Carolyn, welcome to the blog and thanks for writing this little gem of a book. First-off, tell us a bit about who you are…
Thanks for inviting me! I live in Worcester with my husband, Richard, and 2 teenage children (18 & 16). Richard is the lead pastor of Woodgreen Evangelical Church and I serve alongside him, leading the women’s ministry and music ministry teams. A lot of my time is spent in pastoral counselling and teaching the bible to women through 121s, small group bible studies and at various events and conferences. I also do a bit of part time maths tutoring and piano teaching.
On the first page of Extraordinary Hospitality you mention a friend who told you they were concerned your book would be ‘telling us to have more people round for dinner’. Hospitality can definitely be one of those ‘love it or hate it’ words. What is this book about and who is it for?
I think one of the reasons hospitality is a ‘love it or hate it word’ is because it’s so often associated with a fairly superficial picture of perfectly cooked meals served in a perfectly calm environment by a perfectly competent host. I want to offer a broader model of hospitality that’s more about character than cooking; more about cultivating a welcoming heart than an impressive home. We worship an extravagantly generous God who has shown us incredible welcome in Christ. I want to show how our hospitality is a practical way of reflecting his heart to those around us. So rather than offering 7 steps to being the perfect host, the book explores 7 characteristics of welcome we see in God and then encourages us to think about how we might reflect those characteristics in our everyday interactions.
The book is for ordinary Christians who want to obey the biblical commands to offer hospitality but are unsure what that should look like in their contexts. It’s for those who feel overwhelmed or intimidated by the superficial images of hospitality they see on their screens—or maybe, at times, within the church. For those who just need some encouragement that God can use their small, seemingly insignificant acts of welcome to draw others to him.
You use a beautiful phrase: ‘learning to welcome like Jesus’. That strikes me as something we can put into practice at multiple levels and settings, as individuals and as churches. What led to you discovering this truth and how has that helped you personally?
I love biblical theology and had initially thought this book might be more of a biblical overview—tracing the theme of hospitality throughout the bible. As I started to work on that, I became caught up in the way God extends welcome—from creation, through the covenants, in his provision of the sacrificial system—and, in particular, the way he perseveres in offering welcome to those who reject him. This culminates in Jesus coming to dwell among us and make it possible for us to know eternal welcome through his death and resurrection. As I looked at Jesus’ earthly life and ministry, I saw how the characteristics of welcome I’d been tracing throughout the Old Testament are so clearly and beautifully expressed in the way he welcomed people. In particular, his compassion, humility and sacrificial heart.
It’s been both liberating and challenging to learn to welcome like Jesus. On the one hand, it’s freeing to know that I don’t need to strive to offer hospitality that is outwardly impressive. Rather, I can focus on trying to see my friends and neighbours as Jesus sees them and looking for ways to share his heart of welcome with them. On the other hand, it’s challenging—because my heart is so often unlike his. I am proud and selfish—I struggle to lay down my own comfort for the good of others. But he is transforming me, by his Spirit, so I can persevere with hope and confidence that he will continue to teach me and use me, despite my weaknesses and failures, to welcome others for his glory.
Often we associate hospitality with the home, but some reading this perhaps share a home with non-Christian family or friends, and may well feel that limits the hospitality they’d like to do. How would you encourage people in that situation?
One of the wonderful things about Jesus’ earthly life and ministry was his willingness and ability to welcome people in a variety of ways, according to their needs. He wasn’t limited by cultural traditions or expectations. He invited himself into homes; he initiated conversations in the streets, at wells, on mountains, in synagogues. He had no home of his own—and yet was the most hospitable person who has ever lived!
