“Hospitality: The Missing Element in Today’s Church”

Recently, as my son Neil and I were returning to New Orleans from visiting my mom in north Alabama, I said, “Let’s try to make church at Eutaw. That’s where Grandpa Henderson grew up.”

We called ahead and found out that their Sunday morning service began at 11 a.m., ideal for us. We walked in at a quarter till, and took our seats.

We had a drive of some 7 hours that day, but I had told Neil, “If anyone other than the pastor invites us to lunch, we’ll say ‘no.’ But if he does, I’d like to do it.”

Anyone who knows me knows my love for pastors. I’m always glad to meet a brother laboring in the Lord’s work.

Not that we knew anyone at that church. But I figured that my son had distant relatives in the congregation, for one thing, and for the other, I know small-town Southern hospitality.

We ate with the pastor that day. Rick Williams assured us his wife had made a great lasagna and salad, and that she and her mother and their adult daughter would not be there, that they were attending some function at a nearby town immediately after church. She had even suggested that he invite us to lunch.

Hospitality. It’s a great concept, particularly if you are away from home and on the road.

In the old days, hospitality was an essential of life. In a time when and in countries where few hotels and restaurants existed, you depended on the kindness of strangers.

Pastor Adrian Rogers was speaking for a week of services in a church I pastored. At one point, he said, “Joe, do you ever get up to Memphis?” I said, “Once in a while.” He said, “Well, my friend, when you come to Memphis, don’t ever worry about a place to stay or a place to eat.”

Long pause.

“We have some of the finest restaurants and hotels you’ve ever seen.”

Great line. Not what I was expecting.

He was just making a funny, but the joke makes a good point: with the hospitality industry (that’s what it’s actually called) occupying such a prominent position in the economic life of this country, we’re no longer dependent on people opening their homes to strangers as in the old days.

That’s good. And yet we’ve lost something.

God said to Israel, “An alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34).

In the New Testament, the word translated “hospitality” is “philoxenia,” literally “love of strangers.”

Our English word “hospitality” is uncomfortably close to “hospital” for good reason: they go back to the same parent, the Latin “hospitalis,” originally a place of rest and entertainment. Other offspring of this parent are “host,” the one extending this welcome treatment, and “hostage,” which formerly meant entertainment. “Hospice” and “hostels” retain some of the original meaning of the Latin word.

Missionaries tell us the concept of hospitality is alive and well in many countries of the world, and constitutes a vital element in their ministry.

In the First Century world, when the few inns that existed were unsafe, unclean, and unwholesome, Christians depended on people of good character to open their homes to them.

Jesus said to the disciples, “Whatever town or village you enter, search for some worthy person there and stay at his house until you leave. As you enter the home, give it your greeting. If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or that town” (Matthew 10:11-14).

With those words, we are given a tiny peep-hole into the culture of that time.

Every child knows of the time Jesus entered Jericho, spotted a diminutive tax collector in the sycamore tree where he had climbed to get above the crowd, and said, “Zaccheus, come down. For today, I must abide at your house” (Luke 19:5).

The next verse says, “So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.”

At judgment, Jesus said, when “the Son of Man,” referring to Himself, “sits on the throne in heavenly glory,” He would divide the peoples of the earth into the sheep and the goats, the righteous and the unrighteous. To the righteous, He would say,

“Come you blessed of the Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you invited me in; I needed clothes and you clothed me; I was sick and you looked after me; I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:34-36).

Their spiritual faith was seen in their hospitality.

To the unrighteous, Jesus says, “Depart from me, you workers of iniquity, into a place prepared for the devil and his angels, For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink.” And so forth.

He faults them for their inhospitality.

It’s not that the presence or absence of this quality will determine our eternal destiny so much as will tell the truth about our relationship with Jesus Christ.

This one quality–hospitality–tells the tale.

Scary thought, isn’t it?

It’s all through the New Testament.

In describing the ideal pastor to Timothy, the Apostle Paul said, “He must be temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable…” (I Tim. 3:2).

In his blue-print of relationships within the congregation, Paul instructs believers to “share with God’s people who are in need; practice hospitality” (Romans 12:13).

The Apostle Peter instructs, “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling” (I Peter 4:9).

“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers,” the writer of Hebrews says, “for by so doing some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2). The next verse says, “Remember those in prison, as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”

In his brief Third Epistle, the Apostle John shows us how it works: “Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers, even though they are strangers to you. They have told the church about your love. You will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God. It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans.”

