Practicing the Welcoming Gospel: Hospitality in Cross-cultural Ministries
by Benjamin D. Espinoza
Hospitable cross-cultural ministries go beyond simply providing a warm and inviting atmosphere.
THE CHRISTIAN FAITH IS AN INVITATION to partake of the redemptive power of Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, in the context of the Christian community—and to live as gospel agents mediating God’s grace to the world. When we read scripture we see a God who is in the continual process of redeeming humanity and creation, righting a perfect relationship which existed prior to the fall of humanity in the Garden of Eden.
Through the power of Christ’s resurrection and the Holy Spirit, the Church becomes partakers of God’s continual act of inviting and redeeming humanity and creation for our betterment and for life abundant. It is this inviting narrative that should play a significant role in the way we formulate and envision our teaching ministries in cross-cultural contexts. In other words, our teaching ministries should be as much about preaching and teaching the gospel of Christ as it is an act of hospitality.
Conceptualizing cross-cultural ministries as an exercise in hospitality should cause missionaries and educators in global contexts to radically rethink the purpose and scope of traditional ministry efforts. Rather than being centered exclusively on the transmission of religious facts and historic doctrines, cross-cultural ministries and teaching must be a significant exercise in the practice of hospitality.
Hospitable cross-cultural ministries go beyond simply providing a warm and inviting atmosphere. Instead, hospitable ministries shatter previously-held assumptions, prejudices, and presuppositions that run contrary to the witness of the Christian faith. For example, a small group Bible study run by an American missionary in a Mexican home can include reflections on Paul’s epistle to the Romans, but can also be an exercise in learning about and welcoming one another’s cultural practices. Rather than importing American cultural values foreign to this Mexican home, hospitable teaching ministries provides a safe and open space in which to share values and learn from one another for the sake of mutual edification and spiritual growth.
The spirit of God’s story found in scripture is not a dominating narrative, it is an inviting narrative, and our teaching ministries in cross-cultural contexts should reflect this posture of hospitality. In essence, the questions I ask in this article are: “What is the biblical and theological vision for hospitality?” and “How can ministries in global contexts best reflect the impulse of hospitality found in scripture?”
In answering these questions I hope to lay out a vision for hospitable cross-cultural ministries that decimates human-designed walls and further testifies to the hospitality found in the gospel of Christ.
Christine Pohl writes that when we express hospitality, “we make a powerful statement to the world about who is interesting, valuable, and important to us” (1999, 11). She reminds us that:
In hospitality, the stranger is welcomed into a safe, personal, and comfortable place, a place of respect and acceptance and friendship. Even if only briefly, the stranger is included in a life-giving and life-sustaining network of relations. Such welcome involves attentive listening and a mutual sharing of lives and life stories. It requires an openness of heart, a willingness to make one’s life visible to others, and a generosity of time and resources. (1999, 13)
Along these lines, Elizabeth Newman writes, “Hospitality is practiced most faithfully when these roles easily reverse themselves and we think of ourselves as both guests and hosts” (2003, 75).
Hospitality is a way of life radically rooted in the gospel of Christ (which we will explore later in this article). Henri Nouwen wrote that hospitality “creates new and free space where we can reach out to strangers and invite them to become our friends” (1975, 79). Elizabeth Conde-Frazier writes that “the place of hospitality offers attentive listening and mutual sharing of lives and life stories” (Conde-Frazier, Parrett, and Kang 2004, 171). She also notes that hospitality is a recognition of equal human value and the rejection of “social arrangements of class, ethnicity, or race” (2004, 172).
It is an ethical posture and not simply the practice of kindness. It is the “opening up” of our lives to one another, where we partake in the roles of guest and host, and are generous with one another.
The Biblical and Theological Vision of Hospitality
While we are given specific human examples of hospitality (Gen. 18, 19; 1 Kings 17; 2 Kings 4), the movements of God’s hospitality received the most prominent attention in the Old Testament.
It is God who welcomed Abraham and his children into a covenant relationship and formed the nation of Israel.
When Abraham’s children were living as aliens in bondage under the oppressive hands of the Egyptians, it is God who freed them, and provided food, water, shelter and protection from the oppressors.
The Mosaic law constituted by God for the purpose of marking the Israelites as his people mandated a code of hospitality that welcomed strangers and sojourners, just as the Israelites were once wanderers and sojourners (Exod. 22:21; Lev. 19:1-2, 9–10, 33–34).
Although Israel consistently rebelled against God’s Lordship, God continuously invited Israel back into the covenant relationship through the ministry of the prophets.
In the Old Testament, we observe a God who relentlessly invited, welcomed, and sought out fellowship with those inside (and outside) the fold of Israel.
The New Testament magnifies the concept of hospitality in the life, teachings, and salvific work of Jesus Christ. According to David Anderson, Jesus “spoke of acts of hospitality toward people who are strangers, hungry, in prison, poor, diseased, or disabled. Jesus said that as we practice hospitality, it should be done as if Jesus himself were the recipient” (Anderson 2011, 15-16).
