“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” ***
Over the last six years I have enjoyed providing evidence based discernment to congregations using an assessment tool developed and owned by Holy Cow Consulting in Ohio. This tool engages everyone in the congregation and produces statistical measures on an array of aspects regarding congregational health and vitality.
Healthy and vital churches have six key characteristics. Holy Cow has studied the data of thousands of congregations across the country to arrive at these measures. One of them is hospitality. For a church to have transformational impact on individuals as well as the community, it must have strong hospitality characteristics.
When I meet with the leaders of churches and show them their data on hospitality, they naturally think about greeters at the door, the friendliness of the ushers, the welcome the pastor provides as the service begins and the quality of the coffee hour. These things have little to do with a church’s hospitality.
Hospitality is about how well a congregation connects to people who are different or new and extending the mercy of Jesus to the stranger, the newcomer who may be different from those already gathered
In the passage from Matthew, Jesus is speaking about hospitality to his disciples. They will soon learn about hospitality as he sends them out among people that would have no idea who they were. Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” In other words, when you encounter mercy, you will have received hospitality.
In that culture, it was understood that in showing hospitality, one was welcoming not just a particular person, but the community that person represented. Jesus wanted his disciples to understand that when people welcomed them, they were also welcoming the very presence of Jesus himself and the One who sent him.
In my work the concept of hospitality is often understood with transactional thinking. In our churches, efforts of hospitality aim to secure new people so they can bring something needed: youthfulness, new energy, volunteers, financial support, or more singers in the choir. With the ever increasing empty pews and decreasing younger people, the thinking is that improvements in hospitality holds the hope that both these realities will be turned around.
Hospitality is really about representing Jesus and it comes from a response of love and gratitude for God’s love and welcome to us. Hospitality is a way of loving our neighbor in the same way God has loved us. Parker Palmer describes hospitality as a way of “receiving each other, our struggles, our newborn ideas with openness and care. It means creating an ethos in which the community of truth can form.” (In “To Know as We Are Known”). Thus it is that hospitality is not primarily about changing people, but to offer them a space where change can take place; not to bring people to our side, but to offer freedom undisturbed by dividing lines.
Imagine those disciples, being sent out among people they didn’t know and probably didn’t trust to be welcoming or merciful. In that uncertainty, the person who offered them a cup of cold water would embody not only welcome, but openness to the Jesus they represented.
The early church shaped their life together around the practice of hospitality. “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” (Acts 2:46–47). Our world desperately needs safe places and open people — and churches — where a friend or stranger can enter and experience the welcoming and merciful spirit of Christ in another.
Imagine what the world would be saying about Christians and our churches if we extend true hospitality, the mercy of Jesus without qualification, to everyone.
For further reflection:
Mercy has converted more souls than zeal, or eloquence, or learning or all of them together. Soren Kierkegaard, 19th century
Mercy is the golden chain by which society is bound together. William Blake, 19th century
Be great in little things. Francis Xavier, 16th century Jesuit missionary
Where there are no good works, there is no faith. If works and love do not blossom forth, it is not genuine faith, the gospel has not gained a foothold, and Christ is not yet rightly known. Martin Luther, 16th century reformer.