John continued, “We ought therefore to show hospitality to such men so that we may work together for the truth” (III John 5-8).

Then, the Beloved Apostle faults the leader of that church for his failure in this very matter. “Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us. So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church” (III John 9-10).

Bible students will recall Nabal whose hard heart would not allow him to show hospitality to David and his men. He paid for that omission dearly–with both his life and his wife!–and left us a lesson forever. (I Samuel 25)

In fact, while we’re on the subject of inhospitable people, Ezekiel quotes the Lord God as saying this was actually the underlying sin of Sodom. “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food, and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy. Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before me. Therefore I removed them when I saw it” (Ezek. 16:49-50).

The Lord clearly puts a greater prize on graciousness to the needy and a warm welcome to strangers than we do. I’m suggesting we rethink the matter.

Churches must be hospitality centers. Christians are expected by our Lord to be practitioners of this art.

All it is, is loving our neighbor as ourselves, which Jesus identified not only as the Second Greatest Commandment, but a whole lot like the First.

I received an email the other day from a pastor’s wife in a nearby state. A friend of theirs was coming to a New Orleans institution for a two-month study and needed a place to live. If possible, it should be in the vicinity of that institution and be inexpensive.

I forwarded the message to my daughter-in-law Julie, the pastor’s administrative assistant at our church. The next day she told me what she had done with it. “I passed it along to Paula Dryden.”

Why did that surprise me? This lady has such a gift for hospitality and in fact, a fairly long history of it.

When I pastored this church, Kenner’s First Baptist Church, on three occasions we were asked to host family members of foreign children coming to New Orleans area hospitals for life-saving surgery. Such a request was no slight thing. It involved a home for the mother and her interpreter for two months, meals, and transportation to and from the hospital every day.

Paula became a key player the first time we did this, and one of the leaders thereafter. Thankfully, our church has several such gracious men and women, ready to open their homes and rearrange their lives as the Lord leads.

Pastors would give their right arm to have such members in their congregations. Ideally, these precious saints will not try to do it all by himself or herself but will involve as many church members as it takes to do the job. The blessings get spread around and Christians develop the art and gift of hospitality.

I’ve told on these pages of Lee and Dottie Andrews, now retired and living in Florida, who made it a practice of seeking out strangers in our church on Sundays to invite them to lunch at the local cafeteria. Many were newcomers to town and church-hunting. Most of those the Andrews took to lunch ended up joining our church.

People come to your church all the time seeking help–for groceries, help with the light bill, school supplies for their children, even clothing. How you treat them says volumes about your relationship with Jesus.

I hope you caught that. It says volumes, not just about your love for your neighbors, but about your relationship with the Lord Jesus Himself, the One who commanded us to do this.

Laypersons might be surprised to know I have sometimes found among church staffs a callousness regarding those who walk in and ask the church for help. I recall one staff member in particular. “They’re leeches,” he would say. “They go from church to church, getting all they can. I’m in favor of showing them the road. Let’s not enable them.”

Being the new pastor of that church, I already knew we were going to change the culture of hospitality in that congregation, so I did not feel the need to clobber him for his unworthy attitude. Rather, I said, “Some probably are that way. But you and I are under instructions. Jesus said, ‘Give to whoever asks from you.’ (Luke 6:30).”

I added that Jesus did not say we have to give them ALL they are for or even WHAT they asked for. But we need to give them something.

And thereafter we did.

Better to err on the side of generosity than hard-heartedness. Better that we give to some who are unethical than neglect one who is truly in need.

The two churches I served longest, the First Baptist Churches of Columbus, Mississippi, and Kenner, Louisiana, I’m happy to report, still minister to the needy who come to them for help. They do it in an organized manner, too, and not as an afterthought. Hospitality is an essential part of their program.

Two weeks ago, I preached a meeting at the wonderful Salem Baptist Church in Brundidge, Alabama, where my longtime friend Bobby Hood serves. The church owns an old home next door, which the members have furnished with an incredible array of antiques. Wedding receptions are held in the front rooms, and in the back, there are living quarters for visiting church guests.

The kitchen had been stocked with every kind of breakfast food, snacks, and soups I might possibly need while at Salem. The fridge held water, milk, and juices. The note on a green plant said this was all from “The Sunshine Team.”

Sunshine Team. I love it.

