The Barrier of the Abstract
When it comes to the local church, I fear that one of our biggest barriers to being the hands and feet of Jesus is our tendency to leave things in the abstract. We talk about things like “outreach,” “service,” and “prayerfulness” but continue to live lives that are hardly characterized by these ideas. I fear that we even leave each other in the abstract. Even in small churches, the people we share a pew with week after week remain little more than visual and plate-passing place holders unless we break through the barrier of the abstract and truly get to know one another concretely, as particular, individual people.
Perhaps one of my favorite lessons from the American author Wendell Berry is that the problem with living in the abstract is that humans can’t love in the abstract - only in the particular. It is one thing to say you love plants, or dogs, or even kids, but the everyday, boots-on-the-ground task of tending to that plant, caring for your dog, or loving your tantrum-throwing toddler is an entirely different matter. And so it is with the local church; can we really say we love one another if we don’t even know each other? If we don’t share any life together?
Breaking the Barrier
One way that Christians can break through the barrier of the abstract is to engage in the oft-forgotten practice of hospitality. Hospitality is a necessarily embodied form of loving people. Hospitality requires real, physical people to meet in real, physical places. It deals in the realm of basic human needs, like hunger, thirst, and the need for relationship. It allows people to come together in a shared life, even if only for an evening.
When you’re sitting across the dinner table from someone, you’re suddenly faced with tasks like making eye contact with them, asking about their life, and passing the potatoes. When practicing hospitality, it gets harder to see people as abstractions, and more possible to actually know and love them.
In fact, practicing hospitality is not optional for Christians. We are commanded in Scripture to be hospitable both to outsiders and to each other.
The Strangers in our Midst
We must not underestimate the importance and power of showing hospitality towards those outside the church. In the Old Testament, the Israelites were called to treat strangers and sojourners who dwelt among them as one of their own. With this command, God gives them a reason to do this: “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 20:34). We love outsiders with hospitality because we were once outsiders ourselves.
No one understands this better than Rosaria Butterfield, author of The Gospel Comes with a House Key. Rosaria’s powerful testimony describes how she was literally converted to Christ by Christian hospitality. Once a vocal and influential enemy of God, Rosaria’s heart was changed after years of eating meals in a Christian family’s home. Imagine if the unbelieving people in our lives had the chance to witness Christian home life, to literally “taste and see that the Lord is good” right in our homes. Rosaria writes: “Radically ordinary hospitality is this: using your Christian home in a daily way that seeks to make strangers neighbors, and neighbors family of God.”
Hospitality in the Church
But we are also called to practice hospitality within the church. Consider the apostle Peter’s words in I Peter 4: “And above all things have fervent love for one another … Be hospitable to one another without grumbling … As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another” (from verses 8-10). Inviting one another into our homes creates a shared life between members of a church, allowing us to know and love each other.
I have experienced the power of hospitality to strengthen and unite a church. As a college student, I have been greatly blessed by my church’s “Hospitality Sunday” ministry. One Sunday per month, college students are paired with families in the congregation to go home with them after church for a home-cooked meal. When dorm life and cafeteria food is the norm, the opportunities to eat homemade food, visit with children or old people, and maybe even pet a dog go a long way.
I have witnessed students and families form real relationships through this ministry, a great blessing to both. In this welcoming and personal environment, students become more dedicated to the work of the local church and involved in its ministries. People stick around more after Sunday services to fellowship with each other. As the pews of sojourning college students become less and less abstract to the families in the church, they find a true church home.
What does hospitality look like?
Ministries like this are just one example of how the local church can practice hospitality. It might be a concerted effort in a congregation, but it should at least be happening among individuals. We must remember that hospitality can take many different forms. It does not always need to be formal, fancy, or well coordinated. Last minute Sunday lunches count as hospitality. Opening up your dorm room for a cup of tea or your backyard for some hot dogs counts. Chips and salsa over some board games in the living room counts. The point of hospitality is using what we have been given to gather with others, to know them, and to bless them.
A Word of Encouragement
Depending on culture, upbringing, or habits, practicing hospitality might feel like a stretch for most of us. Hospitality is an essential ministry of the local church, however, and it is not without its rewards. Let us never forget the words of Christ in Matthew 25:
“Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me…Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to me.”
As we love the brethren and welcome others in, we are loving Christ and welcoming Him in. May this guide us as we practice hospitality in our homes and churches.
Evalyn is a PRM writing intern and rising senior who is studying English and pursuing teaching opportunities in classical Christian education. She lives in and loves rural Western Pennsylvania