What if evangelism, the sharing of the good news of Jesus, is as simple as opening up your home and dining table to those who do not know why Jesus is good news? An essay written for the UK church.
It does not take long to find evidence that society seems to be more fragmented than ever before. Disagreement is synonymous with hate and allegiance to certain groups means shouting down or ‘de-platforming’ those with opposing views. A quick glance at the news can highlight these battle lines: same-sex marriage vs traditional marriage, leave or remain, pro-choice or pro-life and many others. This fragmentation comes alongside an increase in loneliness as a major health concern in the UK. People are more likely to disagree with others and less likely to do so in person. It is a cultural climate that is just right for xenophobia, the fear or hate of the stranger, to grow.
There are many passages throughout the bible that can be linked to the call for the disciple of Jesus to be hospitable and for the leaders of the church to model hospitality (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8). What does hospitality look like and how different is it from UK culture? Is it important for the church to teach and practice it over preaching the gospel or other important doctrinal issues?
To answer these questions, this essay will look at how hospitality is viewed across the UK culture and how it is practiced in the UK church. A biblical view of hospitality will then be discussed which will then give structure to the importance of hospitality in terms of discipleship, mission and outreach. Finally, this essay will look at the practicalities and opportunities for hospitality for individuals as well as for the church.
Hospitality in the UK culture
Searching for hospitality brings up a long list of hotels, pubs, jobs and businesses under the ‘hospitality sector’ label. If it isn’t the hospitality industry, then the results show Christian pages discussing the gift of hospitality or how to make your church more hospitable. In the UK, hospitality takes up 9% of the UK workforce, shows like ‘Come Dine With Me’ have made offering dinner to strangers a competition and Airbnb has made offering a room an easy way to make money (which is causing some concern within communities in tourist destinations).
Hospitality outside of the church is closely linked with tourism and something that can be capitalised on to turn a profit. As a form of charity, some aspects of the hospitality industry, including Airbnb are using their network to help those who need a home by others offering their spare rooms. In the UK, opening your home to friends is encouraged and practiced while offering food to strangers is for entertainment or competition only. Two-fifths of families eat in the lounge and over half have a screen present during the meal. Conversation is diminished but there is still a desire for community over the dinner table as almost half of those responding to a 2018 survey said they consider it an important way to spend quality time together.
There is a growing community of people who are confident cooks and slightly more adventurous who share their tables to strangers for a price. Though some may bemoan the capitalisation of hospitality across the UK, many are simply using technology to meet new people as apps and websites fill the need for community over a dinner table. Beyond opening homes and dining tables, hospitality in form of befriending, offering lifts and visiting those isolated and lonely is generally left for charities to do and for keen volunteers to offer their time.
Many studies have shown the benefits of eating together as families but many are showing that this practice is becoming less and less common. In a culture where the shared table seems to be dying out, the church should be the place where those searching for community can find it. In the next section this essay will look at the importance of hospitality within the Christian life.
The Gospel and Hospitality
The Greek word that is translated ‘hospitality’ is philoxenia, which when translated literally means, love the stranger. There are several passages in the Old Testament that emphasises God’s love for the stranger. God promised Abraham that his offspring would bless the nations (Genesis 22:18) by their faithfulness to Him. To fulfil this promise, Israel was called to love the stranger as themselves (see Leviticus 19:34 and again in Deuteronomy 10:19). The foreigner or sojourner is defended by God’s justice just like the fatherless and the widow (Deuteronomy 10:18). Many other verses in the Old Testament highlight God’s love and protection for and the call for Israel to also love and protect the stranger and foreigner through hospitality (see Proverbs 5:10 and Job 31:32 for example).
