By Andrew Zirschky, Ph.D.
As the calendar year rolls over, many families see opportunities for new beginnings and restarts as they consider returning to church or finding a new one. For youth workers, this inevitably leads to evaluating and retooling our welcoming and retention processes in hopes of making our youth ministries friendly places where students stick. However, the problem is that we often employ an anemic understanding of hospitality, seeing it merely as a tool for growing our ministries without recognizing that there is a more theologically robust understanding of hospitality — one which forms the very substance of Christian faith and practice.
Now, this claim might sound like an egregious overreach. In an age when our understanding of hospitality is primarily informed by Hilton and Marriott, “practicing hospitality” at best sounds like a soft and squishy Christian value or watered down piety rather than a serious aspect of Christian spirituality. Yet, in believing this we are out of step with Christian history and theology. Religious historian Diana Butler Bass observes, “The unanimous witness of the ancient fathers and mothers was that hospitality was the primary Christian virtue.”
The primary Christian virtue? If you’re shocked, then count me in your company. And yet it doesn’t take much digging to confirm that Butler Bass is correct, and that maybe displaying Christian hospitality requires more than retooling our youth ministry greeting team. Whether exploring the writings of Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, or Augustine, it’s clear that radical hospitality toward others is understood by early theologians as the way that Christians practically demonstrate God’s love. Early Christian history is rife with stories of almost incomprehensible displays of love for others, from Bishop Basil cashing in his entire family fortune to feed his city during a famine, to Christians flouting the plague in order to care for pagan villagers who’d been left behind after their own families had fled.
Contemporary theologians are not in disagreement with our forebears that hospitality is a central Christian practice. When Henri Nouwen was asked, “What does it mean to live a life in the Spirit of Jesus Christ?” he pointed to hospitality as a key reality. Similarly, Stanley Hauerwas argues that hospitality is a fundamental aspect of Christian living that constitutes who we are, rather than merely being something we do. Theologian Dorothy Bass in her book, Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time, says that true hospitality is rooted in the understanding that all people are created in the image of God, and as such, hospitality is a way of recognizing the sacred in others.
All of this indicates that our impulse toward considering how hospitality figures into our youth ministries is spot on, yet becoming a youth ministry that shows forth truly Christian hospitality is far, far bigger than considering visitor gifts, retention processes, and warm welcomes at the door. At least five principles should ground the way that we consider Christian hospitality and the way that it matters in our youth ministries.
HOSPITALITY IS CARE FOR THE UNWANTED
First, in the gospels Jesus sets the basis for any truly Christian conception of hospitality as care for the least of these: the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, outcast, and alone. Hospitality in youth ministry isn’t warmly welcoming the popular, well-dressed kids with open arms. In Jesus’ conception of hospitality, “Outsiders—unlovely, unwanted human beings—are brought inside the circle of protection and care as usual social relationships are disrupted or reversed.” This is a far cry from our simple practice of handshakes and hugs, and far beyond hospitality gift bags that include a refrigerator magnets and logo-branded water bottles. Christian hospitality is about embracing the unwanted, unloved, and discarded. Hospitality, to use Jürgen Moltmann’s phrase, is “creative love for the abandoned” and is marked by embracing the stranger as family. Our practices do not rise to the measure of Christian hospitality unless they challenge the cultural status quo by creatively incorporating those who are social outcasts and strangers.
HOSPITALITY IS ONGOING DEMONSTRATION OF GOD’S LOVE
Second, hospitality is our “practical demonstration of God’s love” and therefore must involve more than simple warm welcome. It’s not a one-time welcome, a blithe embrace, or a temporary show of warmness. Rather hospitality is acting, in each encounter, as if we are “receiving Christ himself.” We have been misled if we think that hospitality is something we show once or twice and then neglect. The command of Hebrews 13:2 is, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” However, we’re misreading if we think this means that we can neglect hospitality for those who have been around awhile! Again, hospitality is the way we practically demonstrate God’s love to all regardless of how long they’ve been in our midst.
