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Friendship and Mission at the Margins

January 22, 2014

inagraceThe theme of this blog in 2014 and the missional church convocation in Chicago, July 24-26, will be “Friendship and Mission at the Margins.” I invite you to join the conversation exploring the implications of viewing mission through the lens of friendship. Such an approach sounds humble enough, but has profound and complex implications!

Christine D. Pohl, the 2014 Convocation presenter, has both the theological and practical credentials to stimulate and guide the discussion during the Convocation. She is Associate Provost and Professor of Church and Society/Christian Ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary. Before attending seminary and earning her Ph.D. at Emory University, Christine worked in various ministries for eleven years. She owned a Christian bookstore and worked in advocacy and refugee resettlement.

Christine Pohl

Christine Pohl

As the recipient of various grants, she has organized research projects that have led to the writing of several books, including Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Eerdmans, 1999) and Living into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us (Eerdmans, 2011). In collaboration with Chris Heuertz, international director of Word Made Flesh, Pohl wrote Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission (InterVarsity, 2010).

To begin the discussion of “Friendship and Mission at the Margins,” over the next three months significant insights and themes of Christine Pohl’s contribution to the discussion of the life, practice, and mission of the church will be considered.

Making Room: Recovering Hospitality
as a Christian Tradition

bookIn her book, Making Room Christine Pohl considers the practice of true Christian hospitality from historical, theological, and cultural perspectives with an eye to application in the modern context. Although hospitality was central to Christian identity and practice in earlier centuries, our generation knows little of its life-giving character. Over the past three hundred years, understandings of hospitality have shrunk to entertainment at home and to the hospitality industry’s provision of service through hotels and restaurants. But for most of the history of the church, hospitality was central to the gospel and a crucial practical expression of care, relationship, and respect. Jesus was dependent on the hospitality of others and was himself a gracious host in both word and deed. And since in the early church, members were the challenged people, they reached out to each other with mutual care and support. But now much of the church is isolated and distant from the needy stranger. Fear and institutional distance has radically altered the practice of hospitality, making what was once a common behavior, a radical devotion among only the bravest of souls.

Making Room is a thoughtful reminder that the welcoming and caring for strangers lies deeply rooted within religious traditions. As Pohl summarizes its role within Christianity, “Hospitality is a way of life fundamental to Christian identity. Its mysteries, riches, and difficulties are revealed most fully as it is practiced.” Her research is broad — drawn from Scripture, patristic authors, the example of wealthy matrons in the early church, the medieval tradition of Benedictine monasticism, and the writings of the Protestant reformers. Bringing history into contemporary view, some of Pohl’s observations are derived directly from her own extensive participation in congregations who have tried intentionally to implement hospitality, from providing festive Sunday dinners, to meeting the social needs of refugees. As a result of such communal experiments, supplemented by wide reading, she is able to integrate the recovery of the practice of hospitality with a renewal of Christian identity.

Hospitality: A Christian Tradition.

A sturdy practice of hospitality, and substantial reflection on the significance of welcome, is evident in the early church and throughout the patristic period. A normative understanding developed that associated hospitality with Picture2God’s generous welcome, the person of Jesus, and responsibility to care for the weakest members of the larger community. Hospitality had a crucial role in the ancient church in providing care for believers fleeing persecution or traveling to share the gospel, in incorporating new believers into the community, and in reinforcing a new identity. In the Reformation period, Martin Luther wrote that when persecuted believers were received hospitably, “God Himself is in our home, is being fed at our house, is lying down and resting.” “No duty can be more pleasing or acceptable to God” than hospitality to religious refugees, promised John Calvin, who viewed such practice as a “sacred” form of hospitality. Calvin encouraged believers to see in the stranger the image of God and our common flesh.

Yet over time, hospitality as personal, face-to-face, gracious welcome became primarily associated with attempts to gain power and influence. The nature of the household changed over the centuries, and the structure of the church and its relation to the state and to social welfare also shifted. By the eighteenth century, hospitality was viewed by many as an antiquated practice out of step with busy commercial society, a relic from an earlier time. A number of historical, ecclesial and sociological factors had combined to remove moral significance from the term hospitality. For example, when John Wesley used the term in reference to the practices of English society it was almost always negative and associated with indulgence, waste, and stealing from the poor.

