In 2008, my husband and I planted a church in a cultural context where it’s fairly easy to meet people but difficult to build intimate relationships. The weather also worked against us: two months after we moved to our city, winter set in and people disappeared into hibernation until spring. But the culture worked against too: in our transient and intellectual city, people are busy, driven, and often relationally isolated.
Our culture in general is moving more and more in this direction. We’re an increasingly individualistic society, overly busy and ambitious, and attached to our phones more than to our relationships. Asking good questions and showing interest in others is a dying art.
For church planters and their wives, this is a fantastic and exciting opportunity, because all people desire at some level to be loved and of interest to others. We can so easily meet that need by extending hospitality.
My husband and I realized this quickly, so we swung open the doors and invited literally everyone we met over for dinner. Through all those invitations and dinners, it’s become clear to us that hospitality is a vital component in church planting, both as community connections and as church connections.
If we want to share the gospel with an unbelieving neighbor, it’s likely going to happen within a growing relationship, and a growing relationship is likely going to happen through hospitality. There is something about having someone in your home that not only fast-tracks friendship but also acts as a catalyst for deeper story sharing.
In Rosaria Butterfield’s book Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, she shares how a pastor’s hospitality was the first step toward her conversion to Christianity:
“Ken and Floy [the pastor and his wife] did something at the meal that has a long Christian history but has been functionally lost in too many Christian homes. Ken and Floy invited the stranger in--not to scapegoat me, but to listen and to learn and to dialogue. Ken and Floy have a vulnerable and transparent faith. We didn’t debate worldview; we talked about our personal truth and about what ‘made us tick.’ Ken and Floy didn’t identify with me. They listened to me and identified with Christ. They were willing to walk the long journey to me in Christian compassion. During our meal, they did not share the gospel with me. After our meal, they did not invite me to church. Because of these glaring omissions to the Christian script as I had come to know it, when the evening ended and Pastor Ken said he wanted to stay in touch, I knew that it was truly safe to accept his open hand.” (location 10%)
That pastor and his wife offered biblical hospitality: generosity to an outsider, a process of relationship that occurs over time, warmth and safety, authenticity, and an open hand. This very type of hospitality will be vital to our own church planting work.
Although hospitality is important to gospel work among outsiders, hospitality is just as vital within the church body, both through a welcoming and warm family on Sunday mornings and through hospitality in the home.
As a pastor and pastor’s wife, with something as simple as a meal, my husband and I communicate acceptance within a larger body, belonging, and a desire to love and connect with those visiting or attending our church. This is more important than we often realize.
A few years ago, we invited a family into our home for dinner who had been visiting our church. Toward the end of dinner, our conversation turned to race. They asked point-blank, “Is it OK for us, as African-Americans, to attend your church?” They explained that they felt the need to ask because they had not always felt welcome at churches they’d visited. “Yes, of course,” we said. “Was it ever in question?” Their response is telling: “The fact that you invited us into your home solidified what we were already pretty sure about.”
These are the kind of statements we can make, all through hospitality.
It’s been six years now since we planted our church. It’s grown, by the grace of God, and our attention and energy is drawn to so many ministry opportunities. But we’ve seen the importance and the reward of hospitality in connecting us to our community and our church, and we’ll never stop practicing it. Hospitality is perhaps our greatest opportunity for ministry.
Happily, it’s yours as well.