In my last post, I highlighted the discomfort that Americans have with hospitality, and gave the first part of a response to those who wonder why hospitality should be an important part of the Christian life. Not only did hospitality contribute to the spread of the gospel in the ancient world, but it could very well be that our inability to effectively practice hospitality in the West is part of the reason we are having so much difficulty with evangelism today.
We also miss the emphasis of Jesus’ teachings because of our lack of familiarity with the practices of hospitality. For example, the teaching in Luke 14:12-14 about inviting those who cannot return the invitation makes little sense unless we understand that Jesus was telling his disciples to resist: the practice of reciprocity, a key premise of hospitality that was ingrained in the actions of his first century audience and which continues to be understood in many parts of the world today. Unless you have experienced the powerful compulsory response that reciprocity engenders, it is difficult to fully grasp the marvel that is contained in Jesus’ admonition to invite those who cannot invite us in return, and to avoid invitations that could lead to increased social standing. Even commentators whom I deeply respect often miss the nuances contained within Jesus’ teachings because of their unfamiliarity with this and other similar practices of hospitality.
Yet, despite their unfamiliarity or discomfort with the centuries-old customs of hospitality, Americans remain the most generous people in the amount of dollars contributed to causes outside of themselves. This is especially true for those who are followers of Christ. At first glance, this is somewhat of an enigma. Why is it that those who are so generous and possess such a desire to help others are so uncomfortable expressing hospitality?
In a word, the American stumbling block to practicing hospitality might be our desire for privacy. We value our privacy so much, living our individual lives separately from the intrusion of others, that we cannot meaningfully be hospitable. Imagine the outpouring of God’s power and influence in the world if His most enterprising, prosperous and generous people could learn to embrace hospitality as He expressed it. Imagine the result for the spread of the Gospel throughout the world!
Generosity, for all of its virtues, allows us to give to others without direct involvement. We can tithe to our church, donate money to a cause, or write a check to a nonprofit. We have “done good” without getting involved. We can even perform acts of service without any extended involvement, returning to the safety of our private lives hours after our service is complete. By contrast, hospitality requires extended periods of intimacy, whether it is inviting someone to a common table, to share our home, or to participate in our daily life for extended periods of time. Hospitality is not possible without involvement, without entanglement or without disruption.
Another factor is our general discomfort with receiving. Our enterprising nature and rugged individualism results in awkwardness whenever we receive from one another, and hospitality cannot truly flourish without both parties embracing the acts of giving and receiving from each other. In cultures where hospitality is regularly practiced, and where people learn how to graciously give and receive, the outpouring of love and connection that arises in the context of hospitality provides fertile ground for all involved to grow together in love and commitment to one another.
Our desire for privacy and our discomfort with receiving from others may be the reason our generosity has flourished while our hospitality has remained impoverished. God’s most enterprising, prosperous and generous people are unfortunately His most individualistic and stand-offish. If it remains true, as so many studies confirm, that the vast majority of people come to Christ by means of a relationship with another believer, then it becomes imperative that we resolve this deficit and disciple our fellow believers to embrace distinctively Christian hospitality. The gain to the church in America would be immeasurable.