Hospitality as mission, some first thoughts.

We just got back from a 3-week trip visiting many friends in Europe. It was a long-overdue trip, and sometimes I wish each day was more like a month. (I’m a quality-time person.) I’ve got a number of thoughts stemming from our recent travels but there was one I couldn’t wait to come home and write about (because I left my computer at home–and yes, some days it feels like my brain is attached to my computer–I am just one of those kinds of people). It is about hospitality.

Hospitality, in my mind, is one of the most indispensible gifts of any spiritual community, not only to their visiting friends and neighbors, but to total strangers. I know this because when I have been in the home of someone who has a true gift for hospitality, I feel really and truly loved and taken care of. Whether this has been in the home of someone with wealth or someone with next to nothing doesn’t matter–the feeling I have when I leave a house of hospitality is the same.

Now while scripture urges Christian people to practice hospitality, I don’t think everyone has it innately. You can learn it, but I do think from having been with certain people that it is a spiritual gift–and gifts are given not only to encourage each other they are given so that woven together the church becomes a unified expression of love to others. In my friends I experience many aspects of Christ–thus a pretty dynamic community–but not all of them are gifted in the same areas. I have friends who truly have the gift of hospitality. I personally don’t think it’s one of my native gifts, but I know how huge this gift is from having really practiced it the last two or so years.

I also think there are cities and regions and nations with the gift of hospitality–and other nations that could learn some cues from them. But I’ll get into that later. I guess my heart in writing this was to emphasize to anyone who cares how much work goes into hosting others and practicing hospitality. In my “tribe” and the community of Christians I call friends, there are many pilgrims and people in missions or traveling ministries. Some of these are people who are seeking, and looking for a new frontier in their personal spiritual growth, by traveling and going to meet communities in other countries, or visiting festivals or conferences, etc. Some of these are leaders in Christian ministry or Christian charity or missions. The very nature of their job is not only to connect the global body of Christ, but to discover the frontiers that few other people are willing to travel.

The church as a “sent people”

All of these people I know, regardless of where they are at in their spiritual journey, are “sent” people. They have been sent either by the impulse of the Holy Spirit, or by their local community, or by invitation from friends. Usually a combination of all of these. I don’t want to put to fine a point on this, because the way blood flows through the body’s veins is very dynamic but all of the blood is “sent” from the heart. Understanding the “sent-ness” of the church is important in order to understand the gift of hospitality. The two are connected.

Every time the church has entered a dark period, or in traditional christian terms, a period of apostasy or lukewarmness, has to do with its relinquishing of its identity as a “sent people”. Historically, whenever Israel would relinquish their job as a “sign among nations” and a house for nations, they would either be forced out of their own land, or taken over by a foreign government. Likewise, we can see similar patterns in church history. In the time of Constantine the church put out a protective anchor holding itself firmly to the earth, building visible buildings, rather than being a ship sent with a net. This led to all kinds of present and future untruths about the identity of the church–most obvious being the establishment of a “state religion” which might as well have been a takeover by a foreign government. One could certainly trace this anchoring to the result in the Crusades. The very word “apostle” means “sent one” or “messenger”. For the church to claim its true identity in any time it must perceive itself as a sent people.

And what does sent-ness have to do with hospitality? They are inextricable. Not only did the success of the early apostles depend on their being greeted by hospitable strangers, it depended on the hospitality of the growing churches receiving them from city to city, village to village. If Christian people perceive themselves as a center for hospitality, they also perceive themselves in a moving world where there are seekers and finders, travelers and apostles. They perceive themselves in a living stream where they either receive guests from around the globe, or become guests themselves. If they themselves are sent, they know what it means to be received hospitably as a sent one.

Those people I know whose primary gift or language of service is hospitality are some of the most underfunded and underappreciated people I know. I don’t say this so that they can be pitied but so that we have a better understanding of how big this gift is to the sent church. Ironically, most of the people I know who really express the gift of hospitality are also apostolic by nature–they travel more than anyone I know in order to build up the body of Christ, speaking and listening and discovering where the next frontiers are. Usually people like this are not locked into one organization, or one denomination, whether a charity or missions organization. They genuinely enjoy finding the “in-between” spaces where different parts of Christianity need to learn from each other. And because of this organizations have a difficult time supporting what they do.

