What makes a first-time church visitor return? The music? The preaching? Sister Betty’s chicken casserole?
Church growth specialists, pastors, and bloggers often debate the topic, but does the Bible say anything about it?
Admittedly, the Bible doesn’t seem concerned with growing your church congregation from 100 to 500 or from 10,000 to 25,000. But it does talk a lot about the spiritual and practical significance of hospitality to the one who offers it.
Unfortunately, when we think of the word “hospitality,” we reduce it to things like cooking church meals, front-door greeters, and general friendliness. These don’t tend to grow the host.
But philoxenia is the Greek word in the New Testament that’s translated into the English word hospitality. Importantly, it doesn’t have much to do with being friendly to church friends and family. Instead, the New Testament concept of hospitality has to do with the receiving and loving of strangers–those who are very different than you.
One of the ways God demonstrates his hospitality to us is that he hosts humanity on this earth. The Bible says that He hosts both the righteous and the unrighteous. But when we experience God’s hospitality we are often tempted to ask, “Why do the righteous suffer?” Or, “Why do the wicked prosper?” Matthew 5:45 reminds us that the sun shines and the rain falls on both the evil and the good. Why? Because God not only shows hospitality to those that know Him, but also to the stranger and even His enemy.
This concept of hospitality is evident in the relationship between God and the Israelites in the Old Testament. The OT paints a picture of the people of Israel as alienated people who are dependent on God’s hospitality (Ps. 39:12; Heb. 11:13).
The essence of Christian hospitality is to receive the church stranger/visitor in the same way as you were/are received by God. You rain on the just ones and the unjust ones. You show favor to those who exhibit no discernable value to your church enterprise.
Ultimately our goal in hospitality isn’t to grow the numbers of our church, but rather to grow in our own love of strangers so that we love them as God has loved them throughout the Scriptures. Your visitor program will never be effective until it is at least as much about your own spiritual growth as it is the growth of your congregation. Then, as Jesus says in Matthew 5:45, you will be called children of your father in heaven–the father who has the paradigmatic case of philoxenia.
This is a really edifying post – thank you! A few weeks ago, a sister in Christ forward me a sermon by Ben Stuart on James 2:1-13 (http://vimeo.com/71758961). I was then, and am now with this post, even more convicted to ask God who I am “othering,” who I am failing to love unconditionally both within the church body and outside. Many times this is not something I want to admit about myself, much less confront, but I know that to not do so would be to be disobedient to God and would hinder the work of the Holy Spirit in my life. I can’t just pick and choose what I will hear from Him. Thanks again!
Thanks for sharing the sermon and how God is working in your life! James 1:22-23 is a great follow-up to this message. God Bless!
Good stuff! This kind of turns our usual thinking on it’s head. God wants us to have friends to hang out with, but he also wants us to GO and find NEW friends, to reach out and share his love. :>}
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I’ve found that the key is getting out of your comfort zone and doing something signifcant for strangers. Our mobile medial clinic that I helped start in California runs into hundreds of strangers who need help with medical or dental needs.
And then there are the people that nobody wants near them: recovering addicts. There was a story here in Dayton about a methadone clinic that was opening it’s doors. It was “too near” a Roman Catholic high school, so people in the community went to the state legislature to pass a bill that these clinics have to be a certain distance from a school. The medical director of the clinic switched to using suboxone and circumvented the new law. These people are trying to get well. Many of them are there due to a court order. There have not been any problems in other communities in which similar clinics opened. Nevertheless…
Jesus did the opposite, eating with tax collectors and sinners. You may feel really uncomfortable when dealing with people who are not like you. But my experience has been is that once I stop letting myself get in the way, I begin to see the image of God in others.
Thanks for sharing your experiences Val. “Comfort” and “Ease” are certainly big hindrances to showing hospitality to strangers!