Thom Shultz has explored the reasons why people both leave and stay away from the church in the West, and proposes Four Acts of Love that could make the church ‘irresistible.’ With a bit of cultural translation, I think he is on to something important.
The first Act of Love is called ‘Radical Hospitality.’ Shultz explores this in chapters 5 and 6 of his book Why Nobody Wants to go to Church Anymore, the first of the two chapters exploring what the term means, and the second looking at practical strategies. The exploration involves looking at radical hospitality as:
- Seeking to understand.
- Authentically welcoming others and being glad to be with them.
- Caring curiosity.
- Being a friend even though it’s not your ‘job.’
- Accepting, no matter what.
- Profoundly relational.
- Something that takes time.
- Unnerving, surprising, and messy.
These are expressions of genuine human qualities, and not simply things to be included in a ‘programme’ for welcome or outreach. Shultz therefore treads quite a fine line in the suggestions for practical action, as some of them could look like elements of a programme! The most striking is his final suggestion—sharing meals together. This was clearly a significant feature of the life of discipleship in the NT, though one with much greater cultural significance. It is certainly something the church in the West, with its fast-food culture and its liturgical rarification of what (in ‘breaking bread’) was surely intended to be part of a proper meal. (It would be the greatest irony if a congregation which had celebrated ‘The Eucharist’ then had lunch together, since it was thought that they had not yet shared a meal.)
There is no doubt that radical hospitality was an important, even defining, mark of Jesus’ ministry. The gospels record him both ‘eating and drinking with sinners’ and facing the accusations of impropriety that then ensued. (See Matt 9.10–11, Mark 2.15–16, Luke 5.29–30; this is part of the ‘triple tradition’ attested by all three Synoptic gospels.) Jesus responds to these accusations by explaining that this kind of associating with sinners was a hallmark and central purpose of his ministry, to ‘call not the righteous, but sinners’ (Matt 9.13, Mark 2.17) and Luke clarifies for us ‘to repentance’ (Luke 5.32). Jesus even contrasts his approach with John the Baptist:
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her actions. (Matt 11.18–19)
The closing comment about ‘wisdom’ is interesting and unexpected. It could suggest an identification of Jesus himself with the personification of divine wisdom (in Prov 8.22–31), but it is more likely a general reference to divine wisdom. Jesus’ radical hospitality (or rather, his radical acceptance of hospitality) is God’s wise action in the present context.
There are some other striking things to note about Jesus’ action here. The first is that his association with sinners does not appear to diminish his rejection of sin. If Jesus himself had been guilty of impropriety of any sort, there would have been some trace of it historically. And in the Sermon on the Mount, he raises the bar of what counts as ‘righteousness’ rather than lowering it. For the Pharisees, of course, the maintenance of purity was all important. They are quick to criticise Jesus’ cavalier approach to the company he keeps. But it is all too easy to caricature the conflict, picturing Jesus as unconcerned with the narrow interests of the Pharisees, an effortless opponent of up-tight legalists. Would not Jesus too have been concerned with questions of purity and cleanness? Certainly, he displays a daring indifference to social differentiation. But he is hardly unconcerned with sin. Elsewhere, he commends the Pharisees for their teaching, but it is their actions he criticises, for ‘they do not practise what they preach’ (Matt 23.3).
This leads to the second observation. The difference between Jesus and his critics is less to do with concerns than to do with effects. For the Pharisees, their holiness is a static thing, contaminated on the least contact with the unclean. For them, it is uncleanness that is infectious. But for Jesus, his holiness is alive and well—it is fighting fit and ready for action. For him, it is his holiness that is infectious. Thus it is that he forgives the paralytic in Mark 2 before he heals him, and dines with the sinners before they are admitted to religiously polite society. Jesus doesn’t abandon ‘rules’, but he appears to see them have a different purpose. Rules and regulations might express holiness, but they don’t deliver holiness. They are a right expression of something that God forms in us by other means—by his Spirit—and not something that make us holy when we follow them.
Shultz helpfully characterises the welcome to others, with whom we might disagree on all sorts of issues, as ‘acceptance without endorsement’. He explains this by means of a story from a visit to Mongolia:
Our hosts filled a communal bowl with fermented mare’s milk and passed it from one person to the next.Imagine putting your lips to the pungent milk—a taste that resembles a concoction of sour milk, warm beer, and pickle juice. Both of us had read in travel books: ‘Just touch your lips to the bowl; don’t drink the milk.’…
We love to share this story when we explain the difference between acceptance and endorsement. We can kindly accept radical differences from us in lifestyles, actions, looks and belief systems (touch our lips to the mare’s milk), but we don’t have to endorse them (guzzle it down).
This has important implications for the teaching life of any faith community or church. Shultz is not suggesting that churches don’t have a clear teaching position on controversial issues; there are things which churches should and should not ‘endorse.’ But this approach means that any congregation is going to contain people with a diversity of views on these issues within it. That will mean that the teaching ministry in the church will need to take the form, not of ‘laying down the law’, but of presenting these endorsements in a way which is gracious and invitational. Only in this way will can people belong before they believe, and believe before they behave in a way which conforms to such endorsed belief.
The second challenge relates to our growth in discipleship. Paul’s warning that ‘bad company corrupts good character’ (1 Cor 15.33) strikes a common-sense chord. It is the kind of saying that is repeated endlessly in student Christian Unions, and though some of us may have tired of it a little, it actually holds true for the rest of life. We know that Jesus’ holiness has been infectious in our lives. Decisively so in the cross, and our acceptance of this in our first words of commitment, but also in the daily experience of prayer, of time spent with him. It is a familiar observation for many of us that the disciples’ enemies recognised that they were ‘men who had been with Jesus’ (Acts 4.13, Philips). We live in the hope that something about our lives will demonstrate to others that we have spent quality time in Jesus’ company. On the other hand, we are also painfully aware that we are shaped by the world we live in; it is a ‘mouldy’ world, and this dilemma of being shaped by it or by God’s transforming power is the explicit choice offered in Romans 12.1–2. The world’s mould—or God’s? Time with sinners, or time with Jesus?
The answer is that the more time we spend with one, the more time we need with the other. Where we know little of the transformation that comes from spending time with Jesus, the only safe place will be the less-than-holy huddle of a ghetto-ised religious group. In contrast, the infectious holiness of Jesus equips us to deal with the pressures of a more mixed community. Sociologically, the tighter the entry requirements for membership of our local church, the more sectarian we become. But theologically, the more clearly we hear Jesus’ call to holiness, the more easily we can walk with those who are still exploring the implications of that call.
Thirdly, this question highlights our natural human tendency to stick with people like us. In her excellent Grove booklet, Ev 66 Creating a Culture of Welcome in the Local Church, Alison Gilchrist wrestles with why it is we don’t offer people the very thing that drew us into the faith community in the first place—welcome. Why do we enter the room and close the door—or pull up the drawbridge—behind us?
Why is it, that caring, God-fearing people, like many who have nurtured me in my faith, fall into the trap of being sightless when it comes to the whole issue of welcome?
‘Belonging,’ in whatever way that was for us, was almost certainly the key reason we stayed in church, and initial impressions were essential. We need to bear in mind the opportunities to belong do not exist unless someone comes back on a second and subsequent occasions. We all need to belong, to be part of the whole and to be valued in such. But why is that a problem?
The radical hospitality that we have experience from God in Christ by his Spirit is also something we will have experienced in our local faith community. We might need to stand back, reflect, and think again about how we express that radical hospitality to others.
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