One of the few silver linings of the inability to gather in large groups is that several helpful church conferences that would normally require travel, time away, and additional cost were made available free of charge and online. I was privileged to attend one such conference last week, on the topic of faith formation. This is a vital area of ministry to rethink as America becomes less familiar with the Christian faith and worldview and consequently visitors and seekers that come to our church have little knowledge of even the basics of Christianity or the Bible, much less Lutheran distinctives. I would love to talk about more about faith formation with you in the future, but one aspect of this that I found fascinating was a discussion on practicing hospitality as a congregation.
Hospitality is not something we often intentionally think about when talking about the church. Nevertheless, it is an important concern of our Lord in the Scriptures. It’s a requirement for pastors (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:8), but also for congregations (1 Peter 4:9, Hebrews 13:2, Romans 12:13). What is hospitality? It comes from two Greek words – “love” and “stranger.” That’s about all we really need to know, then. Hospitality is love for the stranger. In the context of our church, strangers are anyone who is outside the congregation, and especially if they are outside the Christian church. The strangers we should especially seek to show love to are those who do not yet share our faith and do not yet know Jesus.
One important thing to notice is that hospitality is rooted in love. Love is defined by our actions, but also by our attitude. If we welcome strangers with a begrudging or suspicious attitude, we have failed to truly show love for them, and thus we’ve failed to truly practice hospitality. The real practice of hospitality actually begins with our attitude. How do we respond to non-believers coming into our midst, especially in worship or in other congregational gatherings? Do we really want them there? Do we judge them for their lack of knowledge or interest? Do we go out of our way to welcome them and to help them feel like they belong, or do we see their presence as an inconvenience to us?
I don’t ask any of those questions to point the finger at anyone in particular. I actually think as a whole our congregation does fairly well at hospitality, even if there is still room for improvement. Most visitors to our congregation tell me that they felt welcome, that they were greeted by a number of different people as they came into the building, and that they often were engaged in conversation either before or after the service. I know I have personally witnessed many of our members greet and welcome newcomers.
We ought not take that for granted, however. That is vital to practicing hospitality! My prayer is that anyone coming to our church for the first or second time would always be greeted and would have some kind of meaningful interaction with a pastor, an usher or greeter, or someone they sit near in the pew. But that doesn’t happen by accident. Practicing hospitality means constantly being on the lookout for those people and being willing to step outside our own comfort zones to say hello and to ask questions.
Ultimately, hospitality is something we practice because it is something that is first practiced toward us by our Triune God. We probably don’t often think about it in this way, but every time we come to worship, the Lord is inviting us into His house so that He can serve us by delivering to us forgiveness and life through His Word and through the meal of Jesus’ body and blood in which He is the host. We are welcomed into God’s house and to His table because we are baptized, washed, and cleansed from all transgression.
Thanks be to God that our Lord practices hospitality, to those of us who already know Him, and also to those strangers who come into His house who do not yet know Him. And thanks be to God that He enlists us to this wonderful task of sharing in His love for the stranger. For there is nothing more joyous than to welcome fellow sinners to come receive forgiveness from the same Lord who has forgiven us.
Thanks for practicing hospitality. Continue to do so. Even if we aren’t shaking hands, don’t let covid stop you from welcoming and loving the strangers in our midst. Those strangers might one day be our brothers and sisters in Christ!