International Bulletin

of Missionary Research

Vol. 39, No. 4
October 2015
pp. 176–79

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“Often, Often, Often Goes the Christ in the Stranger's Guise”: Hospitality as a Hallmark of Christian Ministry

Cathy Ross

Hospitality is both an ancient virtue and a prophetic practice, as it crosses boundaries, welcomes all, and involves taking risks. It is also dialogical, as it requires listening and learning. It practices attentiveness and encourages spaciousness. It requires relationship, receiving, community, and change. Our God embodies hospitality in the Trinity. Hospitality is at the heart of God’s reign and is essential for the practice and meaning of the kerygma. Hospitality is an ongoing practice that will be modified and negotiated as we interact and engage with one another.

Recently my attention was drawn again to the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38–42). Martha seems such a welcoming hostess—indeed we are told that she “opened her home to him [Jesus]” (v. 38).[1] Then she busies herself with all that needs to be done to provide a hospitable welcome for the guest. The text tells us, however, that “Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made” (v. 40). I have always felt sorry for Martha, for Jesus seems so harsh when she complains that her sister will not help her. Moreover, he praises Mary for sitting at his feet and listening. But Jesus can see into Martha’s heart, and he knows that she is distracted rather than attentive. Perhaps Martha’s heart is focused on the tasks rather than on Jesus. “Mary’s whole-hearted focus on her guest is as much an expression of love and welcome as Martha’s practical care. Each needs the other. For hospitality is a matter of the heart as well as of the hearth.”[2]

This is exactly what Jean and Jonathan Bonk have practiced over the years—in their own home and hearts, and within the community of the Overseas Ministries Study Center (OMSC), as well as in their various organizations and committee work. Hospitality and attentiveness have been hallmarks of their ministry.

To live attentively to the world in God’s name is our human vocation. This is why we have been made in the image of God. God pays attention to God’s creation, which is obvious by the fact that God created the world and all that is in it, and because of the infinite variety, depths, creativity, and diversity present in creation. God is engaged in, identifies with, and participates in the world. God does not pay attention to just part of the world; God is radically attentive to the whole world, at all times and in all places. The incarnation is clearly the most radical expression of God’s attentiveness—God’s proximity, imminence, presence. We too are called to pay attention to the world—to the particular work of people, relationships, culture, economics, religion, sociology, power, land issues, art, literature, and more. Our attentiveness to God’s world, to creation, and to humanity in all its glorious diversity mirrors the attentiveness of God.

Hospitality means paying attention. Importantly, we need to pay attention to the stranger and the gifts that the stranger can bring to us. Paying attention and the gift of attentiveness are worked out so much more easily and fruitfully in community. For me, being a part of the Church Mission Society (CMS) community has helped me enormously. CMS has enabled me, over the years, to pay attention to God’s world in all its beauty and pain. And CMS has helped save me from domesticity and domestication, because the weight of sin pushes us to curve in on ourselves, to self-interest and self-absorption, to consumption, to small and myopic distractions. To be a part of the CMS community has opened up a wider vision of the kingdom of God, a broader and more challenging apprehension of the Gospel, a larger understanding of God’s world, and a renewed vision. I sense that this is what OMSC also offers to us.


To whom is God calling us to be attentive today? That is, “Who is my neighbor?”—a well-known question put to Jesus that has echoed down the centuries ever since. We must all work out our answers in our own contexts, but one answer I would like to suggest, which applies to all of us, is that we must pay attention to our sisters and brothers in the world church. Again, this is something that OMSC provides—a community where we can do just that: experience, listen to, and learn from Christians from various parts of the world. This is important because we are all part of one body. Paul’s body analogy in 1 Corinthians 12 is crucial to understanding what it means to be a world Christian. “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor. 12:13). By the Spirit we are united into one body, and by using this body rhetoric, Paul explicitly states that we need one another. Paul defines self-sufficiency as having no need of another and is convinced that this attitude is alien to the body of Christ. Moreover, as Anthony Thistleton elaborates in his superb commentary on 1 Corinthians, this body imagery “explicitly rebukes those who think that they and their ‘superior’ gifts are self-sufficient for the whole body, or that others are scarcely authentic parts of the body, as they themselves are.”[3] Paul’s rhetoric pushes for a reversal of a worldly understanding of honor and status. “The lower is made higher, and the higher lower.”[4] In Romans he enjoins us not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought. This admonition should give us pause for thought as long as we are in a world captivated by honor and status, where the church in the West still commands unimaginable resources, prime real estate, and honorific titles and is sometimes co-opted by, or at least colludes with, secular powers.

