The first time we visited our church, it wasn't even a church yet. The pastor invited us to share a meal immediately following the service, and the entire congregation could fit around one long conference table.
The food was simple but the intimate community it afforded was not. I still remember what was prepared -- potato soup, fat chunks of crunchy bacon, leafy greens and the best homemade croutons I've ever tasted. And the individuals weren't just sharing bread; they were sharing life.
Shortly after joining the core group of this new plant, we began to open our small apartment for a weekly Bible study. Sometimes we shared a meal, other times I just served cookies and coffee.
On one occasion, I looked around the room at the people who had become our new family. They were sitting on stained carpet, eating from paper plates and happy as larks! No one complained about the lack of seating or the crayon swirls on the wall.
And in that moment, I realized the significance of the scriptural command to practice hospitality.
In Romans 12:10-13, Paul says: "Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality."
The word Paul uses for "practicing" hospitality is a Greek word that means "to strive for" or "pursue." It has an active sense -- and points to great "vigorous effort," as noted by Alexander Strauch in "The Hospitality Commands."
To give you an idea of the importance Paul attaches to the pursuit of hospitality, we are also told to "pursue":
* Righteousness (1 Timothy 6:11)
* Good (1 Thessalonians 5:15)
* Peace (1 Peter 3:11)
* Love (1 Corinthians 14:1)
We are to strive for hospitality in the same way that we strive for righteousness. We are to "think about it, plan for it, prepare for it, pray about it, and seek opportunities to do it," as Strauch puts it.
My husband and I entertained at our previous church. We hosted the occasional meal for our pastor. I volunteered my home for a few women's events. But it wasn't until I saw the connections between the Gospel and the dinner table in our new church plant that I realized what a hospitable heart truly looked like.
It's about opening your heart to others by opening your home to them. It's about serving without grumbling. It's about consistently putting others' needs before your own.
God is still using hospitality to clean out my heart like a packed closet -- making room for others and, most importantly, for Him. I have 5-year-old twin BOYS! If you come to my house, I can guarantee you there will be fingerprint smudges and smashed food on something. Honestly, there are times when my front doormat better reads Do Not Disturb rather than Welcome.
And I still fight the temptation to wield hospitality as an excuse to buy those new dishes I saw at Target or the lighting fixture I added to my Pinterest board the other week.
But hospitality is not about throwing the best parties or crafting the perfect tablescape; it's a battle for the heart. God calls us to open our homes and hearts as a measure of the hospitality He has demonstrated toward us in Christ (Isaiah 25:6-9; Luke 14:16-24; Revelation 19:9).
Melissa Deming is the founder of HiveResources.com, a missions and ministry resource site for women, and the author of "Daughters of the King: Finding Your Place in the Biblical Story." The Deming family serves in a North American Mission Board church plant in Pittsburgh.
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