Recently I gathered with a group of people for a night of cards and games. This group regularly meets together for this very purpose. It functions as its own little community and, like every community, gathers around a shared love and goal—in this case, games and having fun playing them. And like most communities, this group not only desires to meet together but also seeks to welcome new people in so that they too can experience the fun and fellowship of belonging to this community.
On one particular evening, two strangers walked into the home where game night was taking place, armed with a desire to enjoy games with likeminded folks and, more importantly, a tray of Chik-fil-A chicken nuggets to share.
Only ten minutes later, more established members of the group began to look around confusedly and ask aloud, “Where’d they go?” One person had seen them slipping quietly back out the door and to their car.
And they took their chicken nuggets with them.
Game night continued without much of a hitch, but every now and then conversation around the collapsable card tables would turn to how odd it was to have two new guests arrive only to leave in silence a few minutes later. No one could quite understand why this happened.
A bit more clarity was offered by means of an email comment to the group, apparently from the two mysterious strangers: “Unfortunate. You say you’re about meeting new people, yet you made us feel unwelcome. We were invisible.”
What did the community do that was so alienating?
And that’s precisely the point. Most of us assume that if we are open to the idea of bringing others into the community, if we invite new people in, and if we create space for them, then we are exercising an unmistakable hospitality that will make even the most timid of guests feel welcome. But this episode demonstrates that hospitable attitudes without hospitable actions is no hospitality at all. This gap between attitudes and actions destroys real, tangible hospitality.
The fact is, most people don’t enter a new context feeling like insiders until someone does something to alienate them. Most people enter a new community feeling like outsiders until someone does something to show them they belong. For a community to truly be characterized by hospitality, it’s not enough for all of the members to think to themselves, “I sure am glad a new person has joined us.” A hospitable community will take the more demanding, and sometimes more uncomfortable, steps of engaging that person in conversation, asking questions to learn more about them, filling them in on what the community is all about, expressing excitement at their presence, asking if they need help with anything, introducing them to others—in other words, showing them that they are welcome and that they belong.
These are the visible expressions of hospitality that genuinely communicate hospitality to outsiders. It takes wisdom to know how to interact with strangers who have set foot in a new context for the first time. But a great place to start is Jesus’ words in Luke 6:31. “And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.” Put yourself in their shoes and ask, “What would it take to make me feel cared for, appreciated, acknowledged, and welcomed?” That simple question can give you an idea of how to love your new neighbor well.
The church, the community of the risen Lord, has to be willing to consistently evaluate if our community has a hospitality gap. When a guest visits a home group for dinner, are believers quick to warmly engage them in discussion? When a new faces arrive for corporate worship, are they left to sit alone or invited to worship with Christians who can answer their questions and be physically present with them? When the church celebrates the gospel, ministers to one another, prays, and talks about life in fellowship around the Lord’s Table, are there individuals left on the outside looking in, standing by themselves with no opportunity to speak or be spoken to?
The family of God has more reason than any other community in the world to not only embrace attitudes of hospitality but to perform the deeds of hospitality. Jesus shared meals with tax collectors and sinners and graciously welcomed all kinds of people to find life in him. At the cross, he was excluded from community with God so that sinners like us could be brought into that community by grace. And he promises to one day return and set a table for his people to feast in the presence of the Triune God in fullness of joy.
The gospel of Christ is good news of God’s hospitality toward sinners. And that gospel empowers the church to overcome our hospitality gap and to take the initiative in showing hospitality to strangers. God’s hospitality toward us pushes us to ensure that outsiders know they have a place to belong in this community of grace.