Consider this challenge from John Mbiti, a Kenyan theologian:


Theologians from the new (or younger) churches have made their pilgrimages to the theological learning of the older churches. We had no alternative. We have eaten theology with you; we have drunk theology with you; we have dreamed theology with you. But it has all been one-sided; it has all been in a sense, your theology. . . . We know you theologically. The question is do you know us theologically? Would you like to know us theologically?[5]


As Samuel Escobar and Stephen Bevans have commented, all theology is contextual. So we need to create the space to listen to and learn from our brothers and sisters in the Majority World. Today, the Christian world is experiencing greater diversity than it has ever known before, which offers us a new era in theology and in worship. We may be challenged to move in completely new theological directions and encounter new approaches to issues such as the nature of systemic evil, principalities and powers, healings and exorcisms, ancestors, pre-Christian past, the nature of conversion, living with other faiths, the content of worship, attitudes to wealth and possessions, and much more. Such experiences will radically expand our faith, stretch our understanding of Jesus, and challenge our discipleship. But it will not happen unless we are attentive.

Andrew Walls notes that the “rule of the palefaces” is not yet over in Christian scholarship, and Tite Tiénou asserts that we still engage in a “dialogue of the deaf.”[6] He believes this happens when we marginalize scholarship from the Majority World. He also points to the hegemony of the English language and how its domination can exclude scholars who cannot express themselves in English. Stephen Bevans also laments this point. In a lecture entitled “What Has Contextual Theology to Offer the Church in the Twenty-First Century?,” he tells the story of meeting a young doctoral student in the Philippines who clearly offered a fresh voice and new insights in theology.[7] But she writes in Tagalog because she believes that no other language can capture the full reality of what she wants to say. It is right and proper that she write in her own language for her own context, but we are all the poorer because we cannot hear or learn from her.


True hospitality presupposes our full presence. Presence may be best understood in terms of faithfulness: “It means being with others and paying attention to that quality of being with.”[8] We are called to be faithfully present to God in our interaction with others. Henri Nouwen defines hospitality as “being articulately present to the guest, offering yourself as a point of orientation or a frame of reference. . . . You are not hospitable when you leave your house alone and tell the stranger that they can use it. An empty house is not a hospitable house.”[9] So it is our responsibility to be faithfully present and attentive to the other in God’s world.

Hospitality as presence may be practiced more authentically in community. This is why our faith communities or churches are so important. Pope Francis paints a wonderful picture of the church as “a mother with an open heart . . . whose doors are open.” He expands this picture by adding that “the Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open . . . where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.”[10] This is a powerful and beautiful picture of church as a place where our Mother/Father God is ready to welcome all. This metaphor resonates with the theme of hospitality, for surely the church as the household of God and the body of Christ is the institution par excellence that exemplifies and lives out hospitality as its mission and its purpose.

One of the marks of a missional church is that it is relational. The report Mission-Shaped Church expresses this quality as follows:


In a missionary church, a community of faith is being formed. It is characterized by welcome and hospitality. Its ethos and style are open to change when new members join. Believers are encouraged to establish interdependent relationships with fellow Christians as they grow into Christ. As a community it is aware that it is incomplete without interdependent relationships with other Christian churches and communities. It does not seek to stand alone.[11]


Church or community is sustained by a way of life that acknowledges that our lives and our ways of knowing are inherently relational, enhanced by our life together. Jean Vanier acknowledged this truth as a result of his experience of founding the L’Arche communities. He writes, “In years to come we are going to need many small communities which will welcome lost and lonely people, offering them a new form of family and sense of belonging.”[12]

In our networked age, it may mean being attentive and practicing community in other ways also. Here is one example. One Advent I was part of an Advent e-community. We were each given a Bible verse or sentence on which to reflect briefly online. We started off with a simple party to explain the concept, and then each day a person posted his or her verse and thoughts. For each of us, it was a marvelous experience. We commented on how it helped us to be more attentive to the Advent season. Some made comments they would never have expressed in face-to-face conversation. Somehow, in this context, the anonymity of the screen helped us to be more open with one another, and gradually, over our daily postings, our e-community found our hearts being strangely warmed. One member of the community wrote, “This group of journeyers has created a space for me to anticipate this world-shattering birth as never before.”[13] This was a creative way of practicing attentiveness and creating the space to be hospitable.


