Jesus didn’t run projects, establish ministries, create programs, or put on events. He ate meals. If you routinely share meals and you have a passion for Jesus, then you’ll be doing mission. It’s not that meals save people.
People are saved through the gospel message. But meals will create natural opportunities to share that message in a context that resonates powerfully with what you’re saying.
Hospitality has always been integral to the story of God’s people. Abraham set the agenda when he offered three strangers water for their feet and food for their bodies. In so doing he entertained God himself and received afresh the promise (Gen. 18:1–18). God was Israel’s host in the Promised Land (Ps. 39:12; Lev. 25:23), and that would later shape Israel’s behavior. A welcome to strangers and provision for the needy were written into the law of Moses. Rahab is saved because of her faith expressed through hospitality (Joshua 2; James 2:22–25).
Hospitality continues to be integral to Christian conduct in the new covenant: “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality” (Rom. 12:13); “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Pet. 4:9; see 1 Tim. 5:10); “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me” (Matt. 10:40; see 25:35–40); “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb. 13:2).
In Acts 10 God told Peter in a dream to eat from a collection of unclean food. It’s a key moment in the mission of the early church, for its prepares Peter to take the gospel to Gentiles for the first time. Peter says to those Gentiles: “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection . . .” (Acts 10:28–29).
Mission to the nations begins with a new understanding of hospitality.
Hospitality has continued to be integral to the church’s mission, at times being its primary expression. The Rule of St. Benedict, written around 540, says, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’” Monasticism, for all its faults, got this right: it expressed mission through hospitality to rich and poor alike. “Only monasticism,” Richard Niebuhr claimed, “saved the medieval church from acquiescence, petrifaction, and the loss of its vision and truly revolutionary character.” Missiologist David Bosch writes: “For upwards of seven hundred years . . . the monastery was notably the center of culture and civilization, but also of mission. In the midst of a world ruled by love of self, the monastic communities were a visible sign and preliminary realization of a world ruled by the love of God.” Monasteries weren’t necessarily founded for mission, but their occupants’ piety, hard work, learning, tenacity, and hospitality had a profound impact on the common people. “Each monastery was a vast complex of buildings, churches, workshops, stores, and almshouses—a hive of activity for the benefit of the entire surrounding community. The citizens of the heavenly city were actively seeking the peace and good order of the earthly city.”
Meals continue to be integral to the task of mission. Theologian and chef Simon Carey Holt says:
It’s good to be reminded that the table is a very ordinary place, a place so routine and everyday it’s easily overlooked as a place of ministry. And this business of hospitality that lies at the heart of Christian mission, it’s a very ordinary thing; it’s not rocket science nor is it terribly glamorous. Yet it is the very ordinariness of the table and of the ministry we exercise there that renders these elements of Christian life so important to the mission of the church. . . . Most of what you do as a community of hospitality will go unnoticed and unrecognized. At base, hospitality is about providing a space for God’s Spirit to move. Setting a table, cooking a meal, washing the dishes is the ministry of facilitation: providing a context in which people feel loved and welcome and where God’s Spirit can be at work in their lives. Hospitality is a very ordinary business, but in its ordinariness is its real worth.
Elsewhere Holt says: “Whatever it looks like, your own table is a sacred place and one just as implicated by the lavish nature of God’s grace as any other.”
Meals bring mission into the ordinary. But that’s where most people are—living in the ordinary. That’s where we need to go to reach them. We too readily think of mission as extraordinary. Perhaps that’s because we find it awkward to talk about Jesus out- side a church gathering. Perhaps it’s because we think God moves through the spectacular rather than the witness of people like us. Perhaps it’s because we want to outsource mission to the professionals, so we invite people to guest services where an “expert” can do mission for us. But most people live in the ordinary, and most people will be reached by ordinary people. Even those who attend a special event will, for the most part, have first been befriended by a Christian. “For those looking to connect with people in the local community it isn’t that hard if you really want to. Just invite people round, let them know they can go home if they need to and then enjoy a meal together. You’re going to eat anyway, so why not do it with others!”
Jesus’s command to invite the poor for dinner violates our notions of distance and detachment. Mission as hospitality undermines the professionalization of ministry. Mission isn’t something I can clock out from at the end of the day. The hospitality to which Jesus calls us can’t be institutionalized in programs and projects. Jesus challenges us to take mission home. It may be a surprise, given my emphasis on meals, but I loathe church lunches—those potluck suppers in drafty church halls. They’re institutionalized hospitality. Don’t start a hospitality ministry in your church: open your home.
Much is said of engaging with culture—much that’s right and helpful. But we must never let engaging culture eclipse engaging with people. People are infinitely variable and rarely susceptible to our sociological categories.
If you want to understand a person’s worldview, don’t read a book. Talk to them, hang out with them, eat with them.
People often complain that they lack time for mission. But we all have to eat. Three meals a day, seven days a week. That’s twenty- one opportunities for mission and community without adding anything to your schedule. You could meet up with another Christian for breakfast on the way to work—read the Bible together, offer accountability, pray for one another. You could meet up with colleagues at lunchtime. Put down this book and chat to the person across the table from you in the cafeteria. You could invite your neighbors over for a meal. Better still, invite them over with another family from church. That way you get to do mission and community at the same time; plus your unbelieving neighbors will get to see the way the gospel impacts our relationships as Christians (John 13:34–35; 17:20–21). You could invite someone who lives alone to share your family meal and follow it with board games, giving your children an opportunity to serve others through their welcome. Francis Schaeffer says:
Don’t start with a big program. Don’t suddenly think you can add to your church budget and begin. Start personally and start in your home. I dare you. I dare you in the name of Jesus Christ. Do what I am going to suggest. Begin by opening your home for community. . . . You don’t need a big program. You don’t have to convince your session or board. All you have to do is open your home and begin. And there is no place in God’s world where there are no people who will come and share a home as long as it is a real home.
Join in with the cultural events in your neighborhood. The chances are food will be involved somewhere, because food is such a powerful bond. Look for opportunities to reinterpret what is happening in biblical categories. In Acts 14 Paul addresses the people of Lystra. They want to worship him and Barnabas as gods because the two healed a crippled man. Paul calls on them to turn from idolatry, and then says that God “did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17). How many evangelistic messages have you heard along these lines? “[God] provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (NIV). So let’s give thanks to him rather than worshiping “vain things” (v. 15). We should engage in party evangelism.
I wonder what kind of reputation Christians have in your neighborhood. We should have a reputation for throwing the best parties.
It’s not hard to find an excuse to throw a party:
• personal occasions: birthdays, anniversaries, new jobs, exams, house warmings
• sporting occasions: the Super Bowl, the World Series, the soccer World Cup
• seasonal occasions: the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year
• cultural occasions: Mexican food theme night, the American Idol final
There are reasons enough to have a party every week. Parties, of course, are not enough. They create a great platform for gospel opportunities. But they must be accompanied by a passion for people and a passion for Jesus. You don’t have to give a little sermon—just be attentive to people and open about your faith.
This is an excerpt adapted from Tim Chester’s book, A Meal with Jesus: Discovering Grace, Community, and Mission around the Table.
Tim Chester (PhD, University of Wales) is pastor of the Crowded House in Sheffield, United Kingdom, and director of the Porterbrook Institute, which provides integrated theological and missional training for church leaders. Chester also coauthored Total Church (Re:Lit), Everyday Church (Re:Lit), and has written more than a dozen books.