Saturday, November 29, 2008

Beyond Walmart Hospitality

Reading Amy Oden's God's Welcome: Hospitality for a Gospel-Hungry World has led me to classify hospitality as a legitimate spiritual discipline for Christians and their communities. This volume offers a seasoned biblical, theological, and very readable reflection on the ancient and counter-cultural practice of opening our lives and our churches to strangers not because "radical hospitality" is the current gimmick for retooling stale churches, but because of who God is for us in Jesus Christ. Everyone yearns for God's welcome, and the need to belong and to to be "at home" is one of the most powerful of human hungers.

If we're not careful, we'll adopt what the author calls the "Walmart" brand of hospitality, the kind that only looks good. So the persistent theme of the book is a challenge to go beyond the easy, feel good hospitality of our retail culture. Even though most people probably appreciate the smiles and waves of greeters, good appearances alone don't endure in the pain and difficulty of life. God's hospitality in Jesus, is now and always connected to life in all of its fullness, its beauty and ugliness. Because God in Jesus gets in the mess of our lives with us, our hospitality is not just about being a pleasant person, but speaks to the depth and duration of our compassion. It's about welcoming people to a shared life and a common journey, not just to a building on a church campus.

Gospel welcome is not just another method, it's a life and a spirituality that transforms. Offering God's welcome is therefore a justice issue. Christians are responsible for fleshing out the welcome we have received. We too were once strangers and sojourners. At one time we were lost and unknown! Authentic hospitality often comes from those who have had a recent experience of being lost. These are the people who are new, strange, or unknown to a community. These are the folks who understand how important it is to create a space that is safe and free and welcoming.

Accordingly, one of the book's strengths is the excellent reflections on a variety of practices that foster a spirituality of hospitality. Some like "Saying Yes and Saying No: The Limits of Hospitality" focus on God's hospitality rather than on getting people to like us. Also included are study questions on each chapter for groups, teams, individuals, preachers and teachers.

Another example of a spiritual practice is "Getting Lost." Many churches are finding "mystery guests" to attend their church and give honest feedback of their experience of welcome. The better way, one which Oden suggests, is for church people to put themselves in situations where they are "lost." For example, go to a church for the first time sight unseen, experience being the guest, the one who is not in the know. Let it be a different denomination in a different locale or neighborhood. Let that experience teach you what guests appreciate as well as what they don't like. If hospitality teams practiced this regularly, perhaps the quality of our welcome would be deeper, wider, longer, and higher than that of Sam's Club! And more like God's welcome in Jesus.

The book is itself a welcome invitation to think more deeply about what makes Christian hospitality different. One of those characteristics is the quality of openness, acceptance, and welcome we practice with everyone, not just other Christians. That Christians are increasingly seen as intolerant, judgmental, and closed-minded provoked Oden, in part, to write this book. The church has made hospitality a buzz word of effectiveness, so Oden, a professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, has offered a timely piece challenging us to practice a spirituality of hospitality, informed by the Word made flesh.

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