Welcome to the Table
Coming Home to Christian Hospitality
by Cameron Lawrence
Brent George is feeding wood into the bonfire crackling in his yard, embers wafting above the flames and disappearing in the temperate evening air. He motions for me to park on the edge of the lawn, and my tires roll onto the patches of bald earth where many cars have rested before. Over the course of their 34-year marriage, he and his wife Laura have welcomed more than 40 people to stay with them, for brief or extended periods, all while birthing and raising 11 children of their own. Which is to say nothing of the daily visitors who stream in for conversation, counsel, and meals.
The house itself, two stories of white clapboard with green shutters and a basketball hoop in the drive, is nice but not extraordinary—neither as large or well-suited to hosting many guests as one might expect. It’s humble but comfortable inside, the signs of family living evidenced on the shelves and counters and furniture. All of it amounts to an indescribable warmth that radiates from a sense of life lived—of home and gracious welcome.
Brent leads me through the kitchen and past the stairs to the living room, where Laura joins us as we talk and wait for supper to finish cooking. She credits her mother-in-law as early inspiration for the lifestyle they chose more than three decades ago. But it was a book about L’Abri Fellowship—the evangelical community founded in Switzerland by Francis and Edith Schaeffer in 1955—that provided additional vision. The Schaeffers decided to open their home to people interested in joining others for personal study and conversation about the life of faith. And the Georges have tried to follow that example, beginning with a Bible study for youth, and then later inviting a fellow church member to live with them. Ever since, they’ve given beds, and sometimes entire rooms, to short- or long-term guests.
While conventional wisdom supposes more children equals greater difficulty in showing hospitality, the Georges don’t see it that way. The decision to let God determine their family size is at the core of their commitment to hosting others. “We were trying to space our children’s births the way we thought was wise," Laura says. “But I started to think about how Scripture says children are a blessing. It doesn’t say they are a blessing if you can live in a certain size house or if you can send them all to college. There are no qualifiers.”
That’s when everything started changing, bringing a new depth and resolve to their conviction. “The more hospitable I became toward receiving children personally, the more hospitable I became toward other people. We welcome them whether they come through the womb, the front door, back door, side door, or the window. We’ve never hung a vacancy sign out front. God knew our hearts were open to ministering to people, and He just brought them to our door.”
We move to the table when the food is ready and continue talking as we eat. Two of Brent and Laura’s children join us, each with stories to tell about the life of hospitality that was chosen for them. “It’s taken us out of our comfort zone plenty of times,” says Abby, 22. “But it’s good to be uncomfortable, because it grows you up and teaches you to sacrifice in ways you probably wouldn’t have noticed if you hadn’t had certain people in your life. Learning to deal with all the personalities—especially the ones who almost seem to be testing the waters to see if we’ll still love them, or still take them back—it’s hard, but it teaches you to see through the eyes of Christ instead of the flesh.”
Josiah, 20, recalls a season when a younger homeless teen was his roommate. The Georges brought the boy home to stay the night, and he was with them for eight months. “I’m a very laidback person, and he was jumping off the walls every second. Having to adjust to that energy and sharing my room was a really hard thing to do. But it definitely stretched me and taught me patience.”
“Having people in our home has taught our kids that there is something bigger than they are,” Brent says. “It has enriched our lives and taught all of us more about Christ and His kingdom.”
In the early 15th century, the Russian painter Andrei Rublev created his most famous work—a symbolic representation of the Trinity that relies on the Old Testament image of three visitors to the household of Abraham. The story, found in Genesis 18, has long been central to the biblical tradition of hospitality.
Though Rublev wasn’t the first to render this scene in paint, his version lacks two important details that earlier artists included: Abraham and Sarah. But what seems like an omission actually provides a clue to a fundamental truth of hospitality. The three figures, portrayed as angels, are gathered around the back three sides of a table, leaving us with a sense of invitation. This represents God’s gracious hospitality to us—that while we were still estranged from Him (Rom. 5:8), Christ died to welcome us into the eternal life and love of the Godhead.
Dr. Christine Pohl, author of Making Room and professor of ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary, has written extensively on the practice of Christian hospitality. She told me by telephone that the ability to show hospitality to others is possible only because God first showed it to us. “Hospitality, especially the ability to sustain it over time, comes from a heart of gratitude for the extraordinary, costly welcome that we have received from God in Christ,” she said. “If we really come to understand that, then we can respond by embodying His welcome ourselves.”