Philoxenia, as used in the New Testament is the perfect word to summarise this command. Paul uses philoxenia in Romans 12:13 when he writes, “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality” (ESV). The anglicised word hospitality seems to suggest that hospitality is part of supporting the saints. Philoxenia shows that Paul has the wider community beyond the church in mind. The writer of Hebrews also writes in chapter 13, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers”, the ESV here emphasises hospitality to strangers correctly but a much more succinct translation of the verse would simply be “Do not neglect hospitality [philoxenia], because through it some have entertained angels without knowing it” (NET2). Loving the stranger is not an abstract emotion but a practical resourcing of those in need. Jesus highlights this in Matthew 25:35 by his expectation that those who love him will provide for the hungry and thirsty and welcome in the stranger.
The theme of hospitality as loving the stranger is found through the bible and encapsulated in John 3:16
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life”.
This verse also defines the gospel. Without God we perish, with God, through Jesus, we gain life in the fullest sense of the word (see also John 10:10). God loves his creation and all that are within it. Paul highlights that we, the world, were alienated from God, hostile in mind (Colossians 1:21) and we were
“alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise” ~ Ephesians 2:12
Despite this alienation, God brought peace and unity between mankind and God as well as between the nations (Gentiles) and the Jews (Ephesians 2:15-16) through Jesus on the cross. So just as the Israelites were called to love the stranger because they were strangers in Egypt, so the church today is called to practice philoxenia because we were strangers to God. His philoxenia has brought us peace and reconciliation and so our philoxenia reflects this fact.
Not only does hospitality reflect our own salvation and reconciliation to God, our hospitality can also reflect the hope that we have beyond death. The bible is excellent at giving pictures of what we can expect in eternity, one picture that is found both in the Old and New Testament is that of a great feast, often labelled as The Messianic Banquet. This promise of a great banquet is found in Isaiah 25:6-9:
6 On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
7 And he will swallow up on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.
8 He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
9 It will be said on that day,
"Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.
This is the Lord; we have waited for him;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation."
The great feast will be a chance to celebrate the end of death, the wiping away of tears, removal of shame and the rejoicing in salvation. This celebration will incorporate all peoples. The promise that God made to Abraham that all nations would be blessed by Israel, continues to be echoed by Isaiah and beyond.
Early Judaism applied and translated this text in different ways. One way was to downplay the emphasis on the hope we have at this banquet and in fact make the banquet a place of shame and a plague. Another was to affirm that while all nations beyond Israel would be present, the angel of death would be there ready to destroy the gentiles. One final view was to say that ‘all nations’ was ‘all Jewish tribes’ and not only would gentiles not be there but neither would those who were disabled or blemished. Israel’s assumed superiority as God’s people meant they interpreted the message to be their own victory as a nation. All hope for the nations was lost.
Jesus references food and eating a lot through Luke, but his parable of the great banquet in Luke 14 is clearly a parallel to the great messianic banquet we see in Isaiah 25.
12 He said also to the man who had invited him, "When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. 13But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just."
15When one of those who reclined at table with him heard these things, he said to him, "Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!" 16But he said to him, "A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. 17And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, 'Come, for everything is now ready.' 18But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, 'I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.' 19And another said, 'I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.' 20And another said, 'I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.' 21So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, 'Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.' 22And the servant said, 'Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.' 23And the master said to the servant, 'Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. 24For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.'"
The structure of the parable parallels the story of the bible. First the people of God are invited, they make their excuses and don’t attend, the invitation is extended to the outcasts of Israel through Jesus – his healing ministry and teaching often impacting the outcasts of Israel and finally the invitation to those outside Israel completely – the Gentiles.
Through his parable, Jesus defeats the three ethnocentric interpretations of the messianic banquet of Isaiah 25. The banquet isn’t a plague or a place of shame but one of honour. Those who consider themselves to be clean and unblemished and others ‘blemished’ would most likely not be tasting the banquet. Those who are outcast both in and by Israel will be compelled to join the banquet where the finest food and the best wine is served. The stranger is loved by God, not destroyed or shamed as the early interpretations sought to show.
Jesus gives his disciples a similar command that the master gave his servant.
