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Forming a Community of the Spirit: Hospitality, Fellowship, and Nurture, Part 1

Some might argue that they already experience in their community an atmosphere of loving hospitality. Definitions of loving hospitality can be as broad and general as there are people. A woman gushed about how good the fellowship was in her community. The only trouble with that comment was that most people in the community who were acquainted with her knew her to speak only to her close friends and rarely, if ever, have much to do with others in the community. Yet she was completely sincere in her belief that the fellowship in the community was “great.” It was clear that she was a very private person who preferred her fellowship only with those she chose; she did not comprehend that many had felt slighted by her failure to connect with them. She did not understand community or fellowship at all.

Others might argue that lively worship services are all that is necessary for creating community. If people worship together, the reasoning goes, the Spirit will strip away differences and draw people to Christ and to each other. This implied kind of “worship experience” often means very loud, raucous music led by a worship band for an extended period of time. This is followed by a long sermon or Bible teaching, often interspersed with videos or illustrated with power point slides. A few church leaders—the professional ministerial staff and talented voluntary worship band—dominate the entire worship time, providing no time or opportunities for diverse people to talk to each other, pray with each other, laugh or weep with each other. This is further complicated by so many who are already stressed and busy and just don’t want to be bothered with anything more than lively worship and a good sermon and a quick exit from the church parking lot.

Yet another complication in community-building is the Western notion of individualism and individual rights, especially the “right to privacy.” A strength of this cultural attitude has been the production of great accomplishments by gifted individuals; this cultural emphasis creates an atmosphere in which anyone who has the right amount of ambition can achieve great things with minimal governmental or cultural interference. A weakness of this cultural attitude has been the creation of selfish, self-serving people who can be contemptuous of those who are different or considered less motivated than they. If people insist on their “right to privacy” as some kind of mysterious “divine right” of their faith over their commitment to Christ and His body, community-creating can be hampered if not destroyed. A believing community cannot be a place of loving hospitality if believers prefer privacy and are driven by ambition. In spite of this common insistence upon personal rights and privacy, loneliness seems to prevail in Western society.3 Practicing loving hospitality may very well mean giving up significant “privacy” as we “carry each other’s burdens, and in this way … fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2).

Settings traditionally available for community-building to occur have become rare. The Sunday school in many churches has almost disappeared. Bible studies in homes or home fellowship groups have disbanded. Specialty groups—youth, the elderly, men, women—still exist, but often are organized in the same way that church worship services are organized (structured to the extent that all but eliminates open interaction between congregants). It is hard to create community when the same kinds of things are being done in different settings. Each church can recognize that clear definitions of community and fellowship are needed, as well as settings where true community, true fellowship can occur. These settings can be as diverse as the local churches where they might occur.

Regardless of the setting or opportunity for community-creating and fellowship-forming, the process can begin with loving hospitality. Letty M. Russell has given a good definition of hospitality: “The practice of God’s welcome embodied in our actions as we reach across differences to participate with God in bringing justice and healing to our world in crisis.”4 Using the Tower of Babel and Day of Pentecost stories, she calls for people of faith to practice openness and kindness to all, regardless of differences. “When reading the story of Babel in conjunction with Acts 2, we see that unity comes, not through building a tower of domination or uniformity, but through communication.”5 It is in Christ, she argues, that “unity is the impossible possibility” so that “each of us will cease to live apart from one another and become a part of God’s beautifully diverse creation.”6

Russell attempts to do what she calls “re-frame” a theology of justice “in terms of social structures of justice and of partnership across barriers of difference.”7 Using the biblical stories of cities of refuge, she recommends the creation of “safe space” wherein the well being of all of creation is given great attention. To illustrate her ideas, she gives an extended interpretation of the story of Ruth, which she hopes “might be viewed as a metaphor of God’s New Creation where all are partners with each other and God through our acts of hospitality.”8 Russell also uses the prophet Amos to insist on the practice of justice in the expression of hospitality (cf. Amos 5:24). “God’s welcome is then an act of both love and justice through the offer of unbounded hospitality.”9 As people practice “mutual welcome,” they might be surprised by the divine presence “unawares.”10

Many believers might argue that a hearty welcome is provided all visitors to the local church, and these believers might sincerely believe they are doing all they can to provide loving hospitality. However, sometimes the views of visitors might be different from the perceptions of the regular attendees. Is there only a cursory welcome provided? Is it clear to the visitors that only certain kinds of people are truly welcome while others are just formally recognized? Is there expressed a kind of paternalism in the welcome offered (i.e., is the hospitality offered only from a dominant position)? If genuine hospitality exists in a community its effects will be evident. Henri Nouwen describes some of these effects:

Hospitality makes anxious disciples into powerful witnesses, makes suspicious owners into generous givers, and makes closed-minded sectarians into interested recipients of new ideas and insights.11

Like Russell, Yong also emphasizes God’s expression or extension of hospitality to all through those who belong to God’s kingdom, but Yong also emphasizes Jesus as an exemplary recipient of hospitality, from his birth in an offered stable to his burial in an offered tomb. Yong uses the phrase “free space” and says this is created by hospitality and describes it this way:

Christians must discern the Spirit’s presence and “perform” appropriate practices in concert with the hospitable God. They must embody Christ’s incarnational vulnerability and open up theological and relational “free space” not only to serve as hosts for the gospel but also risk being guests of others.12

In extending loving hospitality, believers might create a “free space” (Yong) or “safe space” (Russell) in their local faith communities where believers can both extend and receive expressions of hospitality among those who attend as God’s representatives, and thus in the process, begin to create a community of truth, justice, and love. This will require humility and vulnerability toward those who are welcomed into the community. Do we have the humility to welcome “strangers” with the possibility that we might be “entertaining angels” (Heb 13:2)? Do we recognize Christ in those who are different, hurting, or strange (Matt 25:31ff.)? It cannot be emphasized too much to say that both the expression and reception of loving hospitality is the only way true community can even begin to be possible.

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Category: Ministry, Winter 2012

About the Author: Steven M. Fettke, M.Div. (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary), Th.M., D.Min. (Columbia Theological Seminary), is Professor of Religion at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida. He was awarded the Delta Alpha Distinguished Educator Award by the Alliance for Assemblies of God Higher Education in 2009. He is the author of Messages to a Nation in Crisis: An Introduction to the Prophecy of Jeremiah (1982).

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