by Eddie Pipkin

We have had a very full house for the past four weeks.  Different sets of visitors have been congregating with us for days at a time on either end of that period, and in the middle, the newlyweds have been refugees crashing at our place because their AC went out in the middle of a complicated home remodeling project (and . . . you know . . . supply chain problems).  Basically, for the past 30 days, we’ve had at least two people bunking over, and for a few nights as many as seven, plus a couple of guest dogs.  It’s been a lot of fun in a lot of ways and a great season of spending quality time together, with the unexpected delights and insights that only proximity can bring.  Occasionally, it has also resulted in logistical mix-ups, damaged infrastructure, and a couple of unintentionally bruised feelings.  That’s the price of hospitality.  Whether you run a private home or a shared public space like a local church, the more people you welcome, the more glitches and hitches are inevitable! Guests, after all – even the awesome ones – come with baggage.

Relationships being the key to everything, both in personal life and in church life, having guests over is worth the inherent hassle.  Well worth it.  There are some individuals who are so set in their routines as to actively eschew the entanglements of having other people over.  I guess they are happy in their own way, having complete control over every little thing, everything ‘just so’ and in its perfect place at all times, but it sure seems like an incomplete and lackluster existence to me.  I’ve known local churches to have that same not-worth-the-hassle attitude.  They want the same old people doing the same old things in the same old way, otherwise it’s “Sit down, sit down, sit down . . . sit down, you’re rocking the boat.”  This aversion to the disorderliness of real relationships with real people in our sacred spaces also strikes me as unfulfilling and lackluster (maybe even a little boring).  Any study of the word ‘sacred’ in the use of church facilities will reveal some tension between ‘holy ground’ and ‘sacred cows,’ not to mention the degree to which church folk, being passionate in most things, can be fiercely territorial.

On the other hand, any study of hospitality taken from the evidence provided in the Gospels by Jesus and the disciples reveals a definitive tilt towards the value of people versus material considerations.  Perhaps the pharisees preferred orderliness and organization, but for Jesus and crew, ministry routinely took a messier turn. Jesus welcomed people and their problems, waded into unruly crowds, tolerated late night visits, and engaged unsightly dilemmas with tolerance and sanguinity.

Too often, our sense of hospitality can be limited in scope: we are eager to welcome the people we are eager to welcome.  Often these are people who are just like us (in outlook, appearance, or cultural preferences).  It is a basic tenet of true, biblical hospitality to welcome and embrace people who are so different from us in all of those ways.  We understand that calling as a feature of true discipleship, even if we haven’t yet fully figured out how to authentically implement it.  But there is another way that we limit the scope of our hospitality.  It’s the version in which we enthusiastically welcome folks (even the ones who are different from us in striking ways), but we limit that welcome to times of “organized ministry” (such as worship and the Sunday School hour on Sunday morning, with perhaps a Bible study on Wednesday night, etc.).  If they need to utilize our spaces in a manner beyond the narrowly focused options spelled out in the carefully curated facilities calendar, sorry . . . you’re out of luck.

And heaven help you (perhaps literally in this case) if you are an outside group from the community looking to land a spot to host your meeting, class, or event!

Yet to the extent that we can, safely and responsibly, we should want our buildings and the grassy lots adjacent to them filled with as many souls as possible for as much of the day as possible.

I’m not advocating for out-of-control chaos here!  Perhaps controlled chaos would be a little more faithful to the biblical model.  The main factor is whether we are allocating space and time with “yes” as our starting place, or whether our opening position, when asked any space-sharing question is a stern “probably not.”  “Yes” should be our starting point, always, unless there is a compelling reason to respond otherwise.

What I really want to focus on in this blog entry is the cost of embracing that “yes,” because that cost is real, and it’s often not insignificant.  It is one of the hard challenges of ministry to willingly, intentionally expose ourselves to the additional burden of generous hospitality.  We should, though.  It’s worth it – for the people we’ll meet and the things we’ll learn and the lives that will be changed.

We should do it with open eyes and the best possible plan and the courageous acknowledgement that things will not always go as planned (despite having the best possible plan).  We should prepare ourselves for the inevitable with a realistic, yet gracious attitude.  This is why we are here.

