(Appeared first in September 2012, The Mennonite. Reprinted with permission.)
By Ervin Stutzman
Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.—Hebrews 13:2 (TNIV)
I was sitting in the departure lounge at Heathrow Airport in London. Seated on one side of me were several women in white saris, veiled except for their eyes. On the other side were several bearded men in turbans, conversing enthusiastically in a tongue that was foreign to me. Another wore a specially-designed skull cap, which I took to be Islamic garb.
Suddenly, several of these men stood up and pushed apart two rows of lounge chairs. They took off their shoes as a gray-bearded man pulled out a large folded cloth from his Pakistani travel bag and spread it on the floor. Five men sat cross-legged in a tight circle in front of me, chatting jovially as they prepared for a meal. One man reached into a bag and produced a bright red pitcher. Another uncovered a plastic container filled with ground meat. A third laid out a stack of flat cakes.
A man seated on a lounge chair nearby me remained in his chair. Beckoning to me with his hand, he asked in broken English, “Will you join us for meat?” Taken aback by the unexpected invitation, I graciously declined since I had just eaten lunch. But I watched with interest as the men dined a few feet away.
They ate quickly, tearing off pieces of the flat cakes and using them to dip meat out of the dish. Within a few minutes, the bowl was empty. After they got up from the meal, they wiped their hands on their flowing robes, put away the containers, folded up the cloth, and returned the lounge chairs to their places. Not long after, they boarded a plane.
I was touched by their offer of hospitality. I am embarrassed to admit that had I been eating lunch with a tight circle of friends that day, I would not have invited others to join us. I wrestle with the same reserve we often face in our churches. We are so involved with our circle of acquaintances that we don’t reach out to the stranger. I pray that God will enable us all to become more missional in this regard. It’s a character trait we can cultivate, as we seek God’s grace and enablement.
Missional character trait: The church practices hospitality.
Signpost: Welcoming the stranger into the midst of the community plays a central role.
The spread of the early church throughout the known world depended almost entirely on the hospitality of believers who invited people into their homes. When they invited people to “come to church,” it meant bringing them into someone’s home for worship and fellowship. To our knowledge, there were no meetinghouses dedicated for Christian worship for two centuries after Pentecost.
In today’s postmodern world, many churches are growing in the same way—by extending warm hospitality to people who are not yet part of a church. Most people will never become committed believers without a specific invitation to come to Christ and the church. Especially in the early stages of a new church, house fellowships function as the core of the church’s identity. In later stages of church life, home groups may serve as an essential place of hospitality within the larger congregation. In either case, hospitality is a ministry of loving and caring that draws new people into our community of faith and helps long-term members stay meaningfully connected.
God is calling us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to grow as communities of grace, joy and peace. Only through the transforming work of God will we become more like Jesus, expanding our welcome by inviting those who are now strangers into our circle of friends. May God enable us to this end.
Ervin Stutzman is executive director of Mennonite Church USA