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” ~Matthew 28:19-20
The church is the servant, called to compel the nations and the outcast to come and join in the great banquet.
Therefore, the church has a direct mandate to practise hospitality, to love the stranger and provide resources and practical care for those without. Not only will the church be blessed by this through unintentional interaction with angels and being welcomed by Christ (Matthew 25:35-40), it will provide a picture of the Christian hope that death is defeated, and all nations will rejoice by eating the finest food and wine.
Hospitality and the unchurched
Throughout the previous section, the call to disciple and the call to be hospitable has been intentionally blurred in to one call to love the stranger. Through the practical love of hospitality, discipleship can begin even before the stranger knows anything about the gospel. Rosaria Butterfield writes about her experience of Christian hospitality as an “out-lesbian feminist” and “a leader in LGBTQ rights” in The Gospel Comes with A House Key. In her book, she writes that the Christian pastor that welcomed her into his home was able to show her the difference between acceptance and approval. She was accepted into their home, became close friends with them and trusted them but always knew where they stood on her sexuality and views on marriage at that point. Through their hospitality, she was able to wrestle with faith and the bible and over time she came to follow Jesus, married her husband and started a family.
Sam Chan, writer of Evangelism in a Skeptical World summarises the power of hospitality,
“…there is a distinction between loving someone and agreeing with them. For example, Jesus can eat with sinners, but that doesn’t mean he agrees with what they’re doing… Giving hospitality to our non-Christian friends is a proclamation of the gospel…we can eat with those who aren’t Christians; we love them but don’t agree with them. But we eat with them nonetheless because we love.”
Organisations like Friends International (FI) are using this as a model for ministry. With over 40 branches across the UK, FI welcome international students through events, trips, cafes, English classes and hospitality schemes, all in partnership with the local church. In many of the branches, FI connects volunteer hosts from local churches with students so that students can experience not just a British home, but a Christian home. The relationships built between host and student often become close and can lead to students becoming Christians, being discipled and prepared for when they return home. The hospitality of the local church is vital for international students from countries that are closed to the gospel hearing the good news and returning home to share it. With over 400,000 international students from all over the world in the UK, global mission has never been so easy and cost effective for the UK church.
Eating together is a simple way of allowing those outside the church to feel loved and welcomed before Jesus has been proclaimed verbally. Tim Chester emphasises Jesus strategy for teaching and preaching in his book A Meal With Jesus,
“He [Jesus] ate meals. If you routinely share meals and you have a passion for Jesus, then you’ll be doing mission. It’s not that meals save people. People are saved through the gospel message. But meals will create natural opportunities to share that message in a context that resonates powerfully with what you’re saying.”
He writes further on,
“around a table the marginalised are no longer marginalised, the lonely cease to be lonely, the alien ceases to be alien. The stranger becomes friends.”
Our hospitality is a means through which strangers can visualise grace and reconciliation with God even before they have heard the gospel.
The Practicalities of Hospitality
UK culture has very little to offer those seeking friendship and connection without payment. The church has an opportunity fill the void through hospitality. Many agree that hospitality is necessary and biblical, the complication comes with the practicalities. How can churches connect with the stranger and ‘compel them’ to come in? Many books and articles are written on this so this essay will not come close to being conclusive, these are some simple ideas to hopefully inspire the reader to practice hospitality but also to realise there are already many ways in which hospitality is practised but not connecting with those outside their church.
What does your church already do that can be made more inclusive? Midweek groups are a natural start for churches looking to be more open. Make food a major part of the meeting and if possible, have it around a table.
Are your midweek groups known and accessible? Make sure they are advertised beyond the church walls. Our bible studies should be open as those investigating the faith can see Christians working out their faith and how it directly applies to their lives. Think about accessibility and whether those without their own transport and those who are isolated socially can be a part of the groups.
Are midweek group leaders aware of different cultures and the ways to engage with them around the gospel? There are many ways that churches can train up their group leaders and this can include getting external speakers in from organisations like RZIM or Friends International who have cross-cultural experience.
