Roger Gehring has written an interesting book called House Church and Mission: The Importance of Household Structures in Early Christianity. Now, to be honest, this post is a little premature, because I have not read this book yet. But, as I was flipping through it, this paragraph jumped out at me:
With the catchword “hospitality” we are reminded of yet another benefit of the ancient oikos [household] for mission. The early Christian houses and house churches were places where Chrsitian hospitality was practiced by and for Christians and non-Christians alike in a very concrete way. In house churches it was possible for both Christians and non-Christians to experience the safety and security of the familia Dei. Closely connected with this was the early Christian brotherly love, which was able to unite radically different social groups into one community.
This passage alone makes me want to read this book. Unfortunately, it is currently far down on the reading list. I’m not sure why I tortured myself by picking it up and flipping through it, but at least this passage has given me something to think about.
According to Gehring, the early Christians demonstrated hospitality (literally, love for strangers) both to other Christians and to non-Christians. They demonstrated hospitality in a setting that was both familiar and comfortable – the household setting. We know from history that the family and the home was very important in the Greco-Roman world, though the importance of the home and family was declining. In fact, the Romans ate, studied, worked, and even worshiped out of their homes.
Today, the household setting is not the same as it was even fifty years ago. Many people only sleep and watch television in their homes. Their homes are places for showcase lawns, flower beds, home entertainment systems, and garages for their vehicles. Very little entertainment, communication, socialization, or even eating takes place in the average home today.
What does this mean? When I invite someone to my home – someone that I have never invited to my home before, or someone with whom I have not developed a relationship – that person probably assumes that I am inviting them to my home because I want something from them. Perhaps I am an Amway agent, or an insurance salesperson, or a politician, or – God forbid – an evangelical looking for another convert. So, when a person comes to my home for the first time – assuming they ever accept the invitation in the first place – their guard is up, and they’re waiting for the catch. Many times, even if we simply want to know them better, they assume that “religion” is the catch because we tend to want to talk about spiritual things.
Activities that once took place in the home, such as communication and socialization, now take place in the office or breakroom, the school hallway or cafeteria, the restaurant or bar or pub, or even the sports arena. These types of locations are often called “third spaces”. Perhaps, we as believers should think about building relationships with people through these types of locations – locations that are “familiar and comfortable” just as households were “familiar and comfortable” to Roman citizens.
Please, do not misunderstand me. There is something special about gathering with friends around a dining room table, or in a living room, or even in the backyard. But, just as unbelievers may not walk into our church buildings, they may not walk into our homes either. This brings up an interesting and important question – and I don’t know how Gehring answers this question (but I hope to find out soon):
Did the Christians practice hospitality in their homes because that was the social norm, or does this type of hospitality and home-based service transcend culturals and contexts?