Hospitality that practices presence and attentiveness may lead us into all kinds of deep waters. “Hospitality as faithful presence might well involve challenge or resistance, even conflict, with certain ideas, particularly those that would undercut the very practice itself.”[14] This kind of presence and attentiveness might lead us to the margins, to the outsiders, to the little ones, to the poor, in whom God has such a special interest and with whom Jesus spent so much time. Jesus came to his own people, who were mostly “poor and unlearned,” so it is amazingly good news that God had more in common with “the uncomplicated, the humble and the generous than with the proud and self-satisfied.”[15] This is where the Son of God feels most truly at home.

Poverty may be a good place to start with hospitality. Poverty of heart and mind creates space for the other. Poverty makes a good host, especially poverty of mind and heart, but even of resources, where one is not constrained by one’s possessions but is able to give freely. Hospitality from the margins reminds us of the paradoxical power of vulnerability and the importance of compassion. Christine Pohl, in her seminal book on hospitality, cites the example of a friend of hers who directs a home for homeless people and who himself every year takes a few days to live on the streets. By doing so, he experiences in a small way what it means to be marginal and invisible. He describes the impact: “What I experience in these journeys is replenishing the reservoir of compassion. I tend not to realize how hardened I’ve become until I get out there. And when I see someone mistreating the homeless—a professional—it’s a prophetic voice. It’s the most effective teaching method for me.”[16] In the ritual of the Eucharist we remind ourselves that we were aliens in need of welcome and rescue. Pohl provides us with an interesting example of wealthy women in the fourth century who chose to make themselves marginal by giving away their riches and status and offering hospitality. “Less marginal to the society than earlier believers, they created marginality and their behavior became exemplary for the larger church. By accepting an ascetic lifestyle and renouncing family, sexuality, wealth, and status these women became liminal.”[17] Anthropologist Victor Turner associates the most intense forms of community with contexts of liminality, marginality, and inferiority. Liminality, or an in-between space, is where we can become aware of our own vulnerability and marginality. All experiences of in-between-ness may make it easier for us to offer compassion. When one has been a foreigner, an outsider, a migrant—when one has experienced a liminal space—then one appreciates all the more the warmth of welcome, the value of inclusion, the grace of hospitality. Moreover, marginality can allow for role and status reversal more readily, which may make hospitality more easily given and received.

To make oneself vulnerable reminds us that both hospitality and engagement in mission require authentic compassion and genuine love. Somehow these graces are more freely expressed and experienced from a context of poverty, both within and without. Poverty of heart and mind reminds us that we are the needy ones, that our hands are empty until God fills them, that we are in need of grace, forgiveness, healing, and newness of life. Genuine hospitality, as well as genuine engagement in mission, can begin as we realize our own emptiness and our own need for God. As we experience the divine welcome born out of divine compassion, so then we can share this grace and hospitality with others.


Finally, let us consider hospitality as creating space. The very act of creation is an act of creating space. Originally “the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep” (Gen. 1:2), and gradually God created until “the heavens and the earth,” as well as humanity, “were completed in all their vast array” (Gen. 2:1). God is the Creator God, the Creator of space, both literally and metaphorically. And furthermore, in the divine act of the creation of humanity, this marvelous act of generosity, we have the privilege of participating in this divine nature—this nature that created space and allows for spaciousness. And the divine nature is Trinitarian. God is not a monad but a community of three divine persons. God is also one God. These realities allow not only for relationship but also for unity and diversity.

Henri Nouwen’s definition of hospitality picks up this idea of spaciousness: “Hospitality . . . 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.”[18] This creating of space may not be an easy task; it may in fact be hard work as we allow others the room to negotiate this space in a hospitable manner. Moreover, we need this space in both our public and our private lives, which interact and shape each another. We need to be able to demonstrate hospitality in both these spheres. Public and private must not be seen as in competition with each other; we must recognize the impact each has on the other. If we heat our homes more than we need to, then we are consuming fossil fuels that might keep someone else warm. If we teach our children to pursue wealth and private gain, we diminish their interest in the public good. We have a choice—to live private lives that either encourage or ignore the public good. As Parker Palmer observes, “There is no way for the public to flourish when most people live private life for its own sake.”[19] The best deterrent against crime is not burglar bars or an armed police force but a caring public, aware of the common good, able to be present and attentive to the other, to create space for the other, to live hospitably in both the public and the private realms. We delude ourselves if we think that private life can be enhanced by retreating from the public sphere.

