Sunday, 23 November 2008

Mission and Hospitality

A few weeks ago my friend Nigel Wright described himself as one who delights in getting on the other bus. One of the reasons I like Nigel is that he often says what I am thinking before I realise that that’s quite what I’m thinking. With regard to mission I’ve been increasingly tempted recently to get on the other bus.

Along with many others in years gone by I’ve spent a lot of time pointing out connections between church and the rest of God’s world; I’ve spent a lot of time encouraging churches to journey out there; I’ve spent a lot of time arguing that we need to break down misconceptions of Christ, Church and Christianity; I’ve spent a lot of time trying to be intelligible – honest.

Just lately though I’ve stopped running quite so fast in these directions so that I can look over my shoulder. (Bang goes the bus metaphor.) One of the things I’ve seen is a glimpse of the relationship between hospitality and mission. This has captured my attention, not enough to lead to any coherent thoughts but enough to prompt the odd ponder or ten.

1. Hospitality is crucial to mission. Because mission is about being as well as saying and doing it must include a come-be-with-us dimension alongside a go-be-with-them dimension.

2. Hospitality is important in a pluralistic, decentred, fluid society. Difference is here to stay. We are all different. Difference is inherently interesting. To live in today’s world is to be an explorer … so let’s learn to welcome and let’s learn that welcome is more than shiny Sunday morning politeness.

3. Hospitality is important in a society addicted to individualism and longing for community. Let’s help the addicts within by taking the risk of being vulnerable with each other so as to generate richer connections. Let’s help the addicts beyond by embracing the vulnerability of allowing our life to be penetrated by others.

4. Hospitality is important as a response to a society that is content to believe but wary of belonging.

5. Hospitality is not about putting on a show, an anxious front, fearful of offending. It’s not about using the front room and the best china– much better to settle in the kitchen and get out the mugs.

6. Hospitality is being yourself while creating space for others to be themselves while being with you. In this regard God’s creation of the universe is the primal act of hospitality and God’s recreation of all things will be the ultimate act of hospitality.

7. Hospitality is important if people are ever to understand us. Hospitality allows people to find their ears. The more episodes of the Wire you watch the easier it is to understand the Baltimore accent. The more you listen to Charlie Parker the more Bebop becomes wonderful rather than weird. If something is worth getting it often takes time to get it. This matters because of the impossibility/undesirability of translating the language of faith into so called ordinary language. There is no such thing as ordinary, neutral language. It’s impossible for instance to translate the word sin into other words without a significant loss of meaning. Meaning is to be found by attending to usage within community, a community with its own distinct story and its own peculiar practices apart from which speech is thinned, diminished and misunderstood. Paradoxically, to cut speech free from its own communal setting in order to make it more readily understood actually makes it incomprehensible. Sometimes it’s better to exemplify and explain than it is to translate. Helping people to learn to speak Christian will take time. Hospitality helps people to be at home until they become attuned to what we have to say.

8. Hospitality requires patience. As they listen we have to let them be them – they get to decide when they become us – if ever.

9. Hospitality is a lost art in the West. It would be wise to attend to the practices of other peoples in other places.

10. Hospitality is a lost art in the 21st C church. It would be wise to attend to the practices of our ancestors – especially those we meet in the Hebrew scriptures.


Ingrid said...

My disquiet as I read this was that it sounds suspiciously like men suddenly discovering something that women have been doing for eons and thinking that its all new and different. Preparing and sharing food, a cuppa in the kitchen, sharing stories, giving space to one another - my foremothers and my peers got there before you Glen. Maybe hospitality isn't so much a 'lost art' in the west as a discounted one.

Glen Marshall said...

Ingrid thanks for the observations. My thoughts?

If others got there before me that’s fine, I wasn’t being competitive, just autobiographical. I didn't claim that my ponderings on hospitality amounted to anything like discovering something new or different simply that the majority of people writing and speaking about mission at the moment don’t give it the attention it deserves. Have most women been better at hospitality than most men? Probably. Was I saying that no one has been practising hospitality in the west? No. Does the male hegemony mean that female appreciation of hospitality has been discounted? Probably. Does that mean that I as man should not think out loud about such matters? I do hope not.

Anonymous said...

Every time I try to get our folks to theorise with me about mission, openness and service, one of our members reminds me that he came to faith from a very troubled background chiefly as a result of being invited to Sunday lunch the first time he stepped into a church by people who didn't know him.

Seems we have to live it and mean it as well as know it and agree with it.

Ouch, as usual.

Andy Jones

Evangelism Coach said...


Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I find there are some real gems in there.

Some have focused hospitality to the art of handshakes and hugs and clean buildlings. Then that's called evangelism.

Is there a nuance between hospitality and first impressions?

First impressions work would be short term, whereas hospitality as you describe has a longer view -- beyond the first visit.

First impressions work is member / visitor mindset, where as hospitality would seem go beyond that.

Just thinking electronically as well.

Chris W

Glen Marshall said...


Yes, absolutely this is about far more than first impressions, it's long term, in fact it needs to be a settled mindset. It's about developing a mentality that creates space for the interested other to be with us to, to share our life with them so that they can begin to understand the faith. To nick a term from sociology it is about enabling enquirers to be participant observers. It's about being ourselves and letting them be themselves without pressure without tut tutting without putting on a performance.