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Prophetic Dialogue: An Invitation to the Dance – The Risky Practice of Hospitality

June 6, 2013
inagrace

Inagrace Dietterich

During 2013, The Center Blog is exploring the theological, biblical, and practical implications of joining in the dance of prophetic dialogue – the theme of the Center’s Convocation in Chicago, IL on July 25-27, 2013.

Christian practices form and transform contemporary congregations into communities of reconciliation.  A case in point is the risky practice of hospitality.


Introducing Christian practices.  Christian practices are patterns of cooperative human activity in and through which life together takes shape over time in response to and in the light of God as known in Jesus Christ.  Read More…


Christian practices are HISTORICAL. Congregations do not have to reinvent the wheel by developing their own ecclesial practices. The patterns of the faith—the practices of the church—are grounded in the historical journey of those who have gone before.  Read More…


Christian practices are COMMUNAL. An ecclesial practice is a complex tradition of interactions among many people sustained over a long period of time. Ecclesial practices involve people doing things with one another, even if these people are not engaged in this activity at the same time and in the same place.  Read More…


Christian practices are EXPERIENTIAL. The benefits of an ecclesial practice can be gained only through participation in that practice. The “internal goods”—i.e., the fruit of the Holy Spirit—are not the end results of a particular activity, but are realized in the process of being physically and emotionally engaged in the life, worship, and service of the Christian community.  Read More…


Christian practices are DYNAMIC. As persons who live “in Christ,” Christians are to “grow in Christ.” Thus ecclesial practices are dynamic, they grow and change as the community is open to and receives the Spirit’s illuminating and empowering presence.  Read More…



Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. What is gained by using the approach of “practices”?
  2. What does “hospitality” mean in today’s culture?

More Questions…



Introducing Christian practices.


Christian practices are patterns of cooperative human activity in and through which life together takes shape over time in response to and in the light of God as known in Jesus Christ. Focusing on practices invites theological reflection on the ordinary, concrete activities of actual people—and also on the knowledge of God that shapes, infuses, and arises from these activities. Focusing on practices demands attentiveness to specific people doing specific things together within a specific frame of shared meaning.1

baptismCommunities of reconciliation2 do not come about through wishful thinking or good intentions. They must be cultivated—shaped into distinctive social realities—through participation in particular social or ecclesial practices. As indicated above, the concept of practices has a specific meaning: socially established cooperative human activities carried in traditions through which people are formed in a way of life. North American culture with its deep-seated belief in the freely choosing, autonomous individual, who out of rational self-interest forms his or her own life, tends to overlook or even dismiss the role of disciplined and intentional processes that regulate and shape both personal and communal life.

The consideration of ecclesial practices can enable the movement beyond the distinction of beliefs and behavior, to an understanding of Christianity as embodied convictions or thoughtful actions. Christians are not simply individuals who believe certain things, but a people who engage and do not engage in certain practices because they have found them appropriate or inappropriate to their way of life. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, the cultivation of a people who follow the way of Jesus Christ is a life-long process of participation in “a community that embodies the language, rituals, and moral practices from which this particular form of life grows….the Christian gospel is at once belief that involves behavior and a behavior that involves belief.”3 The active involvement in such practices—shared activities that provide meaning, orientation, and purpose—is central to and constitutive of communities of reconciliation.


Christian practices are HISTORICAL.


cpfCongregations do not have to reinvent the wheel by developing their own ecclesial practices. The patterns of the faith—the practices of the church—are grounded in the historical journey of those who have gone before. Yet this is not a dead but a living tradition. While congregations engage in established and received practices, they are continually called to reinterpret them in light of God’s call for their common life and shared ministry in their particular missional context. Missional communities are challenged to be both faithful and innovative as they contribute to and “pass on” the historical practices which shape the life, meaning, and purpose of the Christian church.

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers” (Heb. 13:1). Hospitality served both practical and symbolic purposes for the early Christians. The housing and feeding of visiting prophets and apostles made their ministry possible, but it also was a reminder of the movement’s self-proclaimed identity as “resident aliens” on earth and of its professed unity as a single “people of God” throughout the world.

The foundations for hospitality can be found in Genesis 18 when Abraham and Sarah welcomed three strangers who turned out to be divine visitors with surprising news. The Bible is filled with accounts of hospitality and encouragement for its practice. The distinctive element in the New Testament is the welcome extended to those who were the weakest, most dependent, and the least likely to reciprocate. Much of Jesus’ life and many of his activities were tied to giving and receiving hospitality (Luke 14:12-14). As the early church grew in size and influence, hospitality remained a central practice.

st_benedictWith changes in the nature of the household and the family, and with changes in the relationship of the church and the state, hospitality began to be viewed as an antiquated practice. Yet some groups attempted to recover a more intentional and personal approach to hospitality. For example, within Benedictine communities, guided by the Rule of St. Benedict, hospitality to strangers is a basic part of their identity and practice. In the 1930s the Catholic Worker movement made hospitality to the poor and disadvantaged central to their vision and purpose. But for the most part, the marvelous tradition of hospitality has been lost to the churches of Western culture. Within a fragmented and mobile society, where many people are yearning for respect, acceptance, and friendship, missional churches have the opportunity once again to become living examples of hospitality as a way of life, an act of love, an expression of faith. As Henri Nouwen observes: “If there is any concept worth restoring to its original depth and evocative potential, it is the concept of hospitality. It is one of the richest biblical terms that can deepen and broaden our insight in our relationships to our fellow human beings.”4


Christian practices are COMMUNAL.


banquetAn ecclesial practice is a complex tradition of interactions among many people sustained over a long period of time. Ecclesial practices involve people doing things with one another, even if these people are not engaged in this activity at the same time and in the same place. One person’s action becomes an ecclesial practice only insofar as it is participa­tion in the practice of a community. Christians are not born knowing how to live the Christian life. They cannot discover or learn the practices of the church on their own, but require mentors, teachers, and partners who will provide the advice, challenge, and support to enable them to extend and deepen their participation. Ecclesial practices are communally defined, communicated, and transformed.