Theologian Luke Bretherton notes that the early church was a body that encompassed both personal/household and public/political spaces (oikos and polis).[20] This is the church at its best, a space both personal and public where the local church can provide familial caring, nurture, and service, along with wider accountability to the public sphere. A report on recent research by the Church Urban Fund/Theos, “Good Neighbours: How Churches Help Communities Flourish,” elaborates on this topic.[21] It offers a strong argument for the value and worth of “neighborliness,” which local churches can offer as a means of bringing people together in a lonely and individualist society. It argues for valuing the strength and quality of local relationships, suggesting that neighborliness should be defined as offering public value. Neighborliness, or loving our neighbor as ourselves, is at the heart of a hospitable local faith community and promotes loving and flourishing relationships.


Attentiveness, presence, marginality, and spaciousness—these have all been at the heart of Jon and Jean’s ministry as they have attempted to follow Jesus faithfully. May attentiveness to the world church and to presence in our communities be hallmarks of our own discipleship. May God give us the strength to embrace marginality, and may we live as witnesses to the spaciousness of God. There is space for all to come in; the divine invitation is that whoever believes may have eternal life. The expansiveness of the invitation reminds us of the theme of the Great Banquet, where all are invited, where all may come in, and where, ultimately, we may be surprised at just who is feasting at God’s table. May God grant us the grace to experience in our own lives the truth of Matthew 25:35 (NRSV), “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” as expressed in the following beautiful Celtic prayer:


I saw a stranger last night. I put food in the eating place, drink in the drinking place, music in the listening place, and in the sacred name of the Triune, he blessed myself and my house and my cattle and my dear ones. And the lark said in her song, “Often, often, often goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise.”[22]



[1]. Except as noted, biblical quotations in this article are from the NIV.

[2]. Kevin Franz, mental health chaplain and member of the Society of Friends, and Rev. Alison Jack, New College, Edinburgh,, accessed August 18, 2014.

[3]. Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 1005.

[4]. Dale Martin, The Corinthian Body (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1995), 96.

[5]. John Mbiti as quoted in Kwame Bediako, Christianity in Africa: The Renewal of a Non-Western Religion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 1995), 155.

[6]. Andrew F. Walls, “Structural Problems in Mission Studies,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 15, no. 4 (1991): 152; Tite Tiénou, “Christian Theology in an Era of World Christianity,” in Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity, ed. Craig Ott and Harold A. Netland (Nottingham: Apollos, 2007), 44–45, 48.

[7]. Stephen B. Bevans, “What Has Contextual Theology to Offer the Church in the Twenty-First Century?” (lecture delivered at Church Mission Society, Oxford, 2009).

[8]. Neil Holm, Journal of Christian Education 52, no. 1 (2009): 8,

[9]. Henri Nouwen, “Hospitality,” Monastic Studies 10 (Easter 1974): 26.

[10]. “Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium of the Holy Father Francis to the Bishops, Clergy, Consecrated Persons and the Lay Faithful on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World” (2013), 46–47,

[11]. Mission-Shaped Church: Church Planting and Fresh Expressions of Church in a Changing Context (London: Church House Publishing, 2004), 81–82.

[12]. Jean Vanier, Community and Growth (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 283.

[13]. Sarah McKearney, e-mail to author, December 22, 2012, quoted with permission.

[14]. Elizabeth Newman, “Who’s Home Cooking? Hospitality, Christian Identity, and Higher Education,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 26, no. 1 (1999): 13.

[15]. John V. Taylor, The Incarnate God (London: Continuum, 2004), 19–21.

[16]. Christine Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 123.

[17]. Christine Pohl, “Hospitality from the Edge: The Significance of Marginality in the Practice of Welcome,” Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics (October 1995): 127.

[18]. Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (Glasgow: William Collins, 1976), 68–69.

[19]. Parker J. Palmer, The Company of Strangers: Christians and the Renewal of America’s Public Life (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 73.

[20]. Luke Bretherton, Christianity and Contemporary Politics: The Conditions and Possibilities of Faithful Witness (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2010), 150.

[21]. Paul Bickley, “Good Neighbours: How Churches Help Communities Flourish” (London: Church Urban Fund/Theos, 2014),

[22]. See, accessed July 28, 2015.


Cathy Ross

Cathy Ross is tutor in contextual theology at Ripon College Cuddesdon, Oxford. She also coordinates the M.A. program for the Church Mission Society’s Pioneer Mission Leadership Training and is lecturer in mission at Regent’s Park College, Oxford. She has worked in East Africa as a mission partner with New Zealand CMS. —

To cite this article:

[Chicago] Ross, Cathy. “‘Often, Often, Often Goes the Christ in the Stranger's Guise’.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 39, no. 4 (2015): 176–79.

[MLA] Ross, Cathy. “‘Often, Often, Often Goes the Christ in the Stranger's Guise’.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 39.4 (2015): 176–79. Web. .

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