Nevertheless, shared meals, visiting, and conversation were central to the spread of Methodism. 1 In fact, it is noteworthy that Wesley recovered many of the distinctive aspects of the tradition of Christian hospitality without ever describing what he was doing as hospitality. Because Wesley’s ministry was so much involved with the poor of England, his understandings of holiness of life and the use of wealth were complexly intertwined. Many of the Methodists had grown comfortable through their industry, while the destitution of the poor in the same congregations and towns had in some cases increased terribly. Wesley maintained that wealth that was not shared was destructive of spiritual zeal and commitment; it made people self-indulgent and spiritually and socially irresponsible. The response of Wesley to the complicated misery and evil he saw around him was shaped by moral energy and insight, organizational genius, an extraordinary spiritual commitment, and a profound grasp of God’s welcome and grace.Picture3

As it welcomed them into faith, early Methodism gave previously ignored and excluded people an opportunity to contribute. Expected to learn to articulate their faith, they spoke publicly concerning their spiritual condition and that of the persons they visited. They were expected to minister to other poor people, carefully attentive to the spiritual, social, and physical distress of neighbors and those in  prison and workhouses. Out of their minimal resources, they were still expected to share with those in greater need. In response to the welcome they had experienced from God and the Methodist communities, they were to be actively engaged in ministering to others.

Hospitality: A Practice and a Way of Life.

Recovering the tradition of hospitality suggests the possibility that in revitalizing an ancient practice, we may discover some radical and fresh responses to contemporary difficulties. Because our society is highly mobile and because families are often deeply fractured, there are many people who need welcome into our homes, churches, and communities: elderly people, alienated teens, international students, immigrants. Followers of Jesus have a rich tradition within which to respond, if we could only recognize how important our welcome is.

Much more than a task or a program, hospitality is a way for Christians to live their lives and share themselves.2 Involving responsibility and faithful performance of duties, hospitality emerges from grateful hearts and must be cultivated over a lifetime. Growing out of love and gratitude for God’s love and welcome to us, congregations learn how to be hospitable in small increments of daily faithfulness. With overburdened schedules, trying to offer substantial hospitality can wear people out as they struggle with limits and boundaries. Because it is difficult and involves hard work, congregations will need to rethink and reshape their priorities in order fully to participate in and practice Christian hospitality.

Picture1Viewing the church as God’s household has significant implications for the practice of hospitality. More than anywhere else, when Christians gather as church their practice of hospitality should reflect God’s gracious welcome. God is their host and they are all guests of God’s grace. Churches that have not nurtured a common life among themselves will find hospitality to strangers difficult. Even when committed to ministering to people in need, congregations sometimes overlook their own greatest resource: the fellowship of believers. Churches have generally done better with offering meal programs and clothing drives than with welcoming into worship people significantly different from their congregations. Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities, writes: “Welcome is one of the signs that a community is alive. To invite others to live with us is a sign that we aren’t afraid, that we have a treasure of truth and of peace to share.” He also offers an important warning: “A community which refuses to welcome—whether through fear, weariness, insecurity, a desire to cling to comfort, or just because it is fed up with visitors—is dying spiritually.”3

Pohl identifies characteristics of hospitable places declaring that because welcoming places are comfortable and lived in, they are settings in which people flourish. They allow room for friendships to grow as food, shelter, and companionship are all interrelated. In such environments, weary and lonely people can be restored to life. There are also gestures that communicate welcome. It is impossible to overstate the significance of paying attention, listening to people’s stories, and taking the time to talk with them. Congregations communicate welcome and appreciation for people when they remember names and make sure that newcomers are oriented to the practices of the group. When people are easily included in celebrations, when they are invited into participation in the life of the community, and when there is mutual sharing of lives and life stories, gracious hospitality is evident.

Offering hospitality in a world distorted by sin, injustice, and brokenness will rarely be easy. According to Pohl, “good hosts need a combination of grace, spiritual and moral intuition, prayer and dependence on the Holy Spirit, the wisdom of a tradition, and skills to assess each situation. Recognizing that strength and hope come from God and are renewed in community, good hosts are careful to nourish their lives in Scriptures and in the practices of the church. Good hosts discover the divine mystery in hospitality—that as they welcome strangers, they are themselves beloved guests of God’s grace.”

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

    1. When you hear the word “hospitality,” what comes to mind?
    2. Read Matthew 25: 31-40 and Luke 14:12-24. What is the difference between hospitality in these texts and our contemporary practice of hospitality?
    3. What conditions within American society inhibit or make the practice of hospitality difficult?
    4. How can viewing the church as “God’s household” contribute to the practice of hospitality?
    5. In what way is the “fellowship of believers” a resource for hospitality?
    6. Thinking of your congregation, how welcoming are your setting, practices, and gestures? How might they be improved?
    7. What do you think is the value of retrieving the ancient practice of hospitality?

1 The following is drawn from Pohl’s article, “Practicing Hospitality in the Face of “Complicated Wickedness,” Keynote Address: The Wesleyan Theological Society’s Annual Meeting, March, 2006.

2 See Pohl’s article, “Hospitality, a practice and a way of life,” Visions, Spring 2002.

3 Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, rev. ed (Paulist Press, 1989), pp. 266-67.

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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