Friendship and Mission at the Margins: The Church as Open Hospitable Inn
Early in July my husband and I had the pleasure of spending time with our friend Jan Hendriks and his wife Alice in the Netherlands. While Jan has retired from full-time teaching, he continues to read, write, and work with churches. I believe his image of the church as Inn makes a contribution to our ongoing discussion of friendship on the margins.
The Church as Open Hospitable Inn
He went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message and to have authority to cast out demons. Mark 3:13-15
Three basic dimensions of the church are identified in this passage: communion with God, communion with each other, and communion with the world. These three are integrally bound together. The church as open hospitable Inn recognizes that Jesus calls, the initiative lies on his side. And for what is he calling? to be with him, to be together, and to be sent out to preach and to have the power to heal and cast out devils. So a new community with a clear mission for the world comes into existence.
The Dutch theologian Jaap Firet once said that the church is like a Greek tragedy. He didn’t mean that the church makes you cry, but rather that its task, at all times and in all places, is to bring its main theme back onto the stage in a new way that is appropriate and takes into consideration the available possibilities. As the Protestant reformers said in their day: ecclesia semper reformanda (the church always reforming). This statement is particularly topical in today’s world because it appears that the church has lost its relationship to society. Within most Western societies, we find ourselves in a paradoxical situation: people are leaving the church in droves, and at the same time you can sense an increasing thirst for spiritual strengthening, support, help, and community. This diagnosis tells us two things: the church can play an important role (since there is thirst), but only if it changes. Little improvements here and there are no longer sufficient. The church needs renewal!
A movement with a distinctive vision and model for church is called the Open Church or, more clearly and specifically, the “hospitable church.” This movement includes both local churches and ecclesiastical movements such as Taizé and Saint Egidio. The concepts of these two taken together are, in my opinion, “the” pair of the future. The image of the church or parish is that of an Inn. God is seen as one who calls and invites, but does not impose.
The Vision: Hospitality Embodied.
Hospitality within the church as Inn has different aspects.
A. The guest is the focal point in three different ways:
- A parish or church opens itself up to guests, but more than just being present, they can also make a contribution if they wish. One example is the small parish in the village of Bant. Their parish council has charged a small working group with the task of helping to transform the traditional, fairly closed parish into an open, hospitable place. Outsiders were also invited to help with the process.
- The fact that the guest is at the focal point also means that we are guests in each other’s presence. The key word is “mutuality” – women and men, old and young, black and white, people with disabilities and others. Is that theory? Yes, but it is also practice. For example, every Sunday, people of 12 different nationalities meet for communion, and to be specific, they meet in a quarter of the city dominated by the “Vlaamsch Blok.” The 11 other nationalities are not the guests of a Belgian Protestant parish. Instead, they are guests in each other’s presence. Everyone can say, “This is our parish”. The hospitable parish is a model for plurality!
- The fact that the guest is at the focal point also means that we, as members of the parish, understand and appreciate what it means to be guests. We are not the owners of the earth, or of the church building, or even of the organized form of the institution of the church. We are guests, guests with a limited residence permit. “The land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Leviticus, 25:23). We may have lost this realization, but it is fundamental.
B. In the hospitable welcoming parish we find three people: the host, the guest, and God.
Their positions are not predetermined. The situation is more dynamic, if not to say even fluid. The host becomes a guest in a true meeting. If the host does not know from experience what it means to be a guest, then he or she is not capable of being a host. And Jesus? He disguises himself as a guest. He said it very clearly, “I was a guest, a fugitive, a stranger, and ill, and where were you?” (Matthew 25). This is why the gatekeeper at a Benedictine monastery still today says “deo gratias” when he opens the door, “It’s wonderful that you, Lord Jesus, want to come to see us!” This is said not just figuratively, but in reality.
C. Hospitality implies a twofold movement: openness for guests and becoming a guest ourselves.
It goes even farther. Not only does God hide himself in the stranger; he is a stranger himself. Jesus is a stranger too. “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20). His disciples have to learn that they are strangers too. So he sends them as guests in the world (Luke 10: 1-9) Therefore hospitality implies a twofold movement: to open our doors for guests and to go ourselves through those open doors to the outside world; the “ravel fringe” of society, and in specific sectors as hospitals and prisons.
D. Hospitality means that the guest remains free. At the same time, however, the host shows who he or she is.
This very point is the secret of Taizé, for example. In the hospitable church the freedom of the guests and confrontation with who we are go hand in hand. That is why there is hardly any church more occupied with its own identity than a hospitable church. That’s understandable: an Inn wants to put forth the best that it contains within it. So it has to know what it contains within it. Who is it actually?
E. Hospitality is not yet another additional task, but rather an inner attitude, a state of mind: it means creating room for others.
