When my kids were little and I was just starting out in campus ministry with my husband, God revealed to us the need to have people in our home for a meal and games. I will admit that this was not a calling I had wanted. I was nervous. I had seen the magazine headlines on the covers of home and garden magazines, “How to Wow Your Guests in 3 Easy Steps.” Included with the heading was a picture of a nicely dressed woman, with perfectly styled hair, serving mountains of gourmet food on a crystal platter. The dining room in which she was serving her smiling guests was the size of my kitchen, dining room, and living room combined and was perfectly decorated.
After seeing those pictures, I knew having people over to my house for a social gathering was not a good idea. First of all, my hair is never perfectly done. Second, my house was a total of 1,008 square feet. And finally, I am not a gourmet cook. If I try to make something fancy, it never ends up right. Just ask my family. I was overwhelmed and incompetent, or so I thought.
God continued to nudge me, and I took my first step toward hospitality. I decided the four-person table that barely fit my family of four needed to be replaced with something bigger. I headed to Craigslist to find a used table. If I was lucky, I could find something similar to what the magazine cover showed, but for a reasonable price. My house was not big, but perhaps I could wow my guests with a beautiful table. All the used beautiful hardwood tables still cost thousands of dollars. I simply couldn’t afford them.
After a couple of weeks of looking, I finally found a table that was larger than the one I had, and for the price I could afford. It was not solid wood. It was made out of pressboard with a plastic laminate top. I was disappointed. How was I going to do good hospitality in a small house with a pressboard table? It turns out, with the help of God, I could do a lot of good hospitality with unimpressive things.
Because you see, God saw what I could not: that there is an epidemic of loneliness in the United States. Harvard University came out with an article recently that discusses this very thing. They found that one in three Americans frequently feel lonely. For mothers with young children, the percentage goes up to 51%. Then an amazing 61% of people ages 18-25 struggle with extreme loneliness.
That means that as we go to work, walk in the stores, and sit in our churches, we are surrounded by people who feel deprived of meaningful relationships with others. Perhaps you even fall into one of these categories.
This epidemic of loneliness is heartbreaking and it is a real problem that affects not just our hearts and minds, but our overall health as well. According to the study, “loneliness is linked to early mortality, and a wide array of serious emotional and physical problems.”
The fact is that many people just don’t feel loved and valued. They don’t feel they can be open and vulnerable and still be worthy of love and included in relationship. And it’s no wonder when we were created to be in community. We were made to rejoice with one another, and share each other’s burdens.
How do we combat this pervasive epidemic of loneliness? God, in His infinite wisdom, tells us the remedy. Hospitality.
Romans 12:13 simply states, “Practice hospitality.” A simple command to practice hospitality. But when I ask people if they intentionally invite people into their lives for a game night, a meal, or even a walk around the neighborhood, a majority tell me they couldn’t do it. When I ask why they are hesitant, they say they are afraid of doing it wrong. What if my house is too small? What if I cook the wrong thing? What if I say something wrong? All the what-ifs make them too afraid to ask another person into their life.
This fear comes from thinking of hospitality from a worldly view, instead of from a Biblical understanding of hospitality. In America, when we think of hospitality we think of the hospitality industry. Their goal is to make sure customers have every need met and are always comfortable. If we approach personal hospitality with this mindset, it’s so easy to overthink things and let the what-ifs take over. If we think we have to anticipate and cater to our guest’s every possible need to be a good host, it can feel like we’ll never truly be up for the task. But the hospitality industry is trying to make money. Biblical hospitality is about caring for souls.
The Greek word for hospitality in the New Testament literally means ‘loving strangers’. It’s not fancy dishes, perfectly decorated homes, or fancy food. If you have these gifts and you love to share them, by all means, do it! But in a country where our physical needs are often met, loving strangers is less about perfecting all the physical details, and more about addressing the emotional needs. It’s about creating an environment where meaningful conversations happen. A place where people can feel loved and valued.
This can be done in large, beautiful homes with gourmet food, or over frozen pizza on paper plates in a cluttered house. It doesn’t have to look like a Pinterest-perfect event. The key is being present with those you are with. It is simply loving the person in front of you with your time and attention because they are worth it and loved by God.
Don’t worry if you don’t feel totally at ease the first couple (or ten) times you practice hospitality. Just like anything else, stepping outside of your comfort zone to try something new takes practice.
After placing our “new” table in our dining room, I began my journey into the world of hospitality and I’d love to say I immediately felt at ease. Honestly, for a while, I was a complete wreck every time we had people over. I still stressed over all the details. Was the house clean enough? Did I cook the right thing? I had toddlers, so in my eyes, my house was never as clean as I wanted. I would try to bake or cook fancy things, but they never looked like the magazine picture. After a couple of years, my husband gently told me, “Quit stressing. Nobody cares about those details but you. They are here for the conversation and the company. Not for your fancy punch recipe.” He was right. No one complained about the food or the cleanliness of my house. They always left saying they wanted to do it again sometime.
And once I got past stressing over details, I realized God had been working in my clumsy attempts of hospitality the whole time. Over my laminate table, I got to listen to people share their joys, fears, and sorrows.
God provided the space for a young married couple to share that they were pregnant after only being married for 6 months and their fears of how they were going to pay for a baby while still in college.
At my laminate table, I listened to an Iraqi couple share the horrors of Saddam Hussein’s genocide of the Kurdish people. I got to rejoice with a couple who had recently eloped but hadn’t told many people yet. I celebrated job promotions with some and cried with others as they shared family heartaches.
We prayed with all of them and parted a little closer, a little less lonely, and feeling much more loved. In the process, my heart overflowed with the joy of being with each person, and the little details that once felt so huge and important paled in comparison to what God was doing.
I share my story because I want you to know the joy God has in store for you when you practice biblical hospitality. Not only will you be battling this national epidemic, but God will walk with you and bless you. You don’t have to invite someone over for a meal and games like my family does. You could invite them on a walk or to a playdate in the park. Maybe you could invite someone to a conversation over a hot beverage at a local coffee shop. Do what fits you and experiment. The goal is to simply love that person by giving your time and attention. Look at your calendar and find a time to ‘love a stranger’ and start transforming loneliness into community.