It’s easy then, to see hospitality as an optional extra which is more trouble than it’s worth, or something to scrimp on in times of austerity. And yet, the Bible is full of meals, parties and other social gatherings. Jesus lived a life of hospitality, famously partying at a wedding and turning water into wine.
Jesus also used meals to send clear messages to those around him. He ate with those who were cut off, despised and ostracised. Tim Chester, leader of The Crowded House Church in Sheffield, and author of A Meal with Jesus (IVP) says: ‘[Jesus ate with] tax collectors; archetypal enemies of God who were notoriously greedy and collaborated with the Romans. They [meals] symbolise so much; the grace of God, eating and drinking with his enemies. Eating together is a powerful way of expressing something of the content of the gospel.’ Jesus made time for everyone, whoever they were. Author of Hospitality and Community after Christendom (Paternoster) Andrew Francis sums it up: ‘We have to learn how to both receive hospitality and learn to give hospitality. It’s the way of Jesus; if it’s the way of Jesus, that has to be our way.’
Reluctant hosts Despite its scriptural importance, hospitality can sometimes take a back seat to other more glamorous areas of ministry, or left to those who have a particular gifting for it. Michelle Guinness, author of The Heavenly Party (Monarch) and a wholehearted advocate of cooking for friends and strangers, says: ‘I actually don’t think it’s something the church thinks about a lot. There is this narrow view of hospitality that says “my house has got to look nicer than everyone else’s house and I’ve got to be able to cook”. If you’re working full-time it’s easier to say “I won’t do it.”’
It could also be attributed to a growing cultural trend that sees us living autonomous lives, without much desire to look outwards. Fliss Lane, senior pastor at Vineyard, St Albans, says: ‘Everyone’s so individualistic ? we are all struggling with life, the economy and personal problems. I think it’s just one of those things that we’ve got to encourage or people will default into community, looking after one another and becoming cliques.’"
FOOD DOESN’T HAVE TO BE GOURMET CUISINE
"But the answer doesn’t lie in rotas. ‘One of the ironies I hate,’ says Chester, ‘is the standard church lunch ? it’s so stilted. There is a sense that if you start to organise hospitality, that something has gone wrong in the culture of your church. What you’re after is not programmes, but more of a culture, where people are routinely opening up their homes.’
Fostering a culture that does this well takes time, encouragement and celebration of the good. For leaders, modelling excellent hospitality and encouraging the church to then echo this in their own lives works well. For Matt Woodcock, curate and Pioneer minister at Holy Trinity Church, Hull, it has been a steep learning curve. ‘It’s a real struggle; the welcome is one of the hardest things to get right. We’re brilliant at the initial hello, but struggle to go beyond that into investing in people’s lives. As a vicar I’m trying to encourage our people to practise good hospitality and welcome. You presume people will be great at it, but actually it can be the most stressful part of the week. Now we have an open meal once a month at the local pub. If you look at the New Testament, that’s where the church started, around the table. We’re trying to model that in Hull; where real kingdom ministry in done around a table.’
A cuppa versus a banquet
But what counts as hospitality? For some it is inviting a friend over for a cuppa, for others it is having an open door policy, welcoming friends and strangers, and for others still it is running church cafes, homeless shelters or mums and babies’ groups. The thread that runs through all of these examples is community, welcome and mission. Everyone is welcome, none are turned away."
THE WORD HOSPITALITY MEANS TO LOVE STRANGERS
"For David King, a church leader from Salford, it goes beyond a simple meal. ‘The word hospitality means to love strangers,’ he says. ‘For me, to love a stranger means to be like how God is to me: to be a provider, comforter and somebody who brings them into a place of peace. It’s not only possible in our physical church buildings, but also in our homes and other places. You can host the street you live on by actually getting to know people, knowing their names and getting God’s heart for them.’
So yes, it goes beyond having people over, but there’s no denying the fact that that’s a good place to start. Here’s some advice for getting over the most common hurdles to hospitality:
'I can't cook'
Not having the culinary expertise of Roux, Lawson, Oliver or Berry may well be getting in the way of you inviting someone over for a meal. If the most elaborate thing you can cook is beans on toast or a boiled egg, then the prospect of cooking for guests is terrifying. And even if you’re capable of more complicated menus, the pressure of cooking food that others then have to eat can be too much.
But never fear. ‘There’s always M&S!’ says Chine Mbubaegbu, editor of Idea, the Evangelical Alliance magazine, and website threads (threadsuk.com). ‘You can buy cakes and everyone can make a cup of tea. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate three-course meal.’ For the Stewardship 40acts campaign, Mbubaegbu did something she’d not done before; she invited her neighbours over for a tea party. ‘I wasn’t expecting many people to turn up, but most came. It was amazing to hear about different people’s lives. They are no longer people behind a door, but they are people I can have community with and talk to.’
