In this article, let’s consider some practical principles for implementing hospitality in our personal lives and in the local church.
It Begins With the Heart
True hospitality begins with the right heart and the right attitude. We’ve seen that hospitality means “stranger love.” If we don’t have a true love for people, then we will not be hospitable. If you are a Christian, then you have no excuse here. The Bible says that the love of God has been shed abroad in the heart of every true believer: “the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom 5:5).
Remember, that “the love of God” is a unique kind of love—a love that unbelievers don’t possess or have access to. It is a divine love enabling you to be selfless, sacrificial, and giving toward others in a way that was not possible before you got saved. This supernatural love is at the disposal of every Christian. When a person is born again, God puts the Holy Spirit in the believer to indwell them. The indwelling Holy Spirit produces the fruits of the Spirit in the life of every Christian. The leading fruit of the Spirit is love (Gal 5:28). The act of showing hospitable love toward others is evidence of true salvation. First John 3 says,
We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.
Verse 17 above is a sober warning. If you call yourself a Christian but you are unwilling to help those in need when you have the resources to do so, then John says it is questionable whether you are even a child of God. Because God has put His supernatural love in the heart of every genuine believer, we should welcome the idea of welcoming strangers in the name of Christ. Hospitality begins in the heart.
Ask God for Help
We all have weaknesses and blind spots (James 3:2). Those blind spots include selfishness, self-preservation, partiality, prejudice, or greed. All such sins can undermine the heart of hospitality. Being that we are all susceptible to these sins, we need to regularly go before God’s throne of grace and mercy in prayer, and ask Him to search our hearts. Ask Him to expose any blind spots. Ask Him to use others around you that know you well to help expose your blind spots to ensure that you are not neglecting the biblical command to be hospitable to strangers (Prov 27:6). Remember David’s prayer in Psalm 139, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me” (vv. 23-24). Ask God regularly to cultivate a hospitable attitude in yourself. Ask God to expose any residual selfishness or prejudice you may harbor that undermines fulfilling the mandate to be hospitable. God’s Word says, “You do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:2). Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you” (Matt 7:7). The Bible also says when we ask for anything according to His will then He will give it to us: “This is the confidence we have before Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him” (1 John 5:14-15). We need to be very specific when we pray. If you regularly plead with God to give you a hospitable attitude then He will answer that prayer.
Observe those around you who are hospitable and learn from them. Jesus was the Master teacher. He taught His disciples by precept but also by practice. He told them, “Follow Me” (Matt 4:19). He wanted them to learn by observation, and they did learn as they followed Him, walked in His shadow, and observed His methods. They watched Him pray (Luke 9:18). They watched Him preach and teach (Matt 7:28-29). They watched Him serve (John 13). They watched Him extend kindness (Luke 17:11 ff.). They watched Him rebuke (Matt 23). Consequently, in time and thanks to His modeling, they would do the same (Acts 1:8). This is discipleship. If you are not good at being hospitable then find a mentor and get discipled in that area. Think of people in your church who are exemplary at hospitality, then talk with them, ask them questions, shadow them as they love strangers.
Remember God Owns Everything
Treat everything you own as though it belonged to God…because it does: “The earth is the LORD’s, and all it contains” (Ps 24:1). The Bible says that every-thing we own was given to us by God as a gift. Paul asked, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor 4:7). He meant that everything you possess and own was given to you by God as gift—your cash, your job, your car, your house, your food, your stocks, your cell phone—all of it. We are merely stewards of all that we have. When we truly come to realize that nothing ultimately belongs to us, then it will be much easier to share it with others. When was the last time you let someone use your car? The willingness to share, or give to others, is at the heart of hospitality. Paul teaches in Ephesians 4 that the reason Christians are to work hard and earn income is not only so they can pay their bills, but also so they can share with others in need (v. 28). If all you think about when you get your paycheck is padding your wallet, amassing your savings, stabilizing your security, accumulating more goods, or planning your vacation, and yet you don’t give one thought as to how you can share your wealth with those in need, then you have an unbiblical view of money.
Be deliberate about welcoming guests to your church. Whether it is a Sunday school class, a Bible study in your home, the worship Service on Sunday, the prayer meeting mid-week or a special ministry off campus, always take the time to meet visitors, especially first- time visitors. Our church is not big nor well-known, but in our thirteen years of existence we have had first-time visitors almost every Sunday—believers, unbelievers, people new to the area, relatives just visiting family. We purpose to greet all of them and welcome them. We have greeters on Sunday welcoming folks as they come in. We make sure our greeters love people, especially strangers, and that they are warm and friendly. We take seriously the commands in the epistles that say, “Greet one another” (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Pet 5:14). We have a time after every Sunday service where visitors can meet with one of our elders and get their questions answered, get counsel, or even a prayer. We try to follow up with all our visitors by thanking them for coming via email or a phone call. We invite all our Sunday guests to come to our fellowship meal after the service, which has proven to be an ideal setting to get to know visitors and strangers better. Our people routinely invite visitors to lunch after the service.
Leaders Take the Lead
To nurture a culture of hospitality in the local church, it needs to start with the leadership: the elders and pastors. We saw earlier that hospitality was a qualification required of elders. When the church leaders are graciously, winsomely, regularly living out hospitality and exhibiting a welcoming attitude toward visitors and strangers at the church, then the saints will follow in like manner. There is nothing worse than visiting a church as a first-time visitor, and instead of a warm welcome, all you get are strange stares and the cold shoulder, as all the regular attenders pretend not to see you as they treat you like a ghost…or the plague.
Sadly, many of us have visited a church like that. In such instances one feels like a trespasser who snuck over the fence at the local moose lodge or some elite country club, having no right to be among the privileged members. The worst example for me was when I was interviewing at a large Bible church to be their next preacher. They told me they had over 100 resumes come in from around the country and that I was in the top five for consideration. I then decided to visit the church incognito as a visitor to check out the church. To my disappointment, not one person greeted me, said hello, or even noticed me the entire ninety minutes I was there. They even had a greeting time at the beginning of the service. Hundreds of folks who were there that day simply chose to say “Hi” and greet only people they knew. I left at the end of the service, walking by several folks, rubbing shoulders with a few along the way, but not one person noticed me. A couple weeks later I was told, “The position has been filled.” I was at peace.
That experience, and a few others I have had over the years at other churches, reminds me of James 2, the classic passage on corporate hospitality in the local church:
My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called? If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.James 2:1-9
James says that if you show favoritism with visitors that is “evil” (v. 4) and “sin” (v. 9). Recently one of my seminary students shared with the class that he once attended a church that literally would not let people in the church if they were not dressed appropriately. Specifically, if the visitor of the day did not look “nice” or up to formal snuff, but rather was kind of dingy, shabby or seedy, then they could not join the others in corporate worship. That is evil and sin. Thank God for the example of Jesus who welcomed the downcast, ostracized, despised and even sinners (Luke 5:29-32).
Of all the people in the world who should be welcoming to strangers, it should be Christians. And the most loving place in the community should be the local church. As we remember and regularly practice the biblical principles listed above, then these two expectations can become a reality. And as a result, God will be pleased, the love of Christ will be put on display, strangers will be ministered to, and believers will be blessed.