These are the complications we know for sure when we start down the path of radical, generous, sacrificial hospitality, whether in our own homes or in our church homes.  I’ll offer one personal example and one church life example of each principle:

  • Things will get broken. I have a niece whose highly energetic flock of kids manages to break something exotic every time they stop by for a weekend (like somehow ripping the towel bar off the wall in the bathroom).  It’s a running joke.  We love to see them, but we know what’s coming.  Similarly, at the church building, if our intent is to keep everything pristine, the only way to effectively accomplish that goal is to seal the building.  The sign of a thriving ministry, however, is scuffs, bumps, and bruises, and God bless you if you have a staff and Trustees volunteers who can respond quickly and professionally to keep things looking good and in working order.
  • There will be logistical mishaps. For us, there was that time we thought all the house guests were coming back to the house to eat dinner, so it was a little disappointing when we made the giant pot of spaghetti only to find out everyone was going out instead.  Leftovers!  Meanwhile, in the local church, there are definitely going to be scheduling snafus.  Sometimes someone will end up in the wrong space.  Sometimes someone will have the time wrong (and thus be in the right space but at the wrong time).  People will use something to which they are not legitimately entitled, be it supplies or furniture or equipment.  The key to managing these incidents is to have a rock-solid, easy-to-use system for reserving space, clearly posted rules about how space is to be appropriately used and confusion to be resolved, and a process to have leaders sign a pledge to use spaces responsibly and as good stewards.  For staff and leadership within the church, as well as in our regular communications to the general church membership, we should constantly be stating our vision for sharing our resources to maximum benefit for the community of believers and the community beyond our walls, so that people know that this is a core part of our identity.
  • There will be conflicts about how best to share our resources. In my household, there is a modest disagreement between my wife and me about guests and eating out while they are with us.  My wife thinks that as hosts we should pick up the dinner check.  I think that as people with an awesome free place to stay, the guests should buy our dinner!  You may be laughing, but church leadership groups have their own version of this same debate.  Some folks think every imaginable additional cost should be absorbed by anyone “renting” space (or even as a revenue generating machine).  Some see providing basic space and amenities as a fundamental part of the mission.
  • We will get taken advantage of. My wife and I live close to a major airport, so it’s pretty common for people to want to use our guest room on the night before an early flight.  Most people are extremely gracious about this opportunity.  Occasionally, we’ve had people show up late at night, wondering if we have anything to eat and if we’re available to give them a ride to their 5:00 a.m. flight (although I shouldn’t complain – I’m always happy to see our kids after all).  If you have a generous policy towards facility sharing, you will at some point get burned.  This is always the cost of self-sacrificial love, be it expressed by an individual or an institution.  It should not be an excuse to be closed off or tight-fisted with what God has given us.  We should think of these unfortunate moments when people take advantage as “shrinkage” (the way stores think about merchandise loss to shoplifting – they do their best to prevent it, but in the end it’s just a cost of doing business).
  • It will be more work. When we have guests, there is more food to buy and prepare, more intensive cleaning to get ready for their arrival, more laundry to be washed, and more pressure to entertain them while they are with us.  If you are part of a church that practices radical facility hospitality, it will be more work for your ministry volunteers and staff.  This should be acknowledged and factored into people’s job descriptions.  It’s “part of who we are and what we do.”  But if it’s part of their core responsibilities, it should be stated and rewarded as such.
  • It will cost more. See all of the “more” factors listed in the previous paragraph (especially food),  but also, the power bill will be higher, especially if Uncle Ned needs the thermostat on 63 at night.  For churches, there are clearly increased infrastructure expenses related to keeping the building filled with people and activities.  There are also increased costs for maintenance and repairs, and usually increased staffing costs.  Budget honestly for these.  If a full house is part of your vision for ministry, raise the funds to cover these legitimate ministry costs.  Perhaps the generosity of your congregation makes this possible so that even community causes can be incorporated.  Perhaps you need to have a fee schedule to support a tight budget.  Definitely have a realistic, responsible plan.

A good plan, good systems, and good people in place for implementing them with enthusiasm will make the difference between painful turmoil and joyful energy on any church campus.

Each of these things listed above will be true, as well as others that are no doubt popping into your head right now based on your own personal experiences and context.  We can bolt the doors (except during our special, highly controlled times of worship, study, and fellowship), and we can thereby maximize our control and minimize our discomfort.  Or . . . we can celebrate the occasional disarray and “holy mayhem” that is the natural byproduct of a fully utilized facility!

That holy mayhem feels a lot like the Spirit-fueled energy that marks a thriving congregational life that is connected to the surrounding community.  People are pursuing their passions, and in that pursuit, they are encountering one another in unexpected ways and making creative connections.  From such connections come holy progress, and lives and neighborhoods are changed for good.

What is the track record for radical facility hospitality at the various places where you have served in ministry?  Has the hassle of housing a steady stream of guests been worth it?  In what ways has this blog been naive in naming the inevitable downsides of an open-door policy?  What hospitality tricks have you learned over the years for keeping things on track and functioning safely and efficiently?  Share your well-earned wisdom with others.