Practicing Hospitality – Basic to Community and to our Engagement with the World

Gordon Smith Ambrose University President
Practicing Hospitality: In this blog series, President Gordon T. Smith explores the topic of Practicing Hospitality. Dr. Smith offers insights and personal reflections on the dynamics of offering hospitality as Christians, and the importance of this spiritual practice in today’s diverse world. This series is published bi-monthly, on the 1st and 15th.

Practicing Hospitality – Basic to Community and to our Engagement with the World

First, in a series of eight reflections on the meaning of hospitality

The Scriptures assume that the Christian community is marked by hospitality, both as a posture of response to one another as Christian believers and in our response to others—to the world, say. In 1 Peter 4:9 we read, “be hospitable to one another without complaining”—or, in the NIV, “offer hospitality without grumbling.” This call comes up again and again in the Scriptures. Christians are to be hospitable to one another. We greet one another as Christians; we welcome one another; we pass the peace. Ideally this is not only within our own communities, but with Christians in other traditions. We greet sisters and brothers within other denominations with generosity.

But also, the biblical call is not merely that we are to be hospitable towards one another and other fellow Christians. We are also to be hospitable towards those who are not part of our communities of faith. Romans 12:13 locates hospitality as a vital expression of the church in the world: we are to extend hospitality to strangers (Rom 12:13), and this is followed by the extraordinary call—the remarkable admonition—to bless those that persecute us, to bless and not curse them (Rom 12:14).

The Scriptures seem to assume a kind of concentric circle approach to the practice of hospitality. We begin with the church community; we are hospitable to one another (1 Peter 4:9)—recognizing this as a priority that is justifiably given to our hospitality to each other within the church (Galatians 6:10). For how can we be hospitable to others if we are not to each other? We begin here. But, this hospitality is never exclusive; it is not about “us” and it is not true hospitality until and unless it is expressed towards the outsider, the stranger, the “other.” Even within the church, hospitality by definition means responding with generosity to those who are different—whether in the case of the apostolic church, with the generous response of Jews towards Gentiles and Gentiles towards Jews, or then for us today, it surely means a hospitality across social, ethnic, racial differences. And more, it means specifically that we are hospitable towards those with whom we differ, potentially on substantive matters—as we see in the call of Paul to the church in Rome in Romans 14, and then the grand conclusion to that call in Romans 15:7.

And surely it is easy to see how this posture of hospitality towards each other, within the faith, is the precondition for our hospitality towards “the stranger”—those not of our communities of faith.

Reflecting on the references of the Scriptures and of our Christian heritage, I wonder if hospitality is basic spiritual practice. What I am suggesting is the following: when it comes to our understanding of work and vocation and the mission of God in the world, and when it comes to our understanding of spiritual discipline or practice, hospitality is the base line. It is the essential soil on which everything rests, every aspect of the life work and witness of the Christian community.

That is, hospitality locates all other practices and forms of engagement, grounding our life and work and witness.

Could it be that in a similar vein, hospitality both precedes all points of engagement with the world—that is, anticipates and sets the stage for what we say and what we do—and, further, is necessarily intertwined with all our ways of fulfilling our respective vocations? That is, for all Christians—regardless of their vocations—hospitality is essential spiritual practice. It is a way of being; it is in each time and each place, a disposition of rhythms and routines that fosters a distinctive openness to the other—meeting the other as and where they are, and being open to the possibility of fellowship with the other. This has perhaps always been the case: that whenever the church thinks about its engagement with the world, hospitality is foundational to its identity and its way of being. But could it be that this has never been quite so true as now, given that we live and work in remarkably diverse institutions that are located in communities and cities of high diversity?

This posture, this disposition, this practice has always mattered; it has always been basic to the life of the church and to the mission of the church in the world. But I wonder if this is particularly the case for the church in a post-Christian, pluralist and secular age. I wonder if hospitality is essential spiritual practice in a world that is marked by high migration, diversity and political polarization.    

If such is the case, we can perhaps foster good conversation about what this means—within the church, within congregations and within schools of higher education like Ambrose University. And we can learn from one another as we ask: in this time and in this place, what does it mean to offer hospitality?