If you’ve read much of my writing here you will recall that I’m a major proponent of the concept that has come to be known as Radical Hospitality. In a previous post I defined this concept as: the abnormally gracious and exceedingly surprising way we receive, accept, nurture, and commission others in the name of Jesus Christ. It is our call as Christians to graciously accept strangers as we would accept Christ. And we do this as a response to how Christ has accepted us. Radical Hospitality is one of the distinctive marks that identifies us as Christian–we accept and love people without pretense. It is a practice marked by humility and generosity.
But what happens when we abuse the practice of radical hospitality?
Bishop Robert Schnase has now made famous the concept of radical hospitality, at least among those in United Methodist circles. It’s widely viewed as a different way of “being church” or a new way of “relating to the outside world.” In a society that is so steeped in Christian tradition it can be easy to become oblivious to the fact that often we don’t know how to relate to those outside of the confines of our close-knit communities of faith. We find that too often we’re guilty of acting as though it’s strange if someone darkens our doors who has never experienced worship, sung hymns, or listened to a sermon. This isn’t an overt act, mind you, but it’s revealed in how closed we treat our worship services or ministries within the life of the community. One must be an “insider” to understand what’s going on and we fail to recognize that “outsiders” might be in our midst. Our language of worship and organization carries with it inherent boundaries to anyone not familiar to “the way we do things.” It’s imperative that we look for ways to break down walls in our communities. Otherwise we’ll find ourselves doomed to a quiet life of exclusivity in how we do church.
Recently I’ve been in multiple meetings and group conversations where the idea of radical hospitality came up. And I’ve since noticed a subtle, yet profound flaw that is common in how we view this practice. These conversations lead me to ask: When did the practice of radical hospitality become yet another ploy to attract people to our churches?
There is a distinct emphasis radical hospitality carries with it that’s easy to miss. It is one of the marks of the Christian community. Now this cannot be confused with the imperialistic notion that we, in the Christian community, know exactly what people are looking for therefore we practice radical hospitality because it’s somehow at attractional. The emphasis of Christian hospitality is not to grow our churches. Instead, it’s part of what it means to be a baptized member of the Body of Christ. We welcome others in the same way that Christ welcomes us. It’s who we are called to be, not how we’re to grow our churches.
In the end church growth isn’t of our primary concern when it comes to radical Christian hospitality. At the same time, when we truly extend the hand of hospitality above and beyond the expectations of others, it is inherently evangelistic in character. People are drawn to and compelled by a community bold enough to live by a story different than that which the world around us says is “normal.”
Hospitality as a means to an end of church growth is manipulative and unfaithful. It puts the preservation of our institution or buildings above the lives of everyone around us. It leads us to believe that “being nice” or, dare I say it, welcoming others is a worthy task insofar as it helps serve our own purposes of preservation and self gain. And people can find that empty promise most anywhere in life.
On the other hand, hospitality as a defining practice of the community is a sign of a community willing to align itself around a narrative contrary to much else life has to offer. It dares to form a community around a story that cares more for people than it does it’s own life. This is an odd way to exist in a world that calls us to preserve and protect our own lives at all costs.
Our great fear is, however, that we won’t be bold enough to define our lives around such a practice that would lead us beyond ourselves, into something new and different, self-sacrificing and self-emptying–a life like, well, Jesus.
Next Post- Colonialism and the Life of Evangelism: A Tale of Two Stories
What if I told you that much of the current language of evangelism in the Church is rooted in colonialism? What if I told you that the way we toss terms like “making disciples” and “taking the gospel outside of our church walls” were rooted in a language that invokes images of colonial powers entering “savage lands” in order to civilize them? Would you believe me?
I’ve written about this before but I feel the need to touch on it again, if for nothing else than to refresh my own memory. When we talk about evangelism in the United Methodist Church we need to understand what we’re saying and what images we’re projecting. You can tell a room full of “church insiders” that it’s important to “make disciples;” you can even say you’ll hold them accountable for the work. But we need to be really careful how we say this lest we all begin to believe what we’re actually saying.
To “make disciples” leads us to believe it’s our mission to convert those who we deem as “not yet converted” and “make them a disciple of Jesus Christ.” There are a couple of fundamental disconnects with this mindset.
