That was the first question my young Middle-Eastern friend asked me immediately after our introduction. I'd been in southeast Asia for about two days, and he wanted to know how the people famed for their hospitality were doing. And he asked with an admixture of pride and determination to do something if for some reason I'd not found myself well-treated.
My immediate impression was, "Wow. I've never been asked that before. I wonder how many Christians ever ask that question of strangers they meet? Is hospitality an all but lost practice in the Christian faith?"
My questioner asked me that question nearly three years ago now. I still ponder it from time to time. Whether it's from my proud, competitive, sinful heart... or some genuine conviction, I want to do better. I want to be more hospitable.
The Apostle Paul teaches us that being hospitable isn't merely a "nice thing." It is essential to Christian leadership. An elder or overseer must be hospitable. It's one natural expression of being respectable and certainly is commensurate with the "noble task" of shepherding God's people. Nobility and hospitality simply seem to fit together. And it's all the more appropriate that God's people, especially their leaders, exhibit this quality.
My first Sunday morning visiting Capitol Hill Baptist Church, my family and I sat in front of a lovely family in the church balcony. I first noticed them because their children sat with them attentively and seemingly patiently participating in the service. I then took note of them because of their lovely and vigorous singing. But I really noted them when immediately after the service they greeted us warmly, he took me around and introduced me to many of the men in the church, and after about 15 minutes or so invited my family to join his at his home for lunch... right then.
Honestly, I was a little wigged out by the experience. First of all, his name was Jim. And literally the first three men he introduced to me were all named Jim. Strange I thought. What kind of church is this? Will I have to change my name again? But then the invitation to lunch so soon after meeting him. Well that just about knocked me down. At the very least, it was moving too fast. And with my southern upbringing, it might have even been considered impolite. I gave a polite southern way of saying no, "That's mighty nice of you. Perhaps some other time." Now everybody down south knows that a sentence like that means "no." And they know that's how you have to say "no" because actually saying "no" is itself impolite. And southerners are nothing if not polite.
So, I had clearly said "no" to this man's kind but hasty offer of lunch. And wouldn't you know it? The very next week when we went to this strange church again, he insisted that we join them for lunch. He was New Jersey. He didn't understand the rules and DC was too close to the Mason-Dixon to clearly establish which "Rome" we were in and what we should do.
Paul instructs the churches to look for hospitable men to lead Christ's church. Why hospitality? A few brief thoughts:
- Hospitality is a tangible expression of love. Christians are called to love one another and their enemies and hospitality gives practical form to that love. Elders should model this.
- Hospitality is a tangible way to care for strangers. How do we know that we're caring for the strangers in our gate? Well, one measure is how close we get to them. Hospitality brings us close in a meaningful way. It establishes intimacy and relationship that reflects the love of Christ in an identifiable way.
- Hospitality enables evangelism. Perhaps the reason so many Christians have no non-Christian friends and find themselves "far removed" from evangelistic opportunities is they are not hospitable. You can't share the gospel with a person you don't greet or with a person you will not spend time with in some way. Apart from being hospitable on some level, sharing the good news become close to impossible.
- Hospitality enables discipleship and fellowship. The early church devoted themselves to, among other things, breaking bread and fellowship (Acts 2). Among the fundamental activities of the early Christian church, hospitality ranks up them with devotion to the apostles' doctrine.
So, hospitality and the modeling of hospitality is essential to the Christian life. Churches are to be places filled with people given to this particular kindness and compassion. And those who are to be examples for all to learn from are to be hospitable.
How do we find men who are hospitable? How do we assess this qualification?
Some Observations to Make and Questions to Ask
1. Note those men who seem to make it a ministry of greeting everyone at church. Are they wall flowers or are they candidates for Mr. Congeniality? This may be little more than a bubbly personality working itself out, so we can't stop here. But it does pay to take note of the men who hang around after church, who arrive early, who greet visitors and saints alike. This greeting and welcoming activity is essential to being hospitable. And it's useful to note whether the man is doing this contrary to his natural tendency. Note the positive act of love that resists inward inclinations.
2. Note those men who are helpful to those in need. Hospitality often extends a helping hand. Those men who arrive early, are they helping seniors make their way to the church? Are they giving rides to other church members or visitors wanting to attend the church? Are they helping to not only greet but perhaps escort visitors to Sunday school classes or the children's ministry? Hospitality means service to those in need.
3. Does the man open his home to others? This is perhaps the most obvious form of hospitality, having someone over for dinner or fellowship, hosting them. We should identify those who seem to make their home a place of ministry. Perhaps they host a small group Bible study. Perhaps they're the first ones to volunteer to host a missionary or to prepare meals for visiting preachers. And, maybe they seem to always have people over for dinner like my friend Jim (the first Jim). Men with an active hospitality ministry like this are gems.
4. Homes are not the only place to show hospitality. Does the man use lunchtime opportunities to show hospitality? Does he use the lunch hour to build relationships with coworkers with the hopes of gospel opportunity? Does he meet regularly with other men from the church to build fellowship and accountability and to disciple? Is he hospitable in terms of caring for the elderly or serving his neighbors? Is he out in the workplace and community modeling this Christian discipline?
5. Does he accept invitations to hospitality? He knows how to humbly receive the love and care of others. It's especially important that he spends time with different kinds of people in the congregation (young, old, wealthy, poor, different ethnicities, etc.). The potential elder should model both the giving and the receiving of love. And in my experience, it's often the receiving of love and care that is most discomforting for people. We tend to want to feel strong. But the hospitable person doesn't do the mental calculus of figuring out if my host can 'afford' to do this, or whether it's a burden to them, or am I comfortable. He honors others by accepting their hospitality with genuine thankfulness and with as little myopic awareness of self as possible.
When Jim and his family were relocated from DC, at their last evening service Mark asked all those who had been to their home for lunch or dinner to please stand. In the service were probably 350-400 people. Literally 90% of the congregation stood and gave God praise for their hospitality. Their home and their lives had become a very real extension of the church's ministry and pastoral care. They bore immeasurable fruit simply by regularly having people over for their normal Sunday dinner.
And if that sounds like a burden, I should also mention that Jim and his wife have six children, adopted nephew and niece, and lived about 45 minutes from the church. He wasn't superman, but the way he and his family modeled hospitality sometimes made it seem so. It also convicts me for not forsaking ease and crossing more boundaries with the love of Christ. May Jim's tribe increase.