Evangetality: Best practices for evangelism and hospitality

May 20th, 2015

At last year’s School of Congregational Development, Olu Brown, pastor of Impact Church in Atlanta, wowed the crowd with his portrayal of “scout evangelism,” remembering his high school days riding home on the bus after the football game. When the team busses would stop for the after-game fast-food meal, one guy would run in and check out the restaurant for its hospitality and ability to accommodate dozens of hungry players. If satisfied, he would go back to the door, swing it open wide, and with a big wave say, “C’mon in!”

“You see,” says Olu, “the restaurant didn’t have to impress everyone — just the scout who then brings others in; great hospitality motivates people to bring others with them.”

What is the relationship between hospitality and bringing in new people? The relationship between hospitality and evangelism can be seen in Jesus’s imperative: “Come, follow me, . . . and I’ll show you how to fish for people” (Mark 1:17 CEB). Throughout the New Testament we see what it means to follow Jesus, this loving man who welcomed children, reached out to the marginalized, and invited all into a relationship of covenant, fellowship, and community.

“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2 CEB). Luke points to the powerful connection between evangelism (reaching and relating to “outsiders”) and hospitality (welcoming and a shared meal).

As Robert Schnase observed, “Jesus radically challenges the disciples’ expectations by overstepping boundaries to invite people in. Hospitality has us seeing people as Jesus sees them and seeing Jesus in the people God brings before us” (Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007], 13).

To “follow Jesus” is to be hospitable! It is to welcome, invite, reach out, and treat all—especially the stranger (outsider)—with loving respect. For the church, it means creating a culture that mirrors the character and life of Jesus.

The early church picked up on this, and we see ample evidence that hospitality was a key characteristic for the selection of leaders:

An elder “should show hospitality”
(1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:8 CEB).

“Open your homes to each other
without complaining” (1 Pet 4:9 CEB).

The relationship between hospitality and evangelism is found throughout scripture, but it isn’t prescriptive. That is, there isn’t any place where scripture prescribes the practice in terms of “Here’s how to do it.” But it’s narrative; that is, when we read powerful stories we can actually and easily see where the two go hand in hand.

For example, read about Elisha (who proclaims God) and the Shunammite woman
(who provides hospitality) in 2 Kings 4:8-37. Or Consider Romans 16, an entire chapter where Paul lists the hall-of-fame evangelists of the early church, sending their greetings to the believers in Rome. Right in the middle we read, “Gaius, whose hospitality I and the whole church here enjoy, sends you his greetings” (16:23 NIV). Many of these great people of the early church—responsible for the evangelistic spread of Christianity—were fueled by the hospitality of Gaius! Churches often mistakenly think their “hospitality” is a function designed to impress new folk, but when it becomes part of the culture of the church, it strengthens and encourages the foot soldiers! Great hospitality is a constant source of energy and inspiration to unleash the evangelistic spirit. Generally speaking, if your church is facing fatigue or low morale—if it isn’t “reaching out”—the best way to begin a turnaround is to say “thank you” more, to create an atmosphere of genuine love, appreciation, respect, friendship, and hospitality within the church community.

But if that’s all it is, then it drifts from its original purpose: loving the outsider. Jesus asked Matthew, “And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matt 5:47 CEB). But showing love to outsiders—now that is a differentiator! That begins to set God’s people apart from others and becomes Christian community instead of a churchy clique!

What causes this inward drift away from “loving others” to “loving us”? Perhaps it’s simply human nature to be comfortable with those we already know; perhaps this drift is caused by our reluctance to risk hospitality and reach out for Christ.

Hospitality (in the NT Greek philoxenia = “love” and “stranger”) focuses on love for outsiders. Even the NT seems aware of this undeniable inward drift from “others” to “us”: “Keep loving each other like family. Don’t neglect to open up your homes to guests, because by doing this some have been hosts to angels without knowing it” (Heb 13:1-2 CEB). For sure, be diligent in loving each other, says Hebrews, but be cautious of changing the focus from “others” to “us”! Be intentional in avoiding drifting away from loving the outsiders as well. This intentionality is behind the thrust of movements within United Methodism, such as the Healthy Church Initiative, to move churches from being “inward focused” toward becoming “outward focused.”

Theologically we are reminded that once all of us were “outsiders” alienated from Christ and Christian community: “At that time you were without Christ. You were aliens rather than citizens of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of God’s promise. In this world you had no hope and no God” (Eph 2:12 CEB).

The good news of course is that Christ—through his hospitality—invites us to his table of fellowship through salvation. Jesus makes room for us at the table of fellowship and community. Through hospitality we experienced it . . . through evangelism we share it!

Three Principles of Fishing and Following

Steven Childers, church growth expert from Reformed Theological Seminary, asserts that “The key to evangelism in the 21st-century [is] . . . hospitality” (quoted by David Mathis, “Hospitality and the Great Commission,” Desiring God [blog], October 2, 2012, http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/

If hospitality is truly the key, here are three helpful principles that tie hospitality to evangelism:

Principle #1. If we follow Jesus we’ll be hospitable like he was . . . and we’ll fish like he did too! There are ample theological books from noted authors, such as S. K. Park and D. T. Niles, that demonstrate the specifics of Jesus’s hospitality and the spirit of his outreach to outsiders.

Principle #2. Fish first in the pond you know best. Churches have many more first-time guests than they realize. Many come to see a family member’s child baptized or to watch a coworker’s child in a musical presentation or to support a neighbor’s child at confirmation. Top-rate hospitality is essential to get that random first-time guest to become a regular repeat attender. Often your own local church is the best place to begin to get proficient at fishing for Christ!

Principle #3. Fishers who love to fish love to fish in new waters, too! Practice hospitality evangelism in your own church first, but let the Holy Spirit pull you into fishing new waters, too. The love of fishing like Jesus will spur people to begin to fish in newer, different, deeper waters: at the office, in the neighborhood, and at other places of natural relationships. But leadership of the church must train and equip the fisher to fish in new waters, to reach the “outsider,” especially in this post-Christian, multicultural world where there are many boundaries to be crossed for Christ.

Fishing and Following: Holy Common Scents

A colleague of mine recently went for the first day at his new church. He took along his eleven-year-old adopted special-
needs daughter. The church folk didn’t know him and didn’t know about her. They could easily have displayed an awkward or standoffish nature, excluding her. Yet the folks in this small rural church proved to be loving, welcoming, and accepting. He couldn’t help but smile at his daughter’s response. She leaned back in his office chair and said, “I like it here; this smells like God!”

A clear, compelling culture of hospitality is alive. It stands out. It is noticeable. It reaches out, invites, welcomes, and finds a place at the table for the outsider. It is “felt” more than “seen.” Often, it can’t be defined or described, but people “just know it.”

As a hospitality and church growth consultant, I can’t always tell you what effective hospitality and evangelism look like. But I can tell you what it smells like: God. “We smell like the aroma of Christ’s offering to God, both to those who are being saved and to those who are on the road to destruction” (2 Cor 2:15 CEB).

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