First, operating under these terms sets up an inherent position of power on the part of the “one who makes” and a position of subjectivity on the part of the “one who is made.” Being a disciple does not put us into a position of power entitling us to “take” the Gospel anywhere. Just like with colonialism, this sort of system is based in a misguided use of assumed power over those we deem “different.”
Secondly, if our so-called mission is to “make” disciples, the implicit idea is that in order to “make a disciple” one must already “be made.” Just like colonial nations believed their so-called “enlightenment” justified their transforming foreign lands as they exerted power, so the Church also falls into the trap of thinking we’re the enlightened ones who are called to enlighten the world around us. I would invite anyone who would disagree with that to go on a foreign mission trip or ask someone who’s been on one. Find out who’s being transformed on such a trip and then try to decide who actually enlightened and who’s really being enlightened. Transformation is never a one-way street in community. Anytime one experiences transformation it is a shared experience that, in turn, transforms the community and its members in return.
If the Church is going to find ways to renew itself we have to rid ourselves of this mindset that says if we bear down and dig in hard enough, we’ll bring enough people to where we are. How about we go about the mission of finding out where God is in the world and then tell that story? Jesus didn’t seem to have a whole lot of time for the pious and religious institution and maybe we shouldn’t focus so much on its health lest we forsake the fundamental task of theology–finding and articulating God’s action in the world. And we can’t fool ourselves into believing that evangelism is ever going to be easy and neat–if it were it probably wouldn’t be faithful.
What frustrations do you have with how the Church practices evangelism?
Next Post: How Radical Hospitality Can Become a Recipe for Colonial Evangelism
My column from the Macon Telegraph, Aug. 7 2011: http://www.macon.com/2011/08/06/1656130/renewing-our-faith-every-day.html
[This is under what I submitted as the original title. You'll notice from the link they changed it to a more bland title for publication]
Recently, I was walking through the grocery store minding my own business and doing a little shopping. I turned to go down an aisle at Kroger when I encountered an energetic young boy running up and down the aisle, getting all worked up about the plethora of goodies on this particular aisle. For him it was like entering a magical world where all of his candy-coated wishes were right at his fingertips. He couldn’t contain his excitement any longer and was led to run and dance for joy.
I am a married man in my late 20s with no children. So you can imagine my gut reaction when I encountered this joyous scene, already in progress.
I looked at the boy as he ran by and I looked back at his father, who was weary from chasing him around. I chuckled and made some offhanded joke about the wonder of a child’s energy and how they should bottle and sell it.
He laughed and then he made a very profound statement.
“At least he’s healthy and happy enough to run all over the place. I try to thank God even for the crazy days like today.”
Wow! I left that aisle a different person than I had entered it. You see, we can get so consumed with life that our faith becomes an afterthought. Who has time to search for those grand moments of faith, high atop mountains where serenity and inspiration meet to refresh and make us new people? That sort of stuff isn’t meant for “real people.”
But what if faith was not as tricky as we sometimes make it out to be? What if we didn’t have to go to such extremes to search out and find opportunities to experience our faith? What if all we needed were the eyes to see those opportunities fall into our lap on a daily basis?
Everyday life can be full of a surplus of encounters with God. Faith isn’t meant to be something we compartmentalize into our “spiritual life.” Instead, it is the lens we use to see the everyday and even mundane routines of life. It’s what helps us notice the beauty of a summer morning, in spite of the stress of “yet another Monday morning.” It’s what puts into perspective the importance of friends and family even when these same people are the source of much of the tension in our lives. It’s what helps us laugh and be thankful for the odd ways children find joy in life — even if that joy is expressed in the middle of Kroger for the whole world to see.
Faith is most often the hidden moments of everyday life, when the mundane meets the sacred, that we discover a God who can’t wait to reach out and be with us. It’s when we’re able to slip up and see these moments amid the clutter of our lives, in all of their eccentric beauty, that we can be overcome with the joy of the presence of God.
I hope you find joy this next week beyond your wildest imagination. And if you do, you have my permission to run and dance around Kroger for the whole world to see.