In most churches, this is the time of year when we “begin a new church year.” Of course, I don’t mean the calendar year or the liturgical year, but the year tied to the end of summer and the beginning of school. Most churches base their Bible study, discipleship, and mission programs on the beginning of the academic year, so this is the time when we dust off the old and roll out the new.
This is often we reconsider the way that we go about welcoming guests in our congregations. Why “guests” rather than “visitors”? If people are visitors, we may be implying that we don’t expect them back. Guests, however, are those with whom we want to develop rapport in hopes of an ongoing relationship.
We often use the word “hospitality” to describe what we are offering when new folks come to call in our worship services and Bible studies classes. Although we move quickly to the techniques involved in making someone feel welcome, perhaps we should consider the motivation behind our hospitality first.
Henri Nouwen has written this about hospitality:
Hospitality means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines. It is not to lead our neighbor into a corner where there are no alternatives left, but to open a wide spectrum of options for choice and commitment.
If we take Nouwen seriously, we can think about hospitality in two ways.
First, in showing hospitality, we are allowing our guests to be who they are. The stranger brings gifts to us--life experience, values, new insights and perspectives. How much our own lives might be enriched if we allowed the guest to share who they really are, giving something to our community that we have lacked.
Second, in showing hospitality, we are providing the guest with the space to become more than they are--to learn new things, to develop relationships, and to consider new ways to thinking. We allow a space for growth and possibility.
We can provide the environment for community to develop, but true Christian community is always a gift from God. In like manner, true hospitality comes not simply by removing impediments to meaningful interaction, but by allowing the Spirit of God to be at work. Hospitality, like community, cannot be forced, but we can prepare the way for it to happen. This is a work of the Spirit.