This is a sequel to my last post on “God’s Cure for Loneliness.” When the New Testament lists the “gifts of the Spirit” we may be surprised to discover that the gift of HOSPITALITY is listed among the gifts that usually come to mind first, such as the gift of preaching, the gift of teaching, the gift of prophecy, the gift of healing, the gift of tongues, etc. Many people in the Church are far more interested in gifts that seems more miraculous, more spectacular, the so-called “sign gifts,” than they are in the gifts that seem more ordinary, such as hospitality, or the “gift of helps.” However, in the New Testament, we discover that the apostles give much more emphasis to “service” than to “signs.” Nevertheless, we will always have those, both inside and outside the Church, who are hoping to witness some miraculous display of God’s power, for that is what impresses them most.
Nevertheless, in the Acts of the Apostles and the epistles of the New Testament it is the hospitality experienced in the fellowship of the Early Church, the caring and sharing, the brotherly affection, the bearing of one another’s burdens, the breaking of bread in each other’s homes, the intimacy they experienced in their greetings and welcoming of one another, and their intercession before God on behalf of one another, that is given the greater emphasis (Acts 2:44-47, Romans 12:9-13, 16:16). Of course, every gift of the Spirit is important and necessary for the proper functioning of the Body of Christ. No gift is unimportant, and we should never think in terms of superiority or inferiority when discussing spiritual gifts, and the exercise of those gifts in the life of Christ’s Church, in the homes of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and in the world as servants of our Servant Lord, but we must not ignore the hospitality those first Christians shared in apostolic times, and we should certainly not neglect the faithful and loving exercise of this gift in our shared life today as Christ’s Church, as a “communion of saints”, as a “priesthood of believers,” as a “community of faith,” as a “fellowship of love,” as a “company of the committed” (i.e. those committed to both Christ and one another).
Hospitality, in the New Testament sense in which the word is used, is actually love in action. This was apparently the thing that impressed the pagan the world the most. The way those Christians cared for one another, provided for one another, sacrificed for one another, for after all love is how we treat each other. It is not an emotion, or a feeling, as most people probably believe. This is why we hear about those who have “fallen in love,” which may even give the impression that love is an accident, something that just happens to people when they are suddenly overcome with strong feelings for someone to whom they are attracted. People may also say they have “fallen out of love.” No. Love is kindness, tenderness, consideration, gentle-ness, sharing, caring, affection, intimacy (not sex, which is another aspect of the “oneness” God’s design for marriage includes, but more an intimacy which is much more than “one flesh”). Love is other person centered, which makes possible communication at a deep level, an honest sharing of one’s thoughts, needs, hurts, hopes, fears, and listening to one another empathetically – rather than shallow communication, which is so common in relationships, even in marriage, when people unfortunately find it hard to unwrap their emotion, putting themselves in a vulnerable position, mentally, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually.
However, this is supposed to be normal Christianity in our church life, in our shared life as members of the “one body” of Christ, united in “one spirit,” in “the same mind,” with “the same care for one another,” where we are joined together in a blending of spirits, a fusion of hearts, married to Christ (this is one of the metaphors that is used in the New Testament for our union with Christ, where He is the Bridegroom, and we are the bride of Christ, as His Church). In the intimate fellowship we share we are admonished to “let love be genuine,” to “be patient in tribulation,” to “bear one another’s burdens,” to “comfort one another,” to “weep with those who weep,” to greet one another “with a holy kiss” – don’t you see that there is nothing wrong with any of that, but something is terribly wrong when this kind of intimacy is missing in the Body of Christ?
So, once again I want to encourage you to recognize that when the Church is functioning properly, the fellowship that is ours in Christ should be a major answer to the crisis of loneliness, – the pain that comes from no sense of belonging, the feeling that there is no one who really cares, the lack of friendships that are satisfying and fulfilling, friends who will be there for you when you need a listening ear, understanding, encouragement, and support. Of course, we know that some churches have not been nurtured to be the kind of welcoming and hospitable communities they are called to be. Who is to blame? We cannot give reasons that apply equally to all churches, but we can say that there is one thing that does apply to all, organizations and institutions, including local churches: THEY TEND TO TAKE ON THE LIFESTYLE OF THEIR LEADERSHIP! If the leaders of a church, both staff and elected officers, are not committed to creating this kind of church, it is not going to happen. It must be high on a church’s list of objectives, included in the mission statement, with specific steps to be taken that have proven successful in other churches.
For example: training in how the Body of Christ is supposed to function, identifying and exercising one’s spiritual gifts, year long efforts to involve the laity in “the work of ministry,” discipling and equipping members to become a “priesthood of believers” trained in intercessory prayer, with lessons on loving as Jesus loves, seeing one another through the eyes of Jesus, listening skills, establishing a “shepherding” ministry (recruiting and training chosen members to serve as under-shepherds responsible for “parish groups” with home meetings), sharing hospitality, prayer concerns in true soul-searching fellowship – the creation of an extensive and effective small group ministry including “recovery groups” (such as “grief recovery” for those going through grief because of any kind of separation and loss, not only caused by death, but by fractured families, divorce, loss of a job, broken relationships, etc.), “twelve step” groups for those struggling with any kind of addiction – and any other efforts that can help to create a loving and caring environment where walls that separate can be torn down, and deep personal relationships established, with the loneliness in people’ hearts healed, and also for “the building up of the Body of Christ” to a position of greater strength and usefulness, to the glory of God (Ephesians 4:12).
There are some church leaders who want to avoid these kind of ministries in a church because they fear the creation of “cliques” in a congregation, with a lot of members spending more time with their own small groups than with the larger congregation in the total life of the church. However, after devoting more than sixty years of my life to pastoral ministry, I am of the opinion that cliquishness rears its ugly head only when a few of those in one little group also habitually sit together in worship, and at other church events, rather than making a conscious effort to also meet and share with other members in the life and work of the church. The tragedy is not that “birds of a feather flock together,” not that people feel most comfortable in their own group where they have formed closer relationships, but that there are those individuals in our churches who often feel excluded, who do not really feel welcomed in some groups, especially by some members who do not even speak to them. I have had people tell me that they sometimes feel “invisible” in the presence of some people in the church, who do not even recognize them or acknowledge their presence.
It is sad that this can even happen in worship, especially when new members or visitors happen to sit where someone else always sits, and has been sitting in that particular pew for years, and they just stand at the end of the pew staring at you without saying a word, waiting for you to move. That actually happened to one of my daughters not long ago in a church where she was visiting. My wife also visited a church where she was never welcomed; not one person recognized her presence, and even the pastor completely ignored her when she passed by him at the front door of the church where he was standing, and turned away to speak to someone else. Suffice it to say, the leadership of every church should be very intentional about building a welcoming and hospitable community of faith, where the love we are called to have for one another is experienced by everyone who enters, through any door for any reason, for the most distinguishing mark of every church should be this response: “Behold, how those Christians love one another.“