Cooking for non-cooks:
- Perfect a signature dish ? no need to test new recipes on unassuming guests
- Make something simple, such as a stew which you can prepare in advance
- If even simple culinary exploits leave burnt baked beans at the bottom of a pan, be kind to yourself (and your guests) ? order a takeaway
If the idea of socialising causes you to break out in a cold sweat, eyes searching for the nearest exit, then opening up your home can be daunting. Just the prospect of spending two hours making conversation with people you barely know can send a shudder down an introvert’s spine. Lots of people say I appear cheerful and confident, but inside I’m mostly a quivering wreck, secretly longing for time alone in a nice quiet room, perhaps with a candle and a good book.
But it’s important not to hide behind our introversions. Tim Chester believes we need to push past these sorts of labels: ‘I’m by nature an introvert, but you can’t let that define you. I’m called to love other people and show welcome to them. I don’t like speaking to groups of 30 people, but having a conversation with four, five or six people is different.’
There is power in numbers, and if you know you get tongue-tied and awkward, Guinness recommends buddying up: ‘Invite someone you know who is a talker who can sustain the conversation.’
Beat the shy:
- If conversation eludes you, smile and ask questions ? no one expects you to be the greatest raconteur but everyone appreciates being listened to
- Send a Christmas card to your neighbour (no face-to-face conversation necessary)
'My house is too small'
If your flat is tiny and you’re fighting for space, you’d be forgiven for thinking you can’t open up your home to others. When I graduated, I lived in a tiny studio flat in Brighton. It was one of those dingy basement studios, where my bed doubled up as the sofa and the kitchen was basically a sideboard with a sink. Dining with friends resembled an endurance test, with us all taking it in turns to perch on my two-seater sofa bed.
One possible solution is going to your guest’s house instead, suggests pastor of Breathe City Church in Stoke-on-Trent, James Galloway: ‘Have just one or two people round at a time, or invite yourself to your guest’s home but bring dinner with you.’ Galloway’s church is known for its warm welcome, with emphasis given to making their guests feel like VIPs. ‘If we’re providing a meal, we want to know in advance whether our guests have any food allergies or a favourite drink so that what we provide is what they will enjoy.’
The beauty of hospitality is that you set the parameters ? there are no rules. Senior pastor at Vineyard, Milton Keynes, Gareth Russell, says: ‘For me it’s less about the location and more about the relationship you’re building, even if you meet in a coffee shop or restaurant, or…your church building, if they allow you to use it.’
Make the space go further:
- Get comfy on the floor and use cushions or folding chairs
- Host smaller scale meals with one or two guests
- Pick a different venue ? if space is really tight, go to a coffee shop or a restaurant
'I can't afford it'
It’s easy to think that having people over for a meal can be an expensive affair. Just one trip to the supermarket can leave you clutching your (already empty) wallet in panic at the sheer amount of Schloer, sausage rolls and sandwiches that you might feel you need.
But, as with space and cooking ability, simplicity is the solution. The food doesn’t have to be gourmet cuisine; it’s not necessary for it to contain ingredients you can’t pronounce. Remember that the hospitality you’re showing is not summed up in the food or drink you offer, it’s the time you give that’s often remembered most. ‘Your time doesn’t cost you,’ says King. ‘For me, if I’ve got a spare tea bag and a bit of milk then I can show someone hospitality. Never let your finances dictate what you do; it might be that they dictate the exuberance of what you do, but not that you do it at all.’
Stretch the pennies:
- Have a pudding party ? no main course necessary
- Ask your guests to contribute by bringing a drink or pudding
- Shop around and freeze any bargains you spot for a later date
'I don't have time'
It’s a common complaint. With work, church activities, small groups and seeing friends and family, it can seem like there is never a spare moment to spend time with others. This culture of busyness permeates our lives, so much so that it can sometimes feel like we’re going at breakneck speed with no time to stop. We can get so sidetracked by our own agenda that it is possible to miss the needs of those around us.
But it’s about priorities, says Russell: ‘You have to be clear about what your priorities are. Assess your calendar and bank balance and see if those priorities are being met. If you don’t have time to show Jesus to others, there are probably other things getting in the way.’ Galloway agrees: ‘Everyone has time; it’s what we choose to do with it. Be intentional. I book in my diary months in advance nights when I know I am going to invite someone round.’ Planning and being intentional can mean that finding time is less of an issue. ‘These aren’t things that take massive amounts of time, and they are worth it,’ says Mbubaegbu. ‘I’m a lot more comfortable where I’m living; I feel a lot freer and don’t hide from my neighbours any more!’
- Take a fresh look at your calendar ? what’s the thing that dominates your time? Can you change this?
- Invite your guests over earlier and ask them to lay the table or help to prepare the meal
- Be intentional ? plan meals in before your diary fills up