The two most prominent parables of Jesus explicating hospitality are Matthew 25, the parable of the sheep and the goats, and Luke 14, the parable of the great banquet. In these two parables, we see a defining mark of Christian hospitality, that when we commit acts of hospitality, we welcome Christ himself. Christ’s death and resurrection serve as the ultimate form of hospitality, providing access to the Father through Christ (1 Tim. 2:5). It is through the power of Christ’s death and resurrection that we are invited to “come boldly” to the throne of grace through prayer (Heb. 4:16). Hospitality is thus at the center of the gospel message.
Ana-Maria Pineda (2010) articulates the nuances of how the Greek language of the New Testament understands hospitality. She points out that the Greek term xenos, meaning “stranger,” can also mean “guest” and “host.” Our word, xenophobia, is the fear of strangers, which is often associated with nationalism and supremacy, or a “my group is better than your group” consciousness of superiority.
However, the New Testament uses the term philoxenia, which generally means “the love of the stranger.” Pineda notes the term “can also mean love of the whole atmosphere of hospitality and the whole activity of guesting and hosting” (2008, 33). Jesus embodied philoxenia when he arrived as the wedding in Cana “as a guest, but when the wine runs out, he provides more and becomes the host” (2010, 34).
Hospitality is an inherent characteristic and attitude of God, as God continually sought to restore the broken bond between him and Israel, and sent Jesus to serve as reconciliation between the fallen creation and himself.
Practicing Hospitality in Cross-cultural Ministry Contexts
Hospitality is a Christian theme that runs throughout the history of redemption, it is central to understanding how and why God relates to the world. As the image-bearers of the hospitable God, we learn to be in touch with the Holy Spirit and become open to being hospitable ministers of the gospel. Hospitality is a practice that deserves to be a focal component of our ministry efforts in cross-cultural contexts. How can we go about formulating our ministries into catalysts for hospitality?
Ministering from the inside-out. Gary Parrett reminds us of two images in Christ’s ministry: the washing of the disciples’ feet in John 13 and Philippians 2, the Kenosis passage (2004, 124). These two passages run parallel to one another, demonstrating the kind of humility and self-emptying that must occur in our own lives before we minister and teach cross-culturally. We must remove our old garments (become less ethnocentric), recognize our own cultural biases, put on new garments (understand the culture where we will minister), and eventually become a part of the new culture. Parrett notes,
…too much pre-study of a given cultural context can have intended detrimental effects on ministry in that context. Like the man who has heard God’s Word but has not put it into practice, I may be self-deceived, thinking I know all I need to know. (Conde-Frazier, Parrett, and Kang 2004, 144)
It is not enough to read of the contexts where we will teach and minister. Rather, we must become a part of the new culture and minister from the inside-out, not the outside-in. In cross-cultural ministry, this entails the recognition that we teach as much with our body language and the manner in which we do things as we do with our instructional lessons. The way we position ourselves before giving a lesson or leading a Bible study, the way greet those who have come to share in fellowship, or the way we dress all teach something.
In order to demonstrate a humble posture of Christian hospitality, it is imperative that we thoroughly understand and immerse ourselves in whatever contexts God places us, and be sensitive to what we are communicating with our body language and other non-verbal actions.
A willingness to empty ourselves of our own cultural biases and practices demonstrates hospitality to people who are ready and willing to share more about the things of God. To be sure, to “empty” ourselves of certain cultural practices does not necessarily mean that we completely hide who we are or become someone we are not.
Rather, it simply means that whatever cultural stumbling blocks are in the way of us living into our role as guests and hosts are ones of which we must be aware and willing to sacrifice for the sake and comfort of others.
In seminary, I was tasked with leading a Bible study for a group of fellow seminarians. Although I had led numerous Bible studies throughout my ministerial life, I was unprepared for the real challenge ahead of me—leading a group composed of international students on a spiritual journey.
Although our first Bible study was only going to be a half-hour affair, it ended up three times as long. And while my plan was to really dig into the nuances of the text, we ended up sharing testimonies of God’s graciousness in our lives in ways I had never experienced. I quickly realized that my personal bias for dominating structure and rigor excluded the possibility of true fellowship, and became a spiritual stumbling block to both myself and the brothers I hoped to spiritually lead.
As time wore on, this Bible study, initially intended to be intellectually challenging, became a powerful time of sharing, praising, and praying with one another. We read the Bible in deep ways that connected with our own lives. We shared our personal hurts and fears. Through the grace of God, I was able to “empty” myself of my own bias for rigidity and become more hospitable and open to what these brothers could teach me. Emptying ourselves of spiritual or cultural stumbling blocks can thus have powerful results in cross-cultural ministry.
