quite extreme but all across the developed world it has become clear that loneliness is a killer and it is an epidemic.

Alongside the rise of loneliness has been the decline in religious commitment. What this has revealed is that religion creates a huge amount of social capital. Social capital here is really just an academic term for being part of a healthy community. Yet community is eroding fast in rich nations and that’s a problem.

A decline in social capital can have a lot of adverse side effects. A lack of social capital can be bad for your health, is associated with higher crime rates, and leads to lower levels of academic achievement. It has been speculated for decades that a decline in social capital will also lead to a decline in the health of our liberal democratic societies, though this is still a controversial stance that is difficult to prove. As fewer people attend church services, a large source of social capital in our society begins to fade away.

Atheists have begun to recognise that so far, atheists have largely been ineffective in creating the same amount of social capital as religious people. They are trying with initiatives like the atheist church The Sunday Assembly. But there is a huge and growing gap.

As time goes on and demographics and tastes change, the activities and institutions which drew people together in days gone by no longer have the same power in the modern world. While the morality of those changes is another subject, the social cost is one that can be measured. Will the new atheists rise to the challenge of providing the community that religion once provided? Or are we doomed to social decay and fragmentation?

In an article called The Death of the Church Todd Dildine says,

The church isn’t the only community that is collapsing; It’s all volunteer-based communities that are hurting! If we want to rebuild the church, we have to understand its problem as part of a much broader issue—we have to identify the force in the environment that’s causing all communities to collapse. What we need to do is examine the “anti-community forces” that are threatening to pull apart all of our communities, and then we can develop strategies that resist these forces to begin cultivating strong communities of Christ again.

A small market town in the west of England, called Frome, has been attempting to push back against these ‘anti-community forces’ to remarkable effect.

Which brings me to hospitality. I said three years ago that Christians were losing the art of hospitality, I sad four years ago that hospitality is a church planting essential, and I’ve repeated my belief that what is being practised is a starved, skinny, under-nourished form of hospitality. And I’ve been known to go off on one on Twitter about hospitality (here in a blog post) and I’m not the only one.

Which is why I’ve noticed that in the last month or so that there are several new books coming out on the subject and that writers, leaders and movements are thinking through hospitality.

Aaron Gray in writing about pastors and hospitality says

Hospitality, by contrast, is focused on the one who is not already common. Verses like Matthew 25:35 and Hebrews 13:2 talk about welcoming and showing hospitality to the “stranger,” or the xenos in Greek. Xenos is where we get our modern word xenophobia, or fear of the stranger. Where fellowship is focused more on an already-established group, hospitality is focused on new people, outsiders, and those who are foreign to us. Hospitality, therefore, is taking upon yourself the responsibility to help someone move from unknown to known, from stranger to family.

This notion of hospitality is one that Matt Chandler holds in his new book, Take heart

Hospitality might sound unexciting or initially feel confusing. But when the Bible speaks of hospitality, it almost always ties it to aliens and strangers—people who aren’t like us. If I had to come up with a biblical definition for hospitality, I’d say it means to give loving welcome to those outside your normal circle of friends. It’s opening your life and your house to those who believe differently than you do.

James Faris pushes back a little against the idea (that I myself make) that there is a difference between fellowship & hospitality. Yet says,

We need to be stretched to love others whom we do not yet know and those with whom we might not be most comfortable initially. Experience teaches us that one of the best ways to grow in this practice is to invite friends and those who are yet unknown to us into our lives and homes simultaneously. When we practice the “love of strangers” to people we know and to people we don’t know, people feel loved without distinction.

Let me be clear, fellowship is really important and it’s key in building a resilient community and pushing back against these anti-community forces at work in the world. But there are lots of people inside and outside the church who are already victims of these forces and they are lonely and unknown. Hospitality is a difference maker.

Jen Oshman asks whether hospitality is our mentality? And says,

We think our house isn’t big enough, our kids are too crazy, we don’t know how to cook, people don’t do that anymore; it’s weird, they’ll think we’re selling something. Or maybe we think it sounds too simple. We’re looking for a professional way of doing hospitality; for the latest three-point strategy to love our neighbors and get them saved. But all of this misses the point.

Her broader point using 1 Thessalonians 2:8 is that the practice of hospitality makes us like Jesus.

As Christ followers, may we be like Jesus. May we be like the Thessalonians. May we love those around us so much that we share not only the gospel of God, but our lives—including our homes—as well. May we lay down our lives, lay down our personal space, lay down our homes, lay down our kids‘ playroom, lay down our quiet nights on the couch, and invite others inside.

Yet there is a connection between hospitality and reaching your community for Christ. Tilly Dillehay in thinking about Rosaria Butterfield’s new book on hospitality (we’ll get to that) says, “God saved me through hospitality. To be more precise, God used hospitality crucially in his pursuit of my soul.” And then she concludes with:

It’s a picture of the kind of lifestyle to which every Christian has been called—remembering that without this sacrificial giving of the home, many of us would never have met Christ ourselves.

Speaking of Butterfield, I feel somewhat nervous about reading her book because I think it’s going to punch me in the gut and challenge me deep in my soul. I fear I will be exposed as a hypocrite for championing the cause on my blog and not being bold enough with my home. But read it I will, those kind of gut punches are good for your discipleship. For a short summary and a quick jab to the ribs, here she is with 10 things you should know about Christian hospitality. Here’s one of them:

Every Christian is called to practice hospitality, but that does not mean that everyone practices it in the same way. We practice hospitality by sharing our resources and our needs, by serving as both host and guest, as Jesus did when he walked this earth. Hospitality works on the same principle as tithing. You are either giving, or you are receiving. You are either building up the body, or you need the body to build you up. All of us have a stake in hospitality because Jesus does.

There is also an exciting opportunity and a real challenge. There are more believers from Muslim backgrounds now than at any other point in history and as COlin Edwards says that poses a challenge to the church:

All believers present the church with the positive challenge of providing family, being family, for new believers. They need big sister and big brother figures. They need wider family. They are used to the idea that praying five times a day is a normal ideal and maybe even did manage to pray three times a day. To move to a church that lives for Sunday worship and a midweek homegroup is just not sufficient. The church in the UK needs to rediscover deep community, being in each other’s houses and eating together, and being family through the week.

The answer is Christians who are convinced of the spiritual discipline of hospitality. But it’s not easy as Matt Chandler says:

When we open up our homes and build friendships with those who don’t look like us, believe like us, or act like us, we open up our lives and make ourselves vulnerable. We risk getting hurt and making enemies with those who don’t think the way we think or act the way we act. Yet we can do it because of the hope, strength, and courage we get from the Lord.

Hospitality then helps create resilient communities as it makes us good Gospel neighbours. Hospitality provides the basis of discipleship for people from radically different faith backgrounds. Around a meal where eat together we break down barriers, defeat loneliness, demonstrate the Gospel, win hearts and shapes us into the likeness of Christ. That’s why hospitality is a big deal and why as Krisk Kandiah says here it can change the world.

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