“When you give a banquet….” (Luke 14:13). Meals have always occupied a central place in Christian life. “Because converts came from many backgrounds, shared meals—usually in homes—became an important location for building unity and new identity, for transcending social differences and for making sure that the local poor were fed.”5 Through table fellowship, Jesus invited people into an intense communal relationship with him and with one another. These meals symbolized God’s banquet: the abundance, celebration, and intimacy of God’s hospitality.

Missional communities are called to cross the boundaries, to eat as Jesus ate, to be a people of openness and acceptance, of gratitude and generosity. John Koenig suggests five benchmarks for meals expressing hospitality: (1) meals are served graciously; (2) servers are led by the Spirit; (3) settings are flexible and attractive; (4) hosts learn to be served by guests; (5) connections are made between eating and drinking together and ministries of peace and justice.6


Christian practices are EXPERIENTIAL.


actsThe benefits of an ecclesial practice can be gained only through participation in that practice. The “internal goods”—i.e., the fruit of the Holy Spirit—are not the end results of a particular activity, but are realized in the process of being physically and emotionally engaged in the life, worship, and service of the Christian community. Thus the indicators of a ”success­ful” missional community are determined by the quality of redeeming love and forgiveness realized in the midst of its common life and shared ministry. The value of a congregation’s ecclesial practices is not exhausted by the resulting product or by “external” goods as defined by society (status, power, in­fluence), but is to be found in the actual process of involve­ment and participation.

They devoted themselves to….” (Acts 2:42). The practice of Christian hospitality both assumes and creates particular kinds of communities. Communities where participants commit themselves to dialogue, study, celebration, discipline, and service. As open, welcoming, and receptive communities, they offer both the protection and the freedom to enable estranged and fearful human beings to bring the actual circumstances of their lives—the joy and the despair—into conversation with the peace of the gospel. As they trust in God’s abundant love and forgiveness, lay aside their occupations and preoccupations, and listen and attend to one another, hostility is converted into hospitality, strangers into friends, enemies into guests. Just as Jesus befriended strangers overwhelmed by the harsh realities of their lives, so hospitable communities utilize every opportunity to cultivate Christian friendship: the crossing of boundaries to offer mutual and true encouragement, support, learning, and companionship.


Christian practices are DYNAMIC.


As persons who live “in Christ,” Christians are to “grow in Christ.” Thus ecclesial practices are dynamic, they grow and change as the community is open to and receives the Spirit’s illuminating and empowering presence. The more deeply people participate in a practice, the more they discover fresh and creative approaches. Thus involvement in the practices of the church calls for insight, intelligence, discernment, imagination, judgment, skill, and commitment. As participants in God’s redemptive mission, Christians are to be intentional about and to evaluate the faithfulness and the effectiveness of the various practices within their midst.

hospitality“They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore” (Rev. 7:16). The reign of God manifested in Jesus Christ indicates a redeemed society of generosity, compassion, and caring. The church as a foretaste of the kingdom witnesses to the abundance of God’s hospitality by making connections between ritual meals and the meeting of basic human needs of food and drink through shared meals. Indeed, the earliest eucharistic celebration probably looked more like potluck dinners than the typical Sunday morning service.

Koenig7 recounts how some churches are experimenting with making connections between worshiping and eating. Some design worship spaces that can easily convert to dining facilities. Flexible seating on Sunday is replaced with round tables for weekday lunch programs. Some place a coffee hour station in the back corner of the nave. Thus the service appears to continue as people move easily into a welcoming space. One congregation makes an explicit link by placing food and drink right on top of the cleared-off altar table at the end of the service. As the stories of the Bible affirm, God delights in sanctifying ordinary, common things. Through the risky practice of hospitality the church becomes a concrete embodiment of God’s abundant and adventuresome love.



Questions for Reflection and Discussion


    1. What is gained by using the approach of “practices”?
    2. What does “hospitality” mean in today’s culture?
    3. Read Genesis 18 and Hebrews 13. How do these texts express hospitality?
    4. What does Luke 14 say about table fellowship?
    5. Describe the qualities of a hospitable community?
    6. How is hospitality manifested in your congregation? How could it be more creative and relevant?
    7. What is risky about hospitality in today’s social context?



1 Miroslav Volf & Dorothy Bass, eds. Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life (Eerdmans, 2002), p. 3.

2 See May’s post on communities of reconciliation, “Redemptive Love in Action.”

3 Stanley Hauerwas, Character and the Christian Life: A Study in Christian Ethics (Trinity University Press, 1975), pp. 210-11.

4 Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1975), p. 47.

5  Christine Pohl, “Building a Place for Hospitality,” in Hospitality (Baylor University, 2007), p. 29.

6  John Koenig, Soul Banquets: How Meals Become Mission in the Local Congregation (Morehouse, 2007), p. 41-58.

7  Ibid., p. 44-50.


Inagrace Dietterich

Inagrace Dietterich

The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.

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