An example: the telephone rings in our house. I pick it up and say my name. The caller, my son, says, “I can already tell. You’re busy.” Will Derkse, Oblate of a Benedictine abbey, recommends doing it differently. He says, “When the telephone rings, wait a moment before picking up the receiver, in order to change your inner attitude, your state of mind a little bit, from irritation to hospitality. Say ‘deo gratias’ and then pick up the receiver”.
When this type of attitude prevails, the Church flourishes. New parishes can even spring up. In Zevenaar, a border town near Arnhem in the Netherlands, Ineke Koops was riding her bicycle through the village. At a bus stop, she saw a small family that was obviously foreign. At that very moment, the mother was feeding her baby. Ineke felt she was being called to ask, “How are you?” The conversation ended with her giving the family her address. Already that evening, the family came to visit. Several of Ineke’s friends came to help. They prayed together and together cared for this family, in which they recognized the Lord. They ate together and gradually began to provide hospitality to other families. And in this way, a hospitable parish came into being. All of the characteristics of a parish are there: interaction with God (mysticism), fellowship with each other (koinonia), and openness to others (diaconia).
This means that both people and the tradition are taken seriously. They should have an effect on every aspect of the church. Specifically, we are talking about five interrelated aspects: themes, leadership, structure, climate, and identity.
- Themes. Questions, rather than answers, are paramount; stories rather than dogmas. In this way, people change from being addressees to participants.
- Leadership. This also has an influence on the role of the pastor. The image here is that of a coach who seeks a common path with the people.
- Climate. An atmosphere of acceptance is characteristic. This is expressed in concrete terms by the “rules of the game”, for example by how decisions are made.
- Structure. Not a hierarchy, but a network or a conciliar group. “As someone speaks with her friends.”
- Identity. For example, how it is expressed in the image of the church. Not a church as homeland—which is behind us—but rather the church as an Inn, welcoming the travelers along their way. A symbol for this is a round table.
The Appropriate Path for the Open, Hospitable Church: Walking Together.
There are various paths that we can identify as methods for “parish-building,” here are three: the path of action; the “organized trip” (Just wait and see what the leadership and the experts have thought up!); and “walking together”. Which path shall we choose? In my opinion, we should choose the path that corresponds to the goal, which, in this case, is to develop an open hospitable church. And a path is suitable if the values of the path fit with the values of the destination. For this reason, “walking together” is the most likely possibility, because it creates space for the guest, for each other, and for a possible meeting with that which is “completely different.” Faith is a prerequisite for a good walk. It means starting down the path in a calm, relaxed manner, confident (having faith), particularly in the knowledge that we are not alone. That sounds pious. To say it even more clearly, that is pious. Here we’re talking about the classic expression, “Go with God!” Here we are God’s guests.
We already knew that we were not alone. There are hardly any books about church renewal that don’t mention (at least in the Foreward) Psalm 127:1: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” You also find it in a modern version by Hans Pasveer, who says in words which he borrowed from Ed de la Torre: “What can we do other than to collect kindling and pick up firewood while we await the spark.” Our activity—collecting firewood—is necessary and useful, but the spark must come from elsewhere.
The only thing we can do, and therefore also must do, is to create the necessary conditions and wait for the spark. When I say “the necessary conditions”, I mean the following:
- Remaining calm. Be aware that patience in the church is just as important as the willingness to make an effort, and that calm is just as essential as work. “Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 4:6). Calmly, taking time for a heart-to-heart talk about our worries and our desires. And in this way being guests in each other’s presence. So this means neither giving up nor banging your head against the wall in vain.
- Allowing the sometimes very active portions of our lives to be followed by calm and silence. We can learn from the “Emmaus Parish”. They say, “The first Wednesday of every month, we have a period of silence in our parish center. At that time, there are no assemblies, no meetings, nothing, just silence. Members of parish meet for an evening of meditation.”
- Interspersing moments of action with celebrations of worship. Worship, gathering together to offer praise and thanksgiving to God, is at the heart of the church. But worship is not simply a personal experience of insight and comfort. Worship both forms us as God’s people and empowers us to participate in God’s redemptive mission in the world.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Why is it important for the church to be open to change in every age?
- When you hear the phrase ‘hospitable church,” what images or behaviors come to mind?
- How could your congregation more fully make “the guest” a focal point?
- What does it mean to say that hospitality is not another task but rather an inner attitude?
- Why is “walking together” the appropriate method for becoming a hospitable church?
*Jan Hendriks was Associate Professor of Practical Theology at The Free University in Amsterdam. This essay is drawn from the summary of a lecture given at the Lutheran World Federation, European Church Leadership Consultation, Iceland, June 8-13, 2005. Dr. Hendriks is the author of twelve books published in Dutch and German based upon his research and teaching in practical theology.
The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.