This summer I had the opportunity to attend the annual BIAPT conference (British and Irish Association for Practical Theology). It was online again this year, but the conference plans to be back meeting in the same physical location next year – at Swanick between July 2nd and 4th – more on that later!
The conference theme this year was Hospitality and saw over 30 different plenary and parallel papers on the topic exploring it from a variety of themes. There was a broad range of approaches from thinking about hospitality and disability; to what can be learned from parents and toddlers’ groups and hospitality; and hospitality in interfaith contexts – plus so much more. The conference draws together academics, students, and practitioners from a broad range of backgrounds enriching the conversation and, quite unique (in my experience) to other conferences, there is the chance to join reflection groups each day to help process the talks with other attendees.
What stood out most to me was a theme, mentioned briefly on the first day, which grew to be a significant idea that kept coming up in discussion throughout the rest of the week. In the first plenary, Susanna Snyder mentioned the power dynamics that can be involved in hospitality and this caught my attention. What developed in my own thinking over the next few days has really challenged me to think more deeply about how we approach hospitality.
In short, many of us will almost automatically consider it a good thing to be hospitable. After all isn’t there much in the Bible about being welcoming and entertaining strangers? While, on the surface, this is good, the complexity of hosting can be subtle, especially for those who are able to host in the first place. In many ways, to be a host, one must have enough to share already, whether that is space, time, or resource. Moreover, by its nature, those who are host are inviting people into their space and that often comes with their rules. In a rather simplistic illustration, when you enter someone else’s home, you are often aware of whether you should take your shoes off or not, regardless of your own preference, you accommodate yourself to the host’s wishes. The host has the safety and familiarity of their own space, their own practices, and their own comforts. The guest, however, can feel out of place and foreign even when the welcome is generous and gracious. Ultimately, if you get to a place that you feel as comfortable in someone else’s space as your own, with as much autonomy and determination over that space as your own, the relationship ceases to be one of host and guest and moves to an equality of responsibility for that space. When viewed in this light, the host/guest relationship is always one of unequal power, with the host holding more power than the guest.
And so when it comes to hospitality in churches, the welcome might be inviting and open, and yet we should still recognise that as hosts, churches still hold the greater power in the relationship and can, often unintentionally, make guests abide by certain rules and customs. We often expect visitors to acquiesce to the norms of church life, not realising how foreign they appear. It might not even be that these norms are bad or unnecessary (though it is worth reconsidering them) but the issues often arise from the unacknowledged power of the host in contrast to the vulnerability of the guests. To put it in more stark and polemic terms, churches think they are being welcoming and hospitable when in reality they are exerting their dominance over outsiders. Churches may consider themselves to be hospitable places when in reality they require guests to reshape themselves around the conventions of church life.
There is plenty in the Bible about serving others and not exerting our dominance over others and there is plenty about the sacrificial nature of Christianity and the laying down of power. So perhaps, we should strive, not to be host, but rather to take on the role of guest. And this is where there can be an interesting flip in our thinking. What if churches were to act like guests in the world around them? As a verse that has become a root of much public theology over recent years, I considered this idea in light of Jeremiah 29 v 7 (NIV): ‘seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’ A people in exile, not hosts but (at best) guests who were challenged to be good guests in the place that they found themselves.
I won’t pretend that I have a fully developed response for application here – the conference was only last week (!) – however, I have some initial thoughts about where this might go. First, it brings a humility and vulnerability to how we think about church. Rather than churches setting out to “conquer” the surrounding context, perhaps we approach people with more humility, not letting our message dominate, but instead listening to what is meaningful to them and connecting their experiences to God’s presence in the world. Second, while it may lead us to tread more gently into society, it nevertheless is missional. When we consider church to be the guest, we can’t stay in our churches, but rather we go into the world seeking for those who will host us (think Matthew 10:11). In a striking image, we are invited to eat at the King’s banquet and who are the invited guests? Not those with power and resource, but those who are found on the highways and byways – the unexpected guests of a King. As guests, we find out what God is doing in the world and join in with His feast! Finally, as guests we reconsider what it means to welcome others. Rather than welcome others on our terms, perhaps we should learn to accommodate ourselves to their needs. It’s not denying that God transforms nor capitulating the gospel to cultural messages, but it is acknowledging that often God meets people where they are at and leads them on a journey. As guests, we are the ones who should become vulnerable in order that we can meet people on their terms, where they are found, so that we might witness to God’s presence in their spaces.
While this was an overarching reflection from the conference as a whole, it goes without saying there was much else to think about and chew over from all the individual papers. Perhaps better still, it was an opportunity to connect with other practitioners and academics who all share a passion for letting our experiences and practice shape our thinking and vice versa. Next year the conference theme is “The Root of All Evil? Practical Theology and the Economy”. It promises to be another excellent event with plenty more to reflect upon and an excellent chance to meet like-minded people. If you’re interested in finding out more then please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org.