“Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.” – Henri Nouwen
They came wanting to participate. To share their gifts. To contribute to the life of the community.
They came wanting to give what they had. Quite naturally, we turned them away.
I can’t tell you the number of stories I’ve heard that deliver the same punch line. A young person moves to a new community, hopes to find a church, hopes to offer their gifts, but encounters a wall instead.
To be honest, I don’t know what it is. I don’t know what it is about churches who say they yearn for young people on one hand, and deny young people the opportunity to serve in meaningful ways on the other.
Some days the best we can muster seems to be an invitation to “come and help at the bazaar” or “why don’t you join us in the kitchen?” All of these are important tasks, granted. But is this the best way to welcome someone into your community?
Can you imagine how you’d respond if you came to my house for dinner and I asked you to get started on the vacuuming?
When our imaginations stop at ways in which newcomers (and especially young people) can serve our needs, it seems to me that we have failed in hospitality. Many of our parish communities have the opportunity to invite young people in, to encourage them in their gifts, and to release them to minister in our midst and beyond. It seems to me that our churches should be on to this sort of thing.
But to get there, I think, we may need to replace our gatekeepers with permission-givers.
Our attitudes need to change. We need people in our parishes who recognize the newcomer, who get to know them, and who come to understand their passions and desires. Who are they, really?
Before we sign them up for that committee nobody seems to want to join, we need to take time to listen.
Maybe we invite them over for a meal. Maybe we listen to their story, ask them what brings them to our church. We listen deeply, carefully. Not for ways in which we can fit them into our predetermined list of Places One Must Serve, but for places where their gifts, passions and vision for the church intersect with your church’s vision.
Perhaps somewhere down the road, we even find that our church may not be the best place for them. In such a situation, we help them find the right congregation. That too is an act of hospitality. That too is an act of grace.
If that newcomer sticks around, perhaps new life has an opportunity to take root. It might take root in ways we hadn’t expected. It might come from such an oblique angle that we don’t know if it could possibly work.
They want to develop a relationship between the church and a local coffee roaster. They want to respond to the needs of their peers. They want to open the church up to local indie musicians. We don’t quite understand why. And we give permission anyways.
And not just permission. Perhaps we find ways to support and sustain these new ideas. Perhaps we take seriously our baptismal covenant, and help these young people grow into their sense of ministry. Perhaps we listen and respond and come alongside newcomers, affirming that they, like we, were created in God’s own image. They are intrinsically valuable – not just because they’ll clean up after the strawberry social.
Each year our parishes go through times of change. It’s often early in the new year, or in the autumn that young people head off to school, a new job, or a new adventure.
For some parishes, this means that young people from your congregation are moving on to a new place. If they’re moving to a new town or city, do you know of a church family who will welcome them into their midst? Is there some way we can make those transitions smoother?
For others, it means a season of receiving students as they go through the perilous ritual of church shopping – looking for a Christian community of which they feel they might be a part. As you receive young people migrating into your communities this fall, how will you respond? How will you extend hospitality?
As a young person, have you thought about what you might be looking for in a church? Perhaps this is the first time the question has come up. Maybe it’s time to think about the kinds of things you’d like in a church. Maybe it’s similar to the place you’ve come from. Maybe it’s completely different. Whatever the case, it seems something worth thinking about and exploring.
When I served in Ottawa, I had the privilege of working with an incredible community called The Open Table. It’s a place of hospitality and community inspired by the Henri Nouwen quote you read at the top of this column. Month in and month out, they continue to host meals, retreats in the fall and winter, and help connect students, churches and campus ministry.
Maybe you know of a place like that. If you do, it’d be great to hear from you in the comments!