In a recent issue of The Alabama Baptist, state leader Dr. Rick Lance tells of a foreign exchange student who was completing his education in the United States and about to head home. To his roommate, he said, “You can have this suitcase and everything in it.”
The friend said, “What’s in it?”
The exchange student said, “When I left home for America, my family filled it with gifts to be presented to families inviting me into their homes. But no one ever invited me, so everything is still in the suitcase.”
Rick says this is just about the saddest story he has heard in a long time.
The Lord Jesus envisioned the day when He would hand out accolades for those who had served Him well. To the faithful He will say, “I was a stranger and you took me in” (Matthew 25:35). Those who welcome strangers are doing a Christlike thing.
Hospitality is one of the bedrock ministry activities of the faithful, right up there with feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the prisoners.
“Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels” (Hebrews 13:2).
According to I Timothy 3:2, hospitality is one of the required marks of a faithful pastor.
In the New Testament, the word translated ‘hospitality’ literally means “love for strangers.”
John MacArthur writes, “Hospitality in the ancient world often included putting up a guest overnight or longer. This is hardest to do when experiencing a time of persecution. The (Christians) would not know whether a guest would prove to be a spy or a fellow believer being pursued.”
We recall that Diotrephes was slammed by the Apostle John for his unwillingness to allow the church to show hospitality.”I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does…. And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church” (III John 9-10).
Hospitality is the first instinct of a believer.
The new believer finds himself propelled by a new force, one with which he had been unacquainted: the love of God. All at once, he finds himself loving people he hardly knows and willing to go out of his way to help them. It’s not a skill that needs to be taught to newcomers; it’s instinctive, standard equipment, it comes with the package.
What has to be taught is inhospitality. And make no mistake, there are those in most churches who are adept at teaching this class. They tell the generous new believers things like “you’re being naive,” “these people are running a con,” and “they’ll take you for everything they can get if you let them.” Listen to that enough and you will find yourself shutting down the urge to reach out to the hurting and unfortunate with gifts and hospitality.
Hospitality is a prime obligation of believers.
To the Hebrews, the Lord said, “If a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him. The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34). The tag line “I am the Lord your God” gives this the force of law; it is not a mere suggestion but a command of God.
Hospitality can be as simple as a glass of water to a visitor. Or more.
So many of the stories of Jesus can be understood only against the backdrop of basic hospitality which God’s people were expected to extend toward one another. Our Lord faulted one host for his failures in contrast with the way He was treated by a penitent woman. “(Jesus) said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has washed my feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss my feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint my head with oil, but this woman has anointed my feet with fragrant oil’ (Luke 7:44-46).”
Where did hospitality go?
I began pastoring churches in the early 1960s. Back then, guest preachers in our churches would be put up in the homes of church members. If the guest preached several days, at least one meal a day would be taken with church families.
This is a dying tradition.
I’ll preach five revivals this fall–one in Louisiana, two in Kentucky, one in Missouri, and one in Illinois. Each church will provide a nice room in a local motel. On average, we might be invited into someone’s home one time during a week. On those occasions when a family invites me to dine with them, usually it’s in a restaurant or diner.
And that’s not all bad.
Pastors who have stayed in the homes of church members during revivals have sometimes felt they were inconveniencing the family, and have not had enough privacy for rest or meditation. And not all meals served visiting preachers have met the basic standards of cleanliness and healthfulness.
Given a choice as to where to stay, I tell the host pastor, “You know your people best. You decide. If you would enjoy staying in that home, then I would. But if you have a question about this, please send me to your nearest motel.”
That said, I hasten to add that visiting in the homes of church members and sharing an evening meal remains a highlight of many revivals and the memory lingers with me a long time.
So, where did hospitality go?
1) It went down the highway to the Holiday Inn Express. It stopped over at the local family-style restaurant.
2) It was crowded out by our busy schedules and full lives. These days, with husband and wife both working, neither has time to prepare a full meal for the visiting evangelist and the pastor.
3) Hospitality is still alive and well, we hear, in countries where Christian workers have no recourse but to stay with the Lord’s people in their travels.
4) And, let us admit the unpleasant truth here, hospitality among the Lord’s people in this country has been relegated to an option for believers and not a required command of Scripture. When we find believers who practice it, we compliment them but feel no necessity to imitate them.
Five groups who are still in need of Christian hospitality:
1) Exchange students. This is a great opportunity to show the Lord’s love to young people who might otherwise never know the gospel of Jesus.
2) Missionaries on furlough. Most missionary arrangements provide for personnel to return to the States every few years to re-establish family relationships and build support for missions in the churches. These families need a home to live in, a car to drive, and other resources.
3) Bible students/seminarians preparing for the ministry. Young adults travel to Bible colleges and seminaries, usually in large cities, where they take preparatory courses over several years. Local churches could ease their transition into this difficult period in their lives by inviting them into members’ homes for meals and entertainment.
4) Unemployed preachers and ministers. When a pastor is abruptly terminated with no place to go, he is blessed to receive an invitation from a church to “come live in our guest home.” (I know of several doing this very thing at the moment.) Later, when he re-enters the pastorate, this minister will have a new perspective on assisting others who are in need.
5) Needy church members. Church members will have financial reverses, go through bankruptcies, or experience natural disasters, all of which can make them suddenly homeless. Few churches can set aside money to handle emergency crises like this, but there are other ways to meet such needs. Sunday School classes or hastily called meetings of the church leaders can find ways to respond.
The simplest, most obvious, kind of hospitality.
A new family moves to your town. Sunday morning, they get dressed and drive to your church. They study the building, searching for clues on which door to enter, and wonder how they will be received. You can help them.
Every church–no matter how small–should station greeters outside the main entrance to give a warm welcome to newcomers. They can answer questions, introduce them around, and take them to the appropriate rooms. By the attitude and friendliness of these welcomers, the visitors will quickly decide whether this church is “for real.”
In a large store, I stopped an employee–known by the small vest she was wearing and the name tag–and asked where to find paper plates. She said, “Come on and I’ll show you.” We walked across the store right to the display. I thanked her and felt great about that store. To be sure, I had interrupted what she was doing. But someone had trained her (and presumably the other employees) to know that the customer with a question is a great opportunity to make a lasting friend.
It may be no one in your town needs to come home with you Sunday and share your meal. (Although, there might!) But I can almost guarantee you there will be new people at your church, looking for the right entrance, wondering where to go, hoping to be given a friendly greeting and warm welcome. Be there. Show them the kind of hospitality you would want to receive if the situation were reversed.
After all, to paraphrase Leviticus 19, you were once strangers in a new church yourself. So, welcome them!