Partnering with God in the Practice of Christian Hospitality

By Robert Hunter

Strangers need a better welcome; it begins with you.

Hospitality in the broadest biblical sense is offering kindness to the stranger. In the harsh landscape of the biblical world, hospitality could be the difference between life and death for the traveler. Today, the hospitality industry represents roughly ten percent of the global economy. Yet something is missing from industry’s appropriation of this vital service.

Society’s loneliness and feelings of isolation are reaching new levels of concern. Christian hospitality calls for more than a bed or a meal. Despite institutional mindsets and modern lifestyles, the practice of hospitality has a place in God’s plan for individual wholeness and community wellness. We need to recover and reimagine vital partnership with God through hospitality that touches humanity’s deepest needs for connection. Being a part of God’s hospitality dream team is something to which we should all aspire.

Hospitality has a storied history in the Christian faith. Building on practices found in the Old Testament, Christians established hospitality as a central part of discipleship. Early Christians considered the neglect of hospitality imperatives as unchristian and unloving. Open homes ignited early church growth and promoted discipleship. Monastic communities established traditions of designating guest houses for weary travelers, sojourners, and spiritual seekers, which continue to this day.

Hospitality requires a posture of love, reflecting God’s nature. The New Testament uses the word “philoxenia” or love of strangers. As love for the stranger has faded in the contemporary church, we have lost a vital component of our own spiritual formation. We have fallen prey to fears and suspicions of those who are unfamiliar to us. We keep people who fail to meet our comfort quotient at arm’s length. Our ability to offer hospitality has become paralyzed! We grant few individuals permission to disrupt our lives. The inconvenience, messiness, and discomfort arising from welcoming others is experienced as a burden instead of a joyful expression of love flowing from God, through us, to others. As a result, we miss out on opportunities to partner with God in this adventure.

Scripture speaks of God’s help for those seeking temporary refuge. Hospitality partnership recognizes God’s activity on their behalf and seeks to engage in the work of God with specific actions. Becoming a place of refuge embraces the synergy of faith. We act in partnership with God to produce loving outcomes in others while expansiveness of spirit is developed in us. We increasingly reflect God’s love by loving!

Hospitality partnership with God moved beyond theory for the Hunter family in 2011 when we moved to Mesa, Arizona. After extensive work to our fixer-upper home, we began welcoming guests. Three foreign exchange students, pastors and leaders, friends from afar, school parties, youth group activities, and a steady stream of Airbnb guests have blessed our home. Our neighbors think we are crazy, but the list keeps growing. On any given week, the Hunter compound bustles with activity. The doors are open to whomever God may send us.

We have found that hospitality partnership with God continues to form our faith. The uneasiness and discomfort associated with hospitality leads to greater reliance on God. The discipline helps us relinquish control over earthly comforts and intentionally disengage from our privacy bubble. In the process, faith is often put to the test. A difficult guest, soiled linens, unpredictable itineraries all test our resolve. At times, it is tempting to give up and retreat to privacy, but maintaining this environment continues to create just enough discomfort and unease to orient us toward deeper faith. We grow as we are challenged.

Guests need reasonable house rules and enforcement in order to maintain an environment where love and well-being of the entire community prevail. St. Benedict’s Rule had such provisions and so do we. Occasionally, we have had to remove a guest for violating agreed-upon rules. One such male guest booked a single occupancy room for himself and three female companions. Another requested skinny dipping privileges in the pool. And yet another wanted to smoke marijuana on the back porch. Hospitality is not an “anything goes” proposition. It is mindful of personal boundaries and considerate of one’s property. Reasonable expectations, clearly communicated, shape a community of respect.

We’ve had favorite guests from the working homeless population. They hold down jobs with regular pay, but struggle to make ends meet. They hop from Airbnb to Airbnb, live out of cars or local shelters. After assessing their need, we offer short-term accommodations with access to a laundry room. Often, they are grateful beyond words, and sometimes even pitch in on chores. We stay connected beyond hosting, to offer encouragement as guests transition to more permanent locations. These are reminiscent of biblical sojourners among us.

Coming to the table for a meal is a symbolic gesture of God’s open invitation. Benedictine monastics called shared meals the “soul” of Christian hospitality. A shared meal is at the heart of real human connection. At the Hunter compound, we have a Sunday morning Belgian waffle tradition. We invite guests to join us for complimentary breakfast, and they often do. Dining together reflects our spiritual commitment to hospitality. Jesus shared a meal with his disciples before he was betrayed, arrested, and crucified. God promises the wedding feast of the Lamb (Rev 21). These moments take on special significance when we offer meals in our own home. We never hold a favorite seat at the table. The best seat in the house belongs to Christ who is seen in the faces of our guests. St. Benedict’s Rule establishes that all are welcomed as Christ. We try to live up to those values at the table by ensuring no one goes hungry, and every guest is regarded as Christ. When the table is set, it serves as a visible reminder to dine with strangers in a spirit divine partnership anticipating the wedding feast of the Lamb, to which we are all invited.

Sacrificing certain elements of personal comfort and privacy can drive us deeper in community. As Jesus teaches us in the story of the Good Samaritan, the stranger and the neighbor are sometimes one in the same. Many discern that God is awakening the church to a new era of inclusion and deep healing of the wounds of racism. The practice of hospitality as partnership with God offers a practical framework for action. To fully take part, we must be willing to be not only the hosts but also the guests at the table. This kind of mutuality can be the beginning of reflecting God’s vision for global community and an avenue of healing from an issue plagued by contentious debates. Imagine one day standing before the throne of God and the Lamb, diverse in personhood and unified in voice. Hospitality partnerships with God remove racial barriers and promote diversity which is consistent with New Testament values.

We’ve had the privilege of hosting an array of guests. In a world of growing diversity, our guest list has certainly run the gamut. We’ve found younger generations to be more open to residential hospitality than older generations, increasing the diversity factor. The church was birthed in a multi-ethnic setting and reclaiming a small measure of that beauty has enriched our appreciation for brothers and sisters of various ethnicities, racial backgrounds, and skin colors. I never know exactly who I may encounter or how God may be working. In that sense, hospitality partnerships with God are lived on the tiptoe of adventure. God is at work in the world as the Lord continues to watch over the stranger (Job 27:15). Our calling is to receive strangers as Christ, taking delight when they are very different from us.

As we re-imagine hospitality as partnership with God, we must acknowledge that hosting guests in a private residence is sometimes not feasible for legitimate reasons. You may not have the opportunity to open your home as we have in order to practice hospitality. God has uniquely positioned our family to share our home in this season of our lives. Our children are grown, and we own a large four-bedroom house in a desirable climate. You may have different resources. What part of your life can you open? In both theory and practice, hospitality is not limited to activity that transpires in a home.

In essence, hospitality is offering kindness to strangers as a way of life. There are endless possibilities to be imagined. Hospitality partnership with God recognizes that every person entering through the doors must be treated as Christ himself, whether the doors are in a workplace, church, community group, residence, or nation. The word “Welcome” should be extended in the spirit of Hebrews 13:2, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

Questions: How will you show hospitality to strangers? What resources do you have? What does a hospitality partnership with God look like for you?

Rev. Dr. Robert (Bob) Hunter is an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene. He is the founder and director of Rip’d 4 Life Ministries in Mesa, AZ, an organization aimed at shaping young men. He is also an online adjunct professor at Grand Canyon University and Nazarene Bible College. In addition, he works with students in a local church setting and a public school. He is married to Cambria, a pediatric Occupational Therapist.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.

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