Since the beginning, Christians have struggled with questions of how to offer the kind of welcome Pohl suggests. She says it’s evident in some of the conflicts mentioned in the New Testament between Jewish and Gentile believers—in who could eat with whom, for example—and the social tensions between rich and poor followers of Christ. But hospitality in contemporary society is different. Our culture has largely trivialized the practice, either seeing its fulfillment in entertaining friends and business associates or in the hospitality industry. What’s more, households are smaller now and increasingly private.
“A lot of us see our homes as retreats from the world instead of outposts for the kingdom. And so we are leery of whom we welcome and how much time it will take,” Pohl said. “We are very task-oriented, so opportunities for hospitality come as interruptions. If our whole focus is on getting things done, then opening our homes to others is always inconvenient.”
Perhaps the most inconvenient, if not uncomfortable, aspect to the biblical tradition is its emphasis on welcoming the stranger. “We have pictures of God particularly as host in the Old Testament. With Jesus, we have God coming as host but also as guest and stranger, saying, ‘When you welcome the least of these, you welcome Me,’” she said. Early Christians took these words so seriously that it was common practice to set aside a special room in their homes—what they called a “Christ room,” or “prophet’s chamber”—so that as strangers had need, believers wouldn’t miss an opportunity to welcome Jesus.
Yet the potential danger of a difficult guest is a common fear that can paralyze us from moving beyond welcoming only the people we know best. Pohl believes that, for the most part, the risk of doing so is real but often overstated. What we need is discernment. Receiving people in one’s home isn’t always the best approach, at least not at first. She says there are different levels of “being a stranger” and appropriate settings for handling each: “I don’t recommend taking in people you know to be risky unless you have help and support. There are threshold places—places in between the privacy of the home and public life—that are still personable.” Church services and events, and social gatherings in public venues, are just a few examples of such options. Eventually, as a person earns trust through building relationships in the community, he can be brought into more private locations. The key to staying safe at any point in the process, she says, is teaming up with others to offer hospitality.
One passage in Luke’s gospel relays an important teaching about our approach to the stranger—namely, that we shouldn’t welcome others for personal gain. The writer tells us that on the Sabbath, Jesus dined in the home of a ruling Pharisee. Noticing the dignified guests seated around the table, the Lord challenged the host not to invite friends, rich neighbors, or relatives, who can return the favor in one form or another: “But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:13-14).
“That doesn’t mean there’s no place for welcoming friends and family,” Pohl said. “It’s more that we’re called to extend to strangers and those who are usually left on the margins the kind of welcome we would give to family and friends. It’s very difficult to show hospitality to strangers if we’re not showing it to the people we know and love.”
She advises that the uninitiated begin by asking some questions, such as: Who are the people in my world that need welcome? Is it the person down the street whose family lives on the other side of the country? Is it my child’s friends, an international student, or a disabled church member? She also recommends finding ways to expand our tables, in addition to reconsidering how we view our homes—to see them not as private havens but tools for God’s kingdom.
As we finish dessert, I look out through the French doors to the bonfire still burning under a black sky. Several of the children are outside now, seated around the flames, only their faces visible in the firelight. I think about the meal we’ve just consumed and wonder how many people have sat in these chairs. How do the Georges continue to welcome and generously give to so many?
“God has provided,” Brent says. “And He has provided immensely.”
Laura recalls the day when their teenaged son Micah, now 30, had friends coming over around mealtime. The couple was experiencing financial difficulty and had been given a ham dinner with all of the fixings—just enough for their family alone. “I pulled him aside and said, ‘We don’t have enough food, so maybe y’all can run to Burger King.’ But then I heard the Lord say, ‘No, the ham is big enough.’” In obedience, she told the boys they could stay.
“A lot of times, Brent and I will just wait until the last and will take what’s left. So I’m watching them pile the food on their plates, and I’m thinking, Okay, the Lord is taking care of this.” When she went to fill her plate, she was surprised to see that somehow plenty remained. “It was like the loaves and the fishes in the gospel. We even had leftovers that night. That was one big lesson I needed to learn: I didn’t need to worry about food. There is always enough.”
“It takes a certain vulnerability to God’s providence and mercies—an openness to Him and whatever He brings,” Brent says.
Part of that vulnerability has involved allowing their guests to see family life as it really is, messes and all. “I don’t really have the energy to pretend,” Laura says. “I think letting people see us the way we are is what has attracted them to our home. They want to see other folks have messes too. And that’s what makes people feel most welcome—being able to just come in and be part of the family. In this day, when people have broken families, it’s a precious commodity to have a place to come and just fit in.”