Are midweek group leaders able to cook? Churches need to support midweek group leaders to not make meals a competition but to keep them simple and plentiful. If the leaders can’t cook, parachute a couple of people who can help them out. Preparation of the meal can be part of the hospitality as can doing the dishes! The church leaders should also be modelling this (Titus 1:8) in their own homes.
Are there courses going on in the church that can be wrapped around a meal? The Alpha course highlights in one of their training videos that missing food as one of the biggest mistakes that churches can make.
Is the church going on a weekend away? Can others be invited or has the church become a members-only club? International students have highlighted the importance of weekends away as a way of adapting and learning about the culture they are being hosted in. They provide more opportunities for in depth conversations that are less limited by time and routine. Over the table, the host can learn from the guest and both will have their views of the world and the understanding of the gospel expanded.
There are many other ways to be hospitable as a church and as stated before, a simple google search shows many bloggers and articles have already delved into this area. The best hospitality is authentic, simple and allows for good conversation that goes beyond the trivial into conversations that really matter.
Up to this point this essay has not defined ‘the church’. The biblical view of the church is not an organisation that puts on events and worship services but a community of people sharing life, wealth and food (see Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-35) daily. For many in the UK, it is up to the church as an organisation to provide hospitality through the events, courses, midweek groups and weekends as the previous paragraph discusses. For many in the UK, the home has become a place of refuge away from others and 'rest' is a form of isolation. In an informal survey of 30 Christians, 12 said that they never or rarely shared a meal with people that weren’t well known to them. Only 1 said that they did so weekly. Though not a representative of the church across the UK, it is not hard to imagine that busyness of schedules, the easiness of comfort and the lack of a dining room for many makes opening the home difficult. Though there is a time for isolation and prayer as Jesus modelled repeatedly (Mark 1:35, Luke 5:16), this essay has clearly shown a mandate for Christians to practise hospitality, not just the church as an organisation, even if it is challenging.
There are many ways that individuals can practise hospitality. A plan to set aside a mealtime each week or month to invite their neighbours, work colleagues or newcomers to church is a good place to start. If confidence is lacking, then invite a friend or two to join in. Organisations like Friends International have hospitality schemes where families can offer to host two or more international students for a meal and Friends International will connect them with the students. Charities like Home for Good show the need for Christians to share their homes to refugees, orphans and children without families. This hospitality often requires far more sacrifice and commitment that challenges the comfort of individuals in the UK church, but many are rising to the challenge.
From a simple meal to a lifelong commitment, what hospitality looks like may vary. In whatever way a Christian shares their table and home, it will be a powerful picture of the God who welcomed us when we were strangers to him, even if it feels chaotic and messy.
Within the UK, the church has an opportunity to bridge the gaps of disagreement and be the community that many are paying to find through hospitality websites and apps. The whole bible story is one of a God loving the stranger and reconciling them to Him, the church is called to replicate that through the practice of philoxenia. The practicalities of opening a home to neighbours and strangers may be difficult and, in some cases, uncomfortable, but the call for the Christian to sacrifice comfort and resources for others couldn’t be clearer. Through the hospitality of the local church and her members, the gospel can be shared and those welcomed into the home will see how relevant it really is.
 2013- https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/mother-tongue/9882717/British-familes-dont-eat-together-and-if-they-do-its-often-in-front-of-the-TV.html and 2018 - https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/average-british-dinner-lasts-21-11882536
 See mealshare.com
 Simply google ‘benefits of eating together’ to see results. Eating together can lead to healthier lifestyles, less behavioural issues, less mental health and addiction problems and more.
 See Kenneth Bailey’s Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes and his take on Luke 14:12-24 for more detail.
 Ailene Chou writes in Friends International Insight Magazine https://friendsinternational.uk/resources/downloadable-resources/our-periodicals/insight/66-insight-issue-9-winter-201213/file