Hospitality and the Western Culture
by Chris Freet
Over the last five to ten years or so there appears to be an upsurge in the focus upon hospitality within the Western church culture. Whether it is in the form of books (of which there seem to be many), lectures, or seminary/college courses, hospitality is experiencing a renewed interest for which I am personally grateful. In my last post I mentioned that in the pages of scripture, especially the New Testament, hospitality seems to be a defining characteristic of the church. While this renewed focus on hospitality is very welcome, I think any blind application of it could meet with frustration unless we first examine briefly our Western culture.
Throughout the Majority World hospitality seems to be more natural or at more ingrained and a regular part of the lifestyles and cultures. Within our Western culture there are certain mindsets, world views, or manners of thought which need to be at least noticed if the Western church desires to embrace the Christ-like characteristic of hospitality. Our Western emphasis upon individualism is one that is usually referenced in many sources as something that works against hospitality. But what other mindsets might we hold onto without realizing it that may work against the practice of hospitality? In my book A New Look at Hospitality as a Key to Missions I mention individualism along with other possibilities. Here are just a few:
Time and Hospitality
While on a visit to Kenya in 2012, our hosts jokingly commented that most Westerners are captive to “the power of the watch.” We can see this in such phrases as “Time is money.” We like things to be neat and orderly. If we can’t schedule it then it most likely stirs up feelings of chaos, disorder and even confusion. The practice of hospitality may involve messiness and unpredictability. After all, we are talking about an encounter with a stranger who bears the image of Christ.
Order, Control and Hospitality
Similarly related to the issue of time is order and control. Hospitality, according to biblical record, appears to have an element of surprise. Whether it is the example of Abraham or Lot (Genesis 18, 19) welcoming the strangers in a moment of surprise, or New Testament believers welcoming missionaries and seeing them on their way (3 John 8; Hebrews 13:2), surprise seems to be the norm. However, within our Western culture we value control and order. We plan everything and as a result, we don’t seem to do well with surprise. We need to clean the house first, after all.
Can you think of any other Western mindsets or thoughts that could work against the practice of hospitality? How have you shown hospitality to a stranger?
Chris, you have brought out something that Western Christians should recognize in regard to how our individualism, “power of the watch,” and the need to be in control are hindering us from welcoming the “stranger” and showing the love of Christ. Other cultures can teach us something. My husband was blessed by the hospitality he received in the Philippines when he made his first mission trip there. One of the team members, Butch, set out to knock on every door and share the gospel message. Not a single Filipino missed the opportunity to show hospitality by serving him a tasty treat and tea. He persevered even though he soon became bloated! Ha! On another trip my husband and I were graciously received into the home of the Dean of Silliman University. When my husband said to her that we should not be taking up her time from work, she said, “Oh no, I will just tell them that I had guests.” Hospitality was a valid reason for being late to work in the Philippines.
In pursuing my degree in Middle East History I wrote a paper about the hospitality of the Bedouins. I found there is an unwritten law that gives security to a stranger in their midst. Gracious hospitality is the hallmark of the Bedouin. They recognize that Abraham entertained angels unaware (Gen. 18), and so they look upon the visiting stranger as “an envoy of our Lord.” The Bedouin will serve food to a stranger even if he has to go hungry, and he will even do this for his enemy, I discovered! I ended my paper with the hope of reconciliation between Jew and Arab as pictured in the meeting of Esau and Jacob (Gen. 33) – “In the life of the Bedouin we can see the promise of hospitality even in the face of hostility.”
You have chosen a good subject, because Christian hospitality can change lives!
Thank you for your comment and sharing these examples. While on a trip to Borel, Haiti a few years ago I was part of a small group that went out prayer-walking the area. The first family we encountered was dealing with grief related to a death in the family. After we visited and prayed with the family the father decided to lead us all over the area to particular homes. These homes were interconnected in the sense that they too were dealing with grief. Through this man taking the time to lead us to these homes we had the opportunity to visit and pray with a number of grieving people. For this man time did not appear to be a factor but instead he stopped what he was doing and led us through streets and alleys that we most likely would not have found ourselves. It was quite a remarkable experience.
I’m hopeful that the more we talk about hospitality and point to examples that the church in the West can begin to grow in this area and imitate Christ.