Inviting others into our narrative. Conde-Frazier, Parrett, and Steve Kang write of “encounters” as the places where we take risks of hospitality (2004, 176). Encounters are where we gain the ability to walk in one culture and just as easily into the next. They are composed of listening to the concerns of others, and gaining the trust of another for the sake of mutual learning and growth. Encounters are risky because they challenge us to use both servant-like humility and cultural-sensitivity. Ministering and teaching cross-culturally entails that we share our thoughts and feelings (in a manner that is culturally sensitive and appropriate) to others as a means of inviting others into our personal narratives.
When we invite people into our personal narratives, others will become more willing to share their own challenges, fears, dreams, and hopes. This safe space of hospitality and mutual sharing allows for deeper questions related to faith, and can serve as powerful moments of gospel-sharing and teaching.
My wife has experienced the power of personal story-sharing in her ministries to both young women in difficult situations and to Korean women living in the United States. She makes a point of sharing her own story, including struggles and fears, with the people among whom she ministers. She has realized that becoming open and vulnerable to others increases their willingness to share their stories, and results in transformational conversations and encounters. This form of narrative hospitality is both risky and uncomfortable (Conde-Frazier, Parrett, and Kang 2004, 176), but is necessary for experiencing genuine transformation with those from other cultures.
Being open to diverse cultural expressions of the gospel. As our capacity for hospitality grows, we are more receptive to the hospitable grace of God and become more respectful and open to cultural expressions of the gospel to which we are not accustomed.
For example, in the United States, worship services, on average, last between one and two hours. However, as many seasoned missionaries know, worship services across the world can last much longer. I have friends who have worshipped for more than five hours at a time in other countries. In other parts of the world, the amount of time does not seem to matter as much as the quality of time.
Moreover, other cultures express their worship of the Triune God through song, dance, and acting, among other things—things that may not be familiar to missionaries. In our participation with others in worship, we must remain sensitive and open to other cultural expressions of faith in Christ. This ensures that those to whom we minister and teach feel that their expressions of worship are welcomed. This also demonstrates our commitment to participate in the hospitable mission of God.
Fellowshipping with those on the margins of society. Above all else, to practice Christian hospitality means welcoming those into fellowship who may be on the margins of society. Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus reaching out to those on the fringes of society—the Samaritan woman, the tax collectors, the “sinners.” Teaching and ministering cross-culturally entails that we ignore human-designed barriers and welcome into fellowship those whom a culture considers outcasts. We must welcome their insights and allow them to learn on the same plane as those who are a part of mainstream culture.
For example, when I briefly worked with homeless individuals in Detroit, I began to see the power of treating others not according to their socioeconomic situation, but on the fact that each person has been fashioned in the imago Dei. Although this may be commonsensical to many, it was initially difficult for me.
Over time, however, I began to see these men and women not as homeless, but as fellow image-bearers. As a result, sharing with these men and women became a transformational joy rather than a reluctant duty, and led to a powerful time of sharing the gospel. The hospitality of the gospel empowers us to see beyond the markers and borders that humans place and see each human as an individual created in the image of God who is in need of the same gospel as everyone else.
Participating in the Grand Act of God
Hospitality is central to the character of God, and being a people fashioned in the image of God, we exemplify our status as image-bearers when we act like God, including being hospitable like our God.
Hospitality, at its core, means sacrificing any claim to superiority and inviting strangers into our lives for the sake of mutual sharing and learning. Hospitality can be expressed in any number of ways, and it is the responsibility of the cross-cultural teacher or missionary to pray that the Spirit of God moves us to explore creative and imaginative ways of inviting others to participate in the hospitable story of God with us.
Hospitality will not look the same in every culture, and sometimes, hospitality in one culture may look the opposite of hospitality in another. We must remain open, receptive, and sensitive to the Spirit’s leading when we seek to become more hospitable teachers and ministers in cross-cultural contexts. Engaging in hospitality means that we are participating in the grand act of God, who is continuously seeking, inviting, and sharing his love with all people.
Anderson, David W. 2011. “Hospitable Classrooms: Biblical Hospitality and Inclusive Education.” The Journal of Education and Christian Belief 15(1): 13-27.
Pineda. Ana María. 2010. “Hospitality.” Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People. 2nd ed. Edited by Dorothy Bass, 29-42. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Conde-Frazier, Elizabeth, Gary Parrett, and Steve Kang. 2004. Many Colored Kingdom: A Multicultural Dynamics for Spiritual Formation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.
Newman, Elizabeth. 2003. “Hospitality and Christian Higher Education.” Christian Scholars Review 33(1): 75-94.
Nouwen, Henri. 1975. Reaching Out: Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: Doubleday.
Pohl, Christine. 1999. Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Practice. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Benjamin D. Espinoza serves as director of youth and community life at Covenant Church in Bowling Green, Ohio. A graduate of Asbury Seminary, he writes frequently on Christian formation, the teaching-learning process, children’s spirituality, and youth ministry.
EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 4, pp. 464-471. Copyright © 2014 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.