I want to start with a confession: I am a recovering perfectionist. I grew up with a mother who was a wonderful hostess. I can still remember those yummy little Vienna sausages cooking in a sweet and sour sauce. This was the woman who taught me to clean the woodwork in my bedroom and to comb out the fringe on the wool carpets. She ironed pillow cases. She was a hard act to follow, but the ideal had been set before me.
I carried my perfectionism with me to West Africa, where I served two years as a single global worker, but I am not sure I brought all of it home. After receiving my Masters of Divinity degree, I married an Egyptian-American and served with him for over 20 years among Muslims in five countries in North Africa and the Middle East. Though remnants of perfectionism remain, they have become rather tattered and worn, to say the least!
While I will share later some of my own guidelines for hospitality, I was blessed to have read a wonderful book many years ago entitled A Christian View of Hospitality: Expecting Surprises by Michele Hershberger (Herald Press, 1999). Through it, I have been able to put together a better understanding of the role hospitality plays in our ministry as women.
Hospitality builds bridges—it creates access to God. How we relate to our guests will be one of the most effective witnessing tools in reaching them for Christ.
Remember that it is not just us who serve the guest; the guest can also minister to us. Expect something from your guests. That is the surprise. God used one of my most inhospitable-mood days to bring a couple to our home. I did not want to invite them in because of what I knew about them, but my husband told me to practice hospitality. When the man accepted Christ, my, was I surprised!
I have also found that my guests have surprised me by washing the dishes, bringing food for the weekend sleepover, and playing with my kids. It is a two-way blessing.
Such hospitality requires us not only to check our attitudes but to hold lightly to ‘our things.’ I must be willing to share everything with my guests. The only door we locked was the office, because it had sensitive materials in it. I did have a limit, however, to what I allowed my guests to use. When I became aware they were using our toothbrushes, I had to realize that some things were better put away! It takes time to see how to make your home both accessible to your guests and safe for your family.
Remember that each time you open your door to a guest, you are opening the door for the Lord to work through you to touch their life. You will find that, more often than not, He also works through the guest to touch yours.
Hospitality in the Bible
To continue looking at A Christian View of Hospitality: Expecting Surprises by Michele Hershberger, I remind you of several stories in the Bible which reflect different aspects of hospitality. Hershberger speaks of several ways the ‘stranger’ touches our lives through the act of hospitality. The ‘stranger’ is not just our common idea of an outsider or a person we do not know, but is one who can bring something new and different into our life. For Hershberger, it is the one who can surprise us with something new from God.
The encounter between Jesus and sisters Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42 illustrates a crucial factor in hospitality—do not forget the guest! Martha was so busy trying to prepare the food that she left the guest and missed out on what He had to offer. When we remember that the guest is truly the ‘host,’ all we do will meet his expectations for the visit, not ours.
I love the encounter of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath in 1 Kings 17. Here is a woman who had nothing, but she was willing to host the prophet even in her poverty and ended up being surprised by the gifts her guest came to offer. I have found over the years that when my refrigerator was empty and my efforts to please came to naught, I have often been surprised by the guest who came bearing gifts in the form of a needed dessert or a word of encouragement. In hosting the stranger, I was blessed.
Hershberger touches a raw nerve in her discussion of Peter and his need to face the stranger within before being able to become host to Cornelius in Acts 10:1-23. This is especially important for those of us who serve among people who are from vastly differing cultures and traditions. As Peter had to come to accept that God loves all men, not just Jews, we too must come to openly accept and love those different from ourselves—weird foods, customs, and all. We must see the stranger as Christ sees them, and we must open our hearts and homes to them.
Jesus gives encouraging words about hospitality when He speaks of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46. Practicing hospitality prepares us for His return. I may not always see Jesus in the person I am serving, nor will I always see the significance of the visit, but that is all right. It can be in the small acts of kindness that Jesus does the most to touch another’s life and mine. There are days when I will be sure that Jesus ordained a certain visit, but that does not always happen. My role is to open my life and home to the opportunity for God to use me as His vessel of love and witness in the life of another.
False and True Hospitality
If I have not come to accept the people among whom I am living, I will not be able to be transparent in my hospitality toward them. Be aware—guests cannot be fooled! They will know if our hospitality is not honest, and this will have a detrimental effect on our ability to reach them for Christ.
Here are several practical tips for practicing true hospitality:
- Pray for the people you are hosting before they show up at your door. As with all our ministries, prayer should be the focus of our efforts to be hospitable as well. If I am praying for a neighbor or certain people group, then I will be more willing to open my home and heart to them when they visit.
- Be yourself while trying to adopt the good from your new culture. In the Middle East, friends say my home looks American; in America, my friends say my home looks Middle Eastern! I take that as a compliment, because it means a part of me is found in both cultures. I can never be 100% Middle Eastern, but I am also no longer 100% American. Our goal as a family is to take the good we see from every culture in which we live.
- Greetings are very important. Guests can be offended if you do not perform this necessary aspect of their culture. We have to be willing to overcome some of our cultural prejudices when adjusting to greetings in new lands. This is not just in giving kisses or proper handshakes; it can also come in asking about people, their health, and their family before we dive into ‘real conversation.’ Do not neglect the importance of greetings in building bridges to another culture for the sake of the gospel. If you do not ask about their health, they may see Christians as people who do not care, and they may be closed off to our witness.
- Cleanliness matters. In the Middle East, where we served, several nationals questioned me as to why some global workers dressed so poorly and did not seem to care about personal hygiene. It is important to be well-dressed and presentable when you have a dinner guest. Do not dress down because of social levels. When I care about myself, others will pay better attention to my message.
- Acting as though you are pressed for time will give the impression that your guest is not important. We live in a time-constrained society in the USA, but as a host we need to convey that we have all the time in the world for our guest. While there are ways to control the time for visits, I want to do so in a way that does not hinder my guest from feeling valued and wanted.
- Be willing to eat their food and be comfortable in their homes. Hospitality goes two ways. I need to be able to play the role of guest in the home of the other. When I am willing to go into ‘their territory,’ the Lord can work through me to bless them just as they bless me by coming to my home. These opportunities can also be used to watch their customs in hospitality and adopt some for future use.
- Listen to and remember their stories. Because we have lived in several countries and the years of our service have been long, we had a problem remembering not just stories, but names and basic information about people who had even had meals in our home! I took it upon myself to write down basic information after each visit so that I could reference it the next time we met. This has helped us a lot!
The practice of love-based (in contrast to duty-based) hospitality can be one of the strongest influences on those you are trying to reach for Christ. As they are welcomed into your home and shown love and respect, they will be drawn to the One who motivates you to open your home and life to them. Your home can be the springboard for a church-planting movement as you exemplify the hospitable woman.