HOSPITALITY SEEKS OUT, RATHER THAN WAITS
Third, many scholars believe that the Hebrew word hesed (often translated as “lovingkindness”) was often used in the context of hospitality and welcoming of strangers. Hesed is not merely compassionate love, but it involves actively seeking out and serving those in need, just as God does for us. In Christian youth ministry, hospitality cannot merely involve opening our arms and waiting for young people to walk through our doors, but rather it involves seeking out and serving youth who might never find their way to us on their own.
HOSPITALITY REQUIRES VULNERABILITY
A fourth distinctive of Christian hospitality is that it is characterized by vulnerability and risk-taking. Hospitality requires a vulnerability that is increasingly uncommon in a world perceived to be divided and dangerous. Strangers pose risk — it’s one of the first lessons we teach our children. If they don’t kidnap or kill you, they’re at least as likely to take advantage of you and bleed you dry. The well of fear and hostility toward others runs deep within us, and so it is no wonder that our youth ministries and churches struggle with knowing how to extend hospitality — at the very same time they wonder if extending hospitality is a good idea in the first place. In the end, it is impossible to truly extend hospitality and to love your neighbor as yourself without experiencing a conversion of sorts from the well of distrust and suspicion, to the living springs of loving compassion that can only flow from God. Nouwen notes that Christian hospitality requires us to open ourselves up to the possibility of being transformed by the stranger. This means being willing to listen, learn, and be changed by our experiences of others.
HOSPITALITY IS LOVE WITHOUT EXPECTATIONS
Finally, that embrace of hospitality cannot depend on the conformity of youth to our likeness or expectations. They can continue to be themselves, and yet truly Christian hospitality embraces them regardless. Hospitality isn’t about inviting in and welcoming those who can repay us (whether by their attendance, money, or conformity), but inviting the least, the unlikely, the unwanted to feast at our banquet table (Luke 14:12-13). When it comes to youth ministry, a Christian understanding of hospitality should inspire us to be more inclusive and welcoming to all young people, regardless of their background or circumstances. This means that we should strive to create an environment where all young people feel safe, valued, and accepted. What hospitality does and is, says Nouwen, is create a space where strangers can become friends. However, there is a distinct difference between becoming friends and requiring another to conform to our likeness or join the fold. Often our extension of forms of hospitality to others is in a vain attempt to conform or control the other, extending welcome and warmth only to the extent that it appears they are willing to accept our sales pitch and discard their stangeness by becoming like us.
Theologian Andrew Root has most powerfully examined this tendency in his excellent book Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry. Root strongly critiques our tendencies to roll out the red carpet or expend relational energy with young people on the basis that they might convert or otherwise join our ministry. If and when teenagers fail to respond the way we hope, many youth workers have a tendency to discard the teenager and expend their relational time and energy on a more receptive convert.
If so-called hospitality seeks to conform the other to our own image, or extends love and embrace only on the grounds that the other becomes like us, is in fact not hospitality at all. Christian hospitality creates space for the other, without necessitating that the other becomes “one of us.” Christian hospitality recognizes the imago dei in each person, and welcomes them on the basis of their essential worth, dignity, and value regardless of their interest or ability in buying what we have to sell, and regardless of their interest in becoming like us.
In conclusion the way we often conceive of hospitality in our youth ministries is both too small, and too influenced by cultural norms derived from the hospitality world and business generally. Rather than being undergirded by our desire to grow ministry and add new people to the fold, our efforts of hospitality must be re-grounded in a genuine expression of love and concern for the teenager as a person. Only then will our hospitality be a reflection of God’s own love for them.
- Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity (HarperOne, 2009), 62.
- St. John Chrysostom, Homily 25 on First Corinthians. Accessed here: https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/220125.htm.
- Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (Image Books, 1975).