Inverting Hospitality

When Redeemer East Harlem launched in the Fall of 2019, I was serving as the pastor of the sending church, Redeemer East Side. As I watched Justin and Angela Adour lead through the earliest stages of planting, one thing that struck me was that their leadership instincts, which had been shaped by their ministry experience in the Bronx, gave them a strong bias toward developing local partnerships rather than initiating new ministries of their own. Justin instinctively sought out trusted pastors, leaders, and Christian ministries that had been doing gospel ministry in the neighborhood for years, even decades, and sought to partner with and support their work. As relative newcomers to formal ministry in that community (they had been neighbors and residents already for several years), they entered into their church planting work seeking to link arms with and follow the leadership of those who had been in the community for a long time, doing the work in Jesus’s name.

The Adours' instincts were different enough from what my instincts might have led me to do, that it made me take notice. Having served for many years as a pastor in a spiritually vibrant, well-resourced congregation, my reflex would have been to simply start our own ministry to reach the youth or to support moms facing unexpected pregnancies in our neighborhood. I’m not sure I would have first thought to join ministries that were already doing this work. Justin and Angela’s impulse toward partnership and supporting the work of others felt new and yet obvious to me, both at the same time. This sparked a quiet curiosity in me: how was it that my ministry instincts and the Adours' ministry instincts had come to be fine-tuned in different ways?

Around that same time, I was preaching on the place of hospitality in the Christian faith. I was reading books like Christine Pohl’s Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition and, perhaps for the first time, noticing the prominence and pervasiveness of the practice of hospitality in the ethics of the New Testament (e.g. Romans 12:13, 1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:8, Hebrews 13:2, 1 Peter 4:9, etc.).


Within the Reformed tradition, I was learning how the practice of hospitality (particularly to refugees) held a place of particular prominence given its importance in the spread of the Reformation in places like Calvin’s Geneva and Cranmer’s England. Indeed, Calvin is quite forceful on the obligations of generosity and hospitality for the Christian:

God … has impressed his image in us and has given us a common nature which should incite us to providing one for the other. The man who wishes to exempt himself from providing for his neighbors should deface himself and declare that he no longer wishes to be a man, for as long as we are human creatures we must contemplate as in a mirror our face in those who are poor, despised, exhausted, who groan under their burdens (John Calvin, Corpus Reformatorum as quoted in Christine Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition. Eerdman’s Publishing: Grand Rapids, MI, 1999. 65.)

To refuse to offer hospitality to those in need is to deny not merely the image of God in others, but to deny the image of God in one's self. It is a remarkable claim.

It was also during this time that I also came across Willie James Jennings’s reflections on Christian hospitality in The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. Having spent hours learning about the important place hospitality has had in the Christian tradition, I learned from Jennings how even the practice of hospitality can go wrong. In reflecting on the global expansion of Christianity during the colonial era, he observed that:

It is as though Christianity, wherever it went in the modern colonies, inverted its sense of hospitality. It claimed to be the host, the owner of the spaces it entered … and yielded a form of religious life that thwarts its deepest instincts of intimacy (Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and The Origins of Race. Yale University Press: New Haven, 2010. 8).

The cultural logic that characterized the colonial era had “inverted” the Christian sense of hospitality such that a Christian could appear in a place for the first time and claim for itself the mantle of true owner and host. It was a powerful way of articulating the profound dissonance of that era and its ongoing impact on the church.

As I read that quote though, I couldn’t help but recognize that “inverted sense of hospitality” in my own ministry instincts. Why would it strike me as refreshingly insightful for a church planter to enter into a new neighborhood with the posture of a guest needing the welcome of a gracious host? Why would it seem counterintuitive for a church planter to be the recipient of hospitality from those in the community rather than presuming to be the one to offer hospitality to those who have long preceded one's arrival? It was a shocking and convicting thought. Perhaps in part, it was because being the guest puts one in a position of vulnerability. What if I am not welcomed? What if the doors remain firmly closed? What if my presence is not wanted? And yet it was precisely that vulnerability that made it possible for Redeemer East Harlem to be welcomed into the community as a trusted friend and not just a well-intended outsider.

It is therefore all the more remarkable that Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of God himself, would come to us as a guest in need of hospitality. John 1:11 says that Jesus “came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” In taking the vulnerable position of a guest, he didn’t just risk rejection, he bore our rejection and on the cross transformed it into God’s gracious embrace. Christine Pohl puts it this way:

Writers in the New Testament portray Jesus as a gracious host, welcoming children and prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners into his presence … But Jesus, God incarnate, is also portrayed as a vulnerable guest and needy stranger … Jesus welcomes and needs welcome (Pohl, 16-17).

The fullness of life in the Kingdom means we, like our Lord and Savior, both welcome and need welcome. The beloved community is one of mutual hospitality. And to live in that community now can often invert our inverted sense of hospitality.