If the goal of our hospitality is to welcome like Jesus, we can do that regardless of our living situation. We can look for opportunities to show welcome in the workplace—why not look for a colleague who seems lonely or sad, and suggest you eat lunch together or go out for a walk or a coffee. At church, notice newcomers and invite them to sit with you (when restrictions allow). After the service, rather than chatting to your friends, look for someone who is alone or who you know is struggling or suffering in some way. Offer to pray with them and ask if there are particular ways you could support them—and then follow up in the week with a phone call or text. If there’s a neighbour you’d like to get to know, suggest a walk in the park or a drink at the pub (when open!). Try to be known as the person who is always interested in others, available to chat and willing to be interrupted.
And don’t forget to look for ways to reflect Jesus’ welcome to those you live with!
Do you sense that hospitality can look different in different cultures? For example, different cultures (even within the UK) have different approaches to who is invited into the home. Some people tend to socialise out at pubs and restaurants rather than in the home. To what extent should we be mindful of our culture and to what extent should Christian hospitality mean we break with that culture and show a different way?
Yes, I think that is something to be mindful of—especially in the early stages of friendship. There are people who will feel more relaxed about being invited to a pub or coffee shop than into a home—and I think that may be especially true after this year of social distancing. So it’s good to be sensitive to that and willing to meet people where they’re most comfortable. But, when possible and appropriate, a willingness to invite people into our homes can communicate a deeper—and perhaps unexpected—commitment to pursuing friendship.
The first time we invited our neighbours over for dinner they dressed up and seemed quite nervous—even though we chat to one another most days. It was something they never did with other friends and it was uncomfortable for them at first, but I’m glad we invited them. They’re far more relaxed with us now and know we value them as friends. It’s also made it much easier to invite them to evangelistic events and church services because the friendship is deeper. Perhaps a good first step for those who may feel particularly uncomfortable is to invite them in for a take-away meal or to watch some sport on TV.
In our post-Christian culture, people are less likely to just step into our churches or turn up to our courses. What role do you hope hospitality will have in the UK church’s witness over the coming years?
I think we have an opportunity, through genuine and inclusive welcome, to show the difference the gospel makes. There are so many people who are isolated and lonely, who feel unseen and unloved, rejected or excluded. By looking for ways to welcome and befriend, we can offer hope—especially as we show a willingness to persevere when relationships are awkward or disappointing. And if whole church families commit to offering this kind of welcome in their local communities, I would expect to see gospel fruit. I’d love for my church to be known as the place where anyone is welcome and valued, where people in the community expect to find warm and generous friendship—and, ultimately, life.
Any practical advice to a pastor or ministry team about how they might grow a culture of hospitality in a church?
As lockdown restrictions ease, this feels like a good time to get the whole church thinking about what welcome could look like. I’d encourage church family members to think specifically about one or two people from their workplace or neighbourhood whom they could invite to spend time with them. And after a year of not being able to offer hospitality in the traditional way, it’s a good opportunity to reset expectations. Encourage them to think small and simple—ice-cream in the garden or a takeaway pizza. Even those who are confident at cooking for large numbers and hosting people in their homes would benefit from encouragement to focus less on food and more on the bigger goal of hospitality and to think about how their hospitality might point to Christ rather than to their cooking skills.
And to cultivate genuine hospitality within the church family, provide opportunities for people to re-connect and develop relationships. Encourage small groups to meet socially or to eat together before a bible study (again, keep it simple—soup, bread and cheese is fine). Remind people of the importance of pre and post-service conversations—maybe think about providing donuts or pizzas so people want to stay around. Keep reminding the church of the wonderful way God has welcomed us—and the privilege of joining him in welcoming one another.
People learn by watching, so the way leaders model hospitality themselves will impact the church culture. If you give the impression that hospitality only happens over a Sunday roast, that’s the culture you’ll develop. But if you show warm, compassion, inclusive welcome in your everyday interactions and conversations—in the street, in the church carpark, over coffee—those you welcome will start to welcome others in the same way.
Thanks so much to Carolyn for sharing and for writing this book. You can pick up a copy of Extraordinary Hospitality (for Ordinary People) from the publisher here.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher to help me prepare this interview.