Hospitality 101

During these ten days of traveling, I received a great deal of hospitality. It came from Christian brothers and sisters who took me into their home, and, in addition to warm meals and a place to lay my head, they gave me the gift of undivided time and attention. When I returned the other morning, I found myself thinking about the centrality of hospitality in the Christian life, particularly the way it ignites spiritual vitality. The following post, by my friend, Dr. Dave Horn, help us to understand the heartbeat of this ministry.

We first take away their cell phones. We take away their cell phones and then we take away their access to Facebook, followed by their access to email and the internet, and finally (gasp) we take away their iPods. We call it a Technology Sabbath. All of their forms of media are gone in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. You can almost see the scratch marks on their laptops and iPods as we pull them all away for thirty long days.

After this, we put them through one month of hard situations in which they, as a group, are required to crawl together over various obstacles. Some of these obstacles are solid and real, even terrifyingly real. They find themselves high above the treetops on a high ropes course and dangling on the side of a mountain on a rope climb. Some of the obstacles are less concrete but every bit as real as they are confronted with theologically rich questions they cannot answer easily. Finally, they are required as a group to confront the discomfort and dissonances of a cross-cultural setting in Central America.

For many summers now, I have had the opportunity to observe cohorts of approximately thirty young adults each year being challenged by a Lilly-funded youth program we host at the Ockenga Institute called Compass. They move from living in a wilderness setting, to the classroom, and finally to a missions context. It has been a laboratory of community of sorts for us as we have had the privilege of standing back, year after year, and observing intentional community in the making, where complete strangers are transformed into a lifelong community of brothers and sisters, all in the confines of one month. How long does it take for the awkward glances of a nervous stranger to become heartfelt straight-ahead, eye-to-eye acknowledgements of a fellow believer in Jesus Christ? We have found it has not taken long when these fellow believers are required to face hard times together.

And it does not take long for these young people to express authentic forms of hospitality toward one another. We see it everywhere, from the simple words of encouragement extended to a sister who is trying to make it up the last 20 feet of the side of a mountain, to their small group conversations as they tell each other their stories, to the youth sitting up all night next to a fallen comrade who was a stranger only a few weeks prior, caring for her as she barfs up foreign food in a foreign land, to the worship they share that, at moments, are deeply moving and instructive to their souls as brothers and sisters in Christ.

The lesson learned in simple ways is that extending hospitality to one another in our churches is not always easy. It is not easy for these youth on a one-month excursion into community building, and it certainly is not easy for us in our churches. But too often we have relegated our expressions of hospitality to its entertainment value. Isn’t this, in fact, what we point to in our culture when we talk of the ‘hospitality industry?’ We point to entertainment in all its forms. Hospitality and entertainment have become synonyms in our cultural consciousness.

Unfortunately they have become synonyms in our church lexicon as well. Too often we have built our lives together around entertainment. At worst, our times together serve as distractions; we use them like watching a good movie or a baseball game on television where the entertainment value of the experience itself becomes an end in itself. Too often hospitality is relegated to self-selected venues where we invite those we feel most comfortable with to share a common experience of mutual gratification. Often times not much is required of us outside of the effort it takes to make a salad or, in the case of a typical men’s ministry, pancakes. We like to keep things light and conversational. In fact, this is how we measure success and failure for ourselves; the degree to which we individually leave feeling at least mildly satisfied.

There is nothing wrong with any of these forms of entertainment in themselves. However, the danger that entertainment brings to the topic of hospitality is when the entertainment value of our lives together takes over. The various enticements of the forms of entertainment at our disposal can easily serve as a distraction to the hard work required of expressing true hospitality to one another.

Look and listen closely to the stories around you in your churches. You will see and hear hard choices being made everywhere: An unemployed brother over there just trying to keep his credit rating from exploding, the teenager over here making decisions surrounding new temptations that could impact the rest of her life, the couple over there whose marriage secretly isn’t going all that well, the single sister over here who is so lonely she can hardly keep herself together, and the elderly woman over there who has got to make a decision on when to pull the plug on a life partner. If all that our hospitality involves is simply about entertaining ourselves, none of these stories will be heard let alone responded to.

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