But they do far more than anyone I know to bring together Christians globally who need to learn from each other, challenging and offering invaluable prophetic direction, and they outspend their means constantly in the ministry of hospitality. Just on the topic of hospitality, if we calculated just the economic expenses of hosting someone in your home for a week, we would rush to support this ministry as much as we support Bible translations or more “results-oriented” missions. I know this because Derek and I have offered hospitality many times in the last few years, both to young journeying Christians and to church leaders. Now personally I don’t consider hospitality to be one of my main gifts or callings–as a Christian, yes, it is important for me to offer it with kindness. But I do believe it is a gift that some are exceptional at, and I know my exceptional gifts which I have grace to offer, and those that take more effort on my part.

When a family or person receives you in their home, chances are they are taking time off from their work. They might go to work, but if they are gifted at hospitality, they spend most of their free time talking with you, assisting you, offering you direction and places to go, showing you around their town, their church, their favorite hangouts, etc. They give you part of their home, often giving up their own bedroom, and feed you. They are communing with you, and it is a joy to them, but they are also orienting their entire schedule toward you. Even if you are self-sufficient, all the little costs of offering hospitality soon add up. For example, once in India, an Indian pastor hosted me and four other adults in their small home for a week and fed us three meals a day. On at least two days the pastor went out to get special, expensive meat for us for one of their wonderful curries, when I knew most of the year they could not afford meat. They spent most of their free time listening to us, taking us around their village, giving us tours of local sights, finding us deals on good transportation and telling us when we were going to get ripped off. The pastor even took us on last-minute taxi ride to the nearest airport FIVE hours away, when he discovered that the busses were on strike. I can’t even imagine what this cost him.

When you are received in a home like this you usually don’t even notice how much the person is giving to you. They do it so cheerfully, so fully, with so much attention, it’s better than a hotel. All of these things cost nothing to them in their hearts, because they love doing it and you are treated like a royal in their home. I sincerely hoped, after I left India, that the organization supporting this ministry family, were not just supporting their missions in the village but their ministry of hospitality to foreigners.

I admit that I began writing this after discovering that a family who are very good friends of ours who have a mobile ministry to communities and nations, recently lost about a half or more of their financial support. If I told you their original monthly income, on which they lived in one of the most expensive European nations, you wouldn’t believe it. But half of this income is astounding. This all comes during a time of economic crisis where as I understand it many Western Christian organizations are decreasing their missions budget in the wake of the current economic problems. I don’t claim to have an understanding of economics and I am sure that the church is struggling on a business level, but I wonder why it is that usually some of the first “programs” to get cut are the ones that have the most adventurous and promising future?

By that I mean the apostolic ones, the adventurers. The ones who can basically live on $400 a month as a family of seven and still manage to host 40 people in one month, feeding them, loving them, teaching them. The apostles aren’t asking for much! But they are the gems of the church, and they are bringing together a global, passionate Christianity in many ways unseen. I truly believe that, as I have seen what they do. And I have seen what it actually costs them, economically, to host as many people as they do. But they love it and do it in such a way that people don’t even notice they are doing it. I know they would never describe what they do as “hospitality” but it really makes up for about 80 percent of their ministry.

In times of economic crises, just as the smart investors do on Wall Street, are times to buy low. By supporting a frontier-moving ministry–the church is definitely buying low into a market that eventually will sell high. Like I said, these people aren’t asking for much, if anything at all. They will keep doing what they do, because they love it. But we are disheartened when we see a church acting like a scared anchor when it has an inexpensive but well-made and beautiful net made for casting out into the nations.

Eventually the church won’t be so afraid. The economic shaking has people afraid the world over and soon enough true spiritual people will stand through such things without fear. That is the whole point of shakings. But before I begin a rant, I’ll end with this: the apostolic church–the sent church–will be one that values hospitality as much as it values any other part of “evangelism”.

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