Every church needs people devoted to sunshine.

Let some sunshiners stand outside the door on Sunday mornings to greet worshipers with a warm smile and hand them a bulletin. Why outside the door? To let first-timers know this is the correct entrance, we’re open for business, and we are eager to welcome you.

Have you ever walked up to a church and tugged at a locked door? It’s not a good feeling.

In my last church–after I had learned that strangers were intimidated by the vast array of doors in our huge sanctuary and did not know which was the main entrance–we painted “Entrance” above a couple of the doors and stationed ushers outside.

In bad weather and in good, to this day you will find those ushers standing outside the doors.

Some churches put greeters in parking lots. If you do this, it’s a good idea to give them some kind of identifiable clothing and badge so visitors will not think they are being set upon by an intruder. For larger churches especially, greeters in the parking lot can be a great help.

In bad weather, a faithful church will have a battery of men equipped with large umbrellas ready to help people from their cars into the church. If you’ve ever arrived for worship with small children in a heavy rain, you appreciate the help. And even if you didn’t need it, didn’t it make you feel good to see those men on the job?

“Let me live in my house by the side of the road

Where the races of men go by;

They are good, they are bad,

They are weak, they are strong,

Wise, foolish–so am I;

Then why should I sit in the scorner’s seat

Or hurl the cynic’s ban?

Let me live in my house by the side of the road

And be a friend to man.”

(From the poet Sam Walter Foss)

5 thoughts on ““Hospitality: The Missing Element in Today’s Church”

  1. Joe

    You speak the truth brother! Hospitality is God’s way of softening hearts of steel and stone. I’ll brag on your Kenner church for you. I had the privilege to be a guest of the beautiful folks at FBC Kenner over the course of several weeks after Katrina. They graciously gave over huge sections of their facility to the Red Cross and the Baptist Disaster Relief teams. They rose early to prepare breakfast meals for us. We slept in makeshift “rooms” scattered throughout the church – at times some of us even made our bed at the edge of the baptistry! They even surrendered their beautiful music suite and office space to our needs.

    For the most part, every time I encountered a member of that church I received a hearty greeting and word of appreciation and thanks for the work we were doing. They could have been snide and unpleasant because I’m sure it was incredibly disruptive during a particularly difficult time in their lives. I will always remember and speak highly of the hospitality extended by your wonderful church family to our band of workers! I pray that God will continue to bless the work of those Christian men and woman throughout all the days to come!

  2. I have a hospitality story for you. We lived in Birmingham when I was growing up and my Dad was a Superintendent for a General Contractor there, Rives Construction Company. For several years Dad had to travel out of town to job sites for the company. Once he was assigned to a job way down deep in Louisiana south of New Orleans. He was to construct a gym addition to a National Guard Armory. There were no many motels in the early 1960’s in the area but he found a small one about 30 miles from the job site. The freeways were not complete then so it was a long trip and Dad only came home every 3 or 4 weeks. Now my Dad was one of those people that never met a stranger if you undersatand what I mean. He made friends of the local labor immediately. After about 4 weeks his Carpenter Foreman told my Dad he was to come over to his house for dinner that night. Dad told him that it was a long way back to his motel to get cleaned up first but he would come anyway. His Foreman told him that he didn’t need to worry about that and that he could get cleaned up at his house beacuse his wife had gone to the motel and checked my Dad out and brought his things over to his house. He told my Dad that he would be staying at his house now on and not at the motel anymore. They practically adopted my Dad. He was given a nice room in the man’s home, his wife washed his cloths and fed him breakfast lunch and dinner for the entire 9 or 10 months of the job and refused to accept a dime or the services. In fact every time Dad came home he was loaded down with food to bring home. Hams, vegetables from their garden, you name it. He even came home once with a big tub of live crawfish!

    The job finished and my Dad said they saved a lot of labor cost on the job and the entire crew worked their heart’s out for him. His company payed all of the crew big bonus checks for their hard work.

    Dad stayed in touch for many years with some of the guys there and always loved to tell the story of working on the job and the fine people he came to love there.

  3. Good word, Joe. Hope to see you here again sometime. If we know you’re coming, we might even have JFC (Janie Fried Chicken). Tell Neil we said Hi.


  4. Thank you Joe & those who posted dis wonderful posts. I’v learnt alot. I’m teachin Hospitality as a topic in sun. Sch tomorrow.

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