Loneliness and social isolation are on the rise.

One million older people in the UK say they feel lonelier than ever at Christmas time, according to Age UK.

Yesterday the BBC broadcast a heartwarming clip of an elderly man named Terrance being surprised by people in his local community.

Make sure you've some tissues ready before you press play:

The film reminded me how there are so many people in our communities feeling alone this Christmas. The Church can and must play a key role in combating social isolation. And many will. Whether its singing carols at the local care home or putting on a Christmas dinner inside the church building for those who have nowhere else to go, local churches are often brilliant at reaching out.

And yet...sometimes I wonder if we haven't fully understood the biblical command to be hospitable, especially when it comes to welcoming people on a Sunday morning.

I remember visiting one couple who had started attending our church. They told me that, after several months, lots of people had said “hello” and were very friendly but they were not actually getting to know anyone! Some of that of course is down to the new person getting stuck-in and involving themselves in church activities, but not everyone finds that easy. I sometimes wonder if, as churches, we are good at the “welcome”, good at asking how people are, and good at descending like a flock upon newcomers who venture in hoping they might come join our church; but that’s where it ends. Even with newcomers, once we discover they are only visiting the area, and not looking for a church we can suddenly lose interest.

Could it be that in some of our churches, the biblical command to be hospitable has been reduced to merely being polite?

Generous hospitality runs throughout scripture

Take many of the stories of Jesus.

There’s the time when the two sisters Mary and Martha have an argument about who does the housework. Jesus has to calm Martha down and say it’s OK to leave the work for now. Or take the occasion when Jesus has dinner with a Pharisee and a woman with a poor reputation comes and breaks a jar of perfume over Jesus’ feet. The Pharisee is disgusted but Jesus uses the occasion to tell a parable. Or there’s that time when Jesus goes to Matthew’s house and the mutterings begin about how could a good rabbi eat with a bunch of sinners.

What do these stories all have in common? They begin with hospitality. In fact they probably wouldn’t have happened without it.

We recall certain parts of these stories: the argument, the muttering, Jesus’ dazzling reply. But we forget the reason Jesus was there in the first place. He didn’t go to cause arguments or make sisters fall out. He went there to be with people, to enjoy company, to accept hospitality. And when the conversation turned, he was ready to give an answer (1 Peter 3:15). Hospitality is how many of the Jesus stories begin but we read past it because we are keen to get to what we think is the main point.

On other occasions Jesus specifically commands hospitality. In Luke 14:12-14 we are told to invite people to dinner “who cannot pay you back”, not just your friends. And in Matthew 25 in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats the crunch question for entering God’s kingdom isn’t “did you get your theology right?”; but “did you give a drink to that person who needed it?”

Similarly, in the letters we see more hospitality, such as the tantalizing idea in Hebrews of welcoming the stranger because in doing so you might welcome an angel. And interestingly, in Titus 1:8 we see a list of requirements for church leaders includes that they must be hospitable.

If we had time we could go into the Old Testament basis of these commands. Suffice to say that there is the repeated command to Israel to welcome the stranger and the alien with the frequent reminder “because you yourselves were strangers”.

Have we outsourced hospitality?

In her book Making Room, Christine Pohl says that today we live in a world that is results focused and success oriented – even when we talk about looking after people. We want to solve the problem and move on. So we have invented institutions which do the most difficult hospitality for us such as hospitals, hostels and even hospices – all of which are wonderful and necessary. However there is a danger that we end up outsourcing all hospitality because in our mind there is always somewhere else we can send people with long term needs.

But at its simplest level hospitality doesn’t try to “solve the problem”. In fact often the problem cannot be solved. Problems of disability, extreme age, dementia, or even loneliness are often not “fixable”. There might be no solution, short-term or long-term. But there is a role and a biblical command for us just to be with people. Hospitality is the concept of simply walking with people - whether their problem is solvable or not - spending time, sharing food, enjoying conversation.

Receiving hospitality is also biblical. Sometimes allowing people to offer us simple hospitality can be a tremendous level-setter. It means people are no longer defined by their need - think of Zacchaeus being enabled to prepare a meal for Jesus. It is empowering for them and requires a certain vulnerability from us that some of us find hard.

Is your church hospitable?

So, is your church hospitable? Or do you simply “welcome” and leave it at that? Even in our middle class towns and suburbs there are marginalized people needing a conversation, something more than “how are you?”.

Are you hospitable? Do you invite people for a meal or even just a coffee – people who need an invitation, people who can’t invite you back? At work, do you make time for conversation around the water cooler and the coffee station? Or are you the one who rushes in to work, works frantically and rushes out again? I have often been that person, but I am trying to change! How good are you at receiving hospitality?

This is God’s heart. There are remarkably few commands repeated consistently across scripture, Old Testament and New, but hospitality is one of them.

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