This week, I have been thinking about (and blogging about) ‘hospitality evangelism.’ A good friend and former seminary classmate, Matthew Wireman, pushed back via Twitter—that vast forum for nuanced perspectives—and said why not just call “hospitality evangelism,’ ‘hospitality.’ Rightly, he insisted that all hospitality should include gospel conversation and that we should not see hospitality as the new door-to-door program, where we invite people in only to give them a fiery invitation to repent of their sins and turn to Jesus. We should in essence always be hospitable, without any other motive.
Or at least, that is what I took him to mean from his 140 characters.
So, should we drop the label ‘hospitality evangelism’ and just go with ‘hospitality,’ trusting that people will catch the drift and will focus on bringing Christ into the conversation? Or should we teach our people to combine hospitality and evangelism, whether or not they use the label ‘hospitality evangelism’?
Here are a few reflections on that question and the need for evangelicals to remember what hospitality and fellowship really are.
First, most people when they hear the word ‘hospitality,’ do not associate it with its root meaning—‘love for strangers.’ Charge me with a root-fallacy if you must, but when most people think of hospitality they are talking about some experience with good food, a generous host, and a well-coordinated gathering. Certainly these things are part of the package, but nowhere in this sense of hospitality is the demographic of the party considered.
Yet, if we take seriously that Christians (Heb 13:), especially church leaders (1 Tim 3:), are to be good at hospitality, then their gifting is not the ability to throw a party for the deacons. It is a pursuit of strangers to love. Certainly, giftedness in preparing a meal helps, but it must also include a willingness to include strangers or even (at times) exclude friends in order to love strangers.
This raises the question: Do church fellowships (another misunderstood word; see below) count as hospitality? Again, it depends on our definitions. Ideally, churches should have many hospitable events where they love on strangers. In this setting, if the church has an eye to invite strangers, there is a good chance that describing the activity as ‘hospitality evangelism’ is unnecessary. It is simply Christian love for strangers, and Christian love of necessity include Christ. True hospitality then is a loving forum where people set apart by his love include in their conversation the omnibenevolent God of creation, redemption, and hospitality—he is preparing a banqueting table after all.
In these settings, it might be wise for pastors, leaders, and organizers to remind church members who the guests are and to assign folks to reach out to them. This is just practical help for those who gravitate towards our church family instead of striking up a conversation with someone new. For pastors, we should always be on the look out for the strangers among us. This is part of our calling, and one the greatest joys in ministry.
So, all in all, I think if we get our definition of hospitality right (love for strangers), then it is less necessary to call it ‘hospitality evangelism.’ But if our understanding about hospitality is wrong—that it is more about the festivities than the guest list—using such nomenclature may help capture an ethos of (spiritual) concern for those visiting in our midst—i.e., genuine hospitality.
Fellowship in the Gospel
There is another part of this equation—gatherings of Christians, or what we like to call ‘fellowships’ (fellowship meals, fellowship groups, fellowship outings, etc.). This well-worn label gets around: “I am looking forward to some good fellowship,” usually means I am looking forward to grilling some burgers and talking to Johnny and Frank about Tim Tebow’s chances of replacing glamor-boy Tom Brady. There is nothing wrong with Christians discussing quarterback controversies. The question is, “Is it fellowship?”
In truth, Christians should enjoy ‘hanging out’ with other Christians. They should labor to meet the physical needs of one another. However, as I read the New Testament, this just doesn’t account for the meaning of fellowship. Consider Philippians 1, the quintessential ‘fellowship verse’:
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and inthe defense and confirmation of the gospel. (vv. 3-7)
Did you miss something? In these verse the word ‘fellowship’ does not appear—it does in other translations: KJV and NKJV—but the word koinonia from which we get fellowship does. Twice.
Paul says that he gives thanks for the partnership in the gospel that he has with the Philippians. They were the church that supported multiple times (Phil 4: 15-16) and thus Paul says they ‘fellowshipped’ with him. The meaning here is worlds apart from our modern Christianese.
Paul looks at fellowship as partnership in the proclamation of the gospel. It is his partnering with the Philippians that allows him to have such confidence of their standing before God (1:6). He is not convinced by their alcohol-free block parties or devotional interludes at the Super Bowl party. He is convinced by their sacrifices for the advancement of the gospel.
So it should be for us.
Christian fellowship is not the sanctified version of hospitality (in the backyard BBQ sense of the term). Christian fellowship is the strategic work that Christians do to share the gospel with others. Interestingly, when a couple families from church invite a number of unchurched families to their home to show them God’s love and to prayerfully engage them with the good news of Jesus Christ, they are experiencing true fellowship.
Fellowship in Action
This raises another question: Do Christians have to be sharing the gospel with the lost in order to have fellowship? No. Christians don’t have to share the gospel with unbelievers; but they should be sharing the gospel with each other. The second time Paul uses koinonia in the Philippians 1, he speaks of how the Philippians are fellow partakers of God’s grace (v. 7). In this sense, their fellowship is not based in activity, but in essence.
Christians who are united by the Spirit and the word of Christ do have a sense of fellowship that they do not have with the world. I suppose this is where the idea of a church fellowship at a baseball game comes in. Still, fellowship in essence is only experienced when the conversation is filled with Christ. This can happen at a ball game, a swim meet, or right-to-life march, but it must include verbal communications of the gospel.
Indeed, Christians who are filled with the Spirit should be fellowship-starters, not just fellowship-seekers. Fellowship doesn’t happen when the fellowship committee plans an event after church; fellowship happens whenever two or more Spirit-filled believes spur one another on with the promises and warnings of the gospel. But again the key here is verbal proclamation of the gospel.
Making a connection between fellowship in essence and fellowship in action: It might be said that only when live to communicate our faith in Christ do we experience the reality of that shared Spirit. In truth, the Spirit moves us to talk about Christ (John 16:13; Acts 1:8; Eph 5:18ff.), and the church that has good fellowship is not the one with great pot lucks—though that doesn’t hurt—it is the one who discusses the broken body of Christ raised to life again, even as it passes the rolls.
All in all, churches and church members need to be filled with love and truth. We should not need to introduce programs or campaigns for ‘hospitality evangelism.’ but due to the weakness of our flesh and our memories, such sloganeering is not always bad. Prayerfully, it teaches people what true hospitality and true fellowship are so that we might in all things proclaim Christ.
Evangelism—the telling of the good news (evangel)—is something that should take place in all places. Thus, as we enjoy meals with friends or strangers, at home or abroad, we should pray that God would fill us with his Spirit (as we feed on his Word) that we might fill our conversations with the salt of grace and truth.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss