"An embrace involves always a double movement of opening and closing. I open my arms to create space in myself for the other. The open arms are a sign of discontent at being myself only and of desire to include the other. They are an invitation to the others to come in and feel at home with me, to belong to me. In an embrace I also close my arms around the others-not tightly, so as to crush and assimilate then forcefully into myself, for that would not be an embrace but a concealed power-act of exclusion; but gently, so as to tell them that I do not want to be without them in their otherness. I want them to remain independent and true to their genuine selves, to maintain their identity and as such become part of me so that they can enrich me with what they have and I do not".
- Miroslav Volf
I believe that what differentiates an outward faced community from one that is ingrown and inward faced is the practice of hospitality. I believe that life and vibrancy always flows out of the openness of doors, minds, arms and hearts. Death comes as a consequence of closed doors, hearts, arms and hearts. It's sociologically proven (I think) that countries that have closed their doors to other ethnic groups and cultures will grow old (in average age), resulting in the loss of their own culture. The very culture, they are trying to keep pure. Because when it comes to culture, architecture, books, culinary, territory, and even language, are proven not to be the best preservation tool. People are.
This principle translates equally to the church and the preservation of its essential message, the Gospel. In the first three chapters of the Bible, we are able to draw the same parallel. Out of the openness of the Trinitarian God, the world came into existence. Out of this same openness, humanity was created and invited to participate in the Trinitarian dynamics. However, we later read in that section of Scripture, that death entered into the picture as soon as mankind decided to follow the example of Lucifer. And that was, to BE their own gods, to focus on the desires of their own hearts and its craving for self-satisfaction.
Sef-satisfaction is the essence of sin and as Scripture points out clearly, "the wages of sin is death". For those who have had the opportunity to go to Europe I'm sure it's mind-bothering to visit Christianity's cemetery. There, you will see buildings, books, museums, art pieces of a culture that once was. Why so?
Ecclesiologists and missiologists will generally agree that it had to do with an inward faced/ ingrown church that grew old, and irrelevant. A church that once was. Signs of this passing are beginning to show up in America where every year, less young people attend while at the same time more people drop-out to never return. Other statistics such as the number of churches closing every year are quite alarming, to say the least.
The city where I live in (Miami) is certainly a witness of this reality. The million-dollar question is: what is the church missing out on? I would have to say that it's the whole issue of hospitality.
When we think of hospitality we usually think as Tim Keller says, "of Martha Stewart". He's right. Google search the word and you will find resorts and vacations websites as well as, Martha Stuart stuff. Those are all good things however, that's not what the Bible means when it speaks of hospitality. Mainly because when we think of hospitality we are really thinking about ourselves. We are thinking of places we would like to go, enjoy and be well accommodated and, people that are like us and that we find pleasure hosting and spending time with.
What the Bible means when it comes to hospitality is
a. an intentional lifestyle not something done once in a while
b. something to be extended to all people not just to people that are like us
c. more than just a few days of shelter and an open fridge, it means meeting all needs
d. not to be exercised with what can be spared for example, an extra bed, left-over food, pocket change. It implies in sacrificing your comfort in favor of others.
Bottom line is this. Hospitality is about others. Its about the neighbor and even the enemy. Through these lenses hospitality can be seen as the embodiment of the Gospel. This implies that If the church misses out on hospitality it will eventually miss out on the Gospel. And, a church without a palpable gospel has no business in being alive.
History will show that the times when Christianity thrived, were the times when the Church exercised radical hospitality to its neighbors and enemies. While there are indicatives that the church in the northern hemisphere at large is at the very least stagnant, the church in the southern hemisphere is thriving.
Reason? Many but one of them certainly is hospitality that flows out of a genuine understanding of the Gospel.