Missional Hospitality: A Beautiful Emptying
Contrary to how it’s regarded in some circles, missional hospitality is not an outreach strategy. It’s not about far-away “missions” and it’s not a strategy at all. The specifics will look different for everyone and each community, but if you choose to practice missional hospitality, there’s a good chance you’ll be asked to make sacrifices in comfort, security, and certainty. Your church might lose members and financial contributions may decline. From a worldly perspective, it may appear to be foolish. And it might be the most beautiful emptying your neighborhood has ever seen.
Over the last decade or so, my understanding of “mission” has shifted from something certain people go and do in foreign countries, to something that God has always been about and we are all called into--God's work of redeeming the world. Mission is about joining in God's work for the sake and redemption of all of God's creation. And it happens right under my own two feet, wherever I happen to be.
Missional hospitality starts with thoughtful, prayerful, missionally-minded discerners who are tuned in (or willing to tune in) to the work of God around them, and the promptings of the Spirit. Ideally, this isn't an insiders-only (church people) conversation, but involves folks in the neighborhood, through whom we may be surprised to discover what God is up to. Ours is the work of discerning and joining what God is up to. We engage in listening by getting involved locally to see what we hear, learn, experience and imagine that God might be up to. We spend time in prayerful discernment. Then we experiment; we test to see if this opportunity or need we hear about is something to which God is calling us. We join in what God is doing or inviting us to partner in. And we are constantly reflecting on these experiences and discerning the way forward, making adjustments all along the way. Missional hospitality humbly says, "I don’t already know all that God is up to here; I’ll resist imposing my own agendas, programs, and strategies; I’m going to listen for what God is up to and let that shape the way forward."
In my view, our engagement with the local neighborhood is part of us living out our Christian calling--that's why we do it. That said, my sincere hope and belief is that it will have the delightful benefit of growing our churches and ourselves in surprising ways. The goals of missional hospitality are relationships, connectedness, community, and fostering a sense of belonging. And perhaps through the practice of missional hospitality, folks will be so moved by the story of Jesus they see lived out in us that they, too, want to become Jesus followers.
There will be resistance. We have to take seriously that this posture is radically different from the way we’ve thought about and “done” church for hundreds of years. It takes time to really sink in--for the folks in the pews to understand what it is they’re being called to. And many won’t be interested or willing to make changes. We’re not asking people to simply volunteer more in our programs and services, although that can be part of it. We’re not asking people to simply give more money, although that can be part of it. We’re asking people to empty themselves of power and privilege for the sake of others.We’re asking people to open themselves to a complete paradigm shift--to change the way we think about and live out our identity as the body of Christ. And to go that deep, to try to shift that foundation … is risky.
Even if people can get on board theologically and philosophically, when the time comes for a change in behavior and habits--will they remain committed? Will they be willing to depart from the way we’ve always “done” church—from our typical posture towards “the world” or “the neighborhood” (focusing on outreach and evangelism in particular ways)? And once they realize this isn’t an evangelism or outreach strategy, that we’re modeling and calling folks to a different way of life because it’s what Jesus did and how we believe he’s calling us to live and engage with our world ... when they realize that this holistic approach doesn’t have the goal of converting people, will they still believe it’s worth it?
People will resist: Why do this? Why sacrifice so much if people aren’t even going to come to our church? If this new “way of living” doesn’t result in a certain number of baptisms, then it’s not worth it. Why should we join the neighborhood association, show up at community events and meetings, become involved in area non-profits and connect with civic leaders? How is going to the farmer’s market part of my calling?
We live in a world of instant gratification, immediate results, proven strategies, and money-back guarantees. And missional hospitality doesn’t offer any of those things. We are steeped in a tradition that focuses on “winning souls” and counting baptisms. When it comes to where we land on risky decisions, we might have even handed over the reigns to whoever protests and threatens the loudest, or whoever has the deepest pockets.
This missional hospitality, this kingdom way of life that empties the self for the sake of the other: it’s what got Jesus killed. His radical message of love and inclusion, subversion of the powers that be, and allegiance to a different kingdom made him a threat to the political and religious authorities. He didn’t move into the neighborhood and build a fancy gathering space, set up programs, and formulate outreach strategies to build a following.
Always on the move among the people, he was living within existing structures and calling out ones that needed to change. He spent loads of time in prayer and communion with God and people, which was the foundation and catalyst for his ministry. He boldly proclaimed the way to abundant life and his message was polarizing: the same message that was repulsive to some (the powerful, religious elite) was attractive to others (those lower on the power scale, the disenfranchised, marginalized, outcast; those who had some social capital but had a sense that there was more to this life than what they’d been taught). He didn’t just preach about love and inclusion; he ate with the people he wasn’t supposed to be near, talked to the people he wasn’t supposed to give the time of day to, and showed kindness to the people he wasn’t supposed to care about. His life was the most beautiful self-emptying the world had ever seen.
And if the church is Jesus’s beloved bride, his partner and mate in this journey, I have to wonder … who are the people we should be eating with, talking with, and showing kindness to? What is God up to in our neighborhoods, schools, cities, states, countries, and world? To what or whom is God nudging us? As we engage these questions, learning and discerning and experimenting and risking, the result might be the most beautiful emptying our neighborhood has ever seen.
*The following resources have shaped the thinking expressed in this article: The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Christopher Wright), Surprise the World: The Five Habits of Highly Missional People (Michael Frost), and The Missional Network.