In college, I joined a club that sought to foster a sense of community through secrecy. We sought to build fraternity through exclusivity, private ritual experiences, and of course, password-handshakes. The idea was that relationships grow deeper by cutting others out and surrounding ourselves in mystery and darkness.
Sometimes we can treat Christian worship like an insider’s club. And who doesn’t want to be included in a family-like brotherhood and sisterhood? But the New Testament blueprint for worship gatherings has little room for secrecy. Rather, hospitality rises to the top of the values we want to characterize our Sunday morning services.
So what is hospitality? And how does it relate to corporate worship? We often associate hospitality with serving food or accommodating lodging. For example, these two components make up a massive economic force called the “hospitality industry.” And while food and shelter are integral components of practicing a habit of hospitality, the apostle Peter gives us a bigger picture of what it means in the Church.
Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace. (1 Peter 4:9–10)
Peter is encouraging the saints to live a certain way in light of the staggering reality that “the end of all things is at hand” (verse 7). And rather than the immanent return of our Lord Jesus motivating us to sell our houses and empty our cupboards, Peter means for us to do the opposite: “Jesus is coming soon, so stock your guest-room linens.”
In other words, part of what it means to live in these last days is to welcome one another in the name of Jesus. As a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9), we gather regularly to worship God and proclaim his excellencies to one another (1 Peter 2:10). We show hospitality by stewarding the gifts God has given us to the service of our brothers and sisters:
Whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 4:11)
So then, a robust theology of hospitality extends beyond table borders and linen closets, and into our speaking and serving. There is a way to offer a welcoming word on Sunday morning that demonstrates end-times urgency. And there is a way to serve in the kitchen ministry that completely misses the whole point. One of the defining marks of Christian community is hospitality, and that applies to our gatherings just as much as our scatterings.
And All God’s People Said, “Amen”
Paul seems to have this same principle in mind as he discusses the role of tongues and prophecy in corporate worship:
How can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. (1 Corinthians 14:16–17)
One of the governing questions for our behaviors on Sunday mornings is whether I am being hospitable. Would an outsider be able to understand my actions with relative cultural ease? How much translation needs to happen before my gift builds her up? These are difficult questions, and require wisdom and a certain amount of cultural withitness, but are still important.
Four Practical Steps
Here are a few practical steps to help us put this into practice. These suggestions are not meant to be a new legal code, but simply an effort to put some skin on abstract concepts.
1. Let those around you fuel, not distract, your worship.
We can easily fall into a trap that sees the brother to your left and the fidgety child on your right as unwelcomed barriers to time with God. When the principle of hospitality beckons us to welcome them to encounter God with us. The heartbeat of hospitable worship proclaims, “Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together” (Psalm 34:3).
2. Aim for the “Amen.”
Paul would rather speak five words with his mind than ten thousand in tongues when he gathers with the saints (1 Corinthians 14:19) because he wants to communicate truth about God to his neighbor. So we are being hospitable worshipers when we examine the ways our actions express something about the truths we are affirming. What does my body language communicate about the lyric we are singing? Am I making the truth more clear, or am I obscuring it? Is my language full of jargon words that will go right over the head of the person I am praying with after the service? My goal is for understanding that says, “Amen.”
3. Affirm by participating.
This is the flip side of the previous point. Part of creating a hospitable culture includes charitable response to the service leaders. Our participation in singing, in praying, in active submission to verbal preaching dramatizes our own “Amen” to the leadership. So when we fold our arms and “sit this one out” we can communicate opposition to the truths being celebrated. Just like we would not be receiving hospitality by refusing to eat the food set before us at the dinner table, we foster a culture of dissent by withdrawing our participation from the corporate worship activities.
4. Come early, linger afterward.
And perhaps the most practical advice in our hurried lives is that we make room to be with the people God has given us to gather with. By making a regular habit of showing up late, we can unwittingly communicate that the gathering belongs to someone else. As a priesthood of believers, we are all hosting each other. Just like it would be inhospitable for me to invite you to my house, and arrive 15 awkward minutes late, so we also don’t communicate hospitality in corporate worship gatherings when it appears that the only people hosting this thing are the staff ministry leaders or worship team. “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7). Simply put, you can’t welcome when you aren’t there.
So unlike my frat days, I no longer see obscurity or secrecy to be the key to meaningful friendships. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Christian worship fosters community not by shutting others out, but by inviting them in as we worship a God who has made himself known in Jesus. The joy of corporate worship finds expression as we worship the King with hospitality: arm in arm, and hand in hand, for the end of all things is at hand.