Most gatherings at our home look similar: A heap of shoes rests by the front door, jackets and purses placed wherever there is room. A kid in a superhero costume periodically emerges from his bedroom to fly circles throughout the house. Uninitiated guests stumble over stray Legos and wooden trains—remnants from a last-minute scramble to make the place appear presentable. A group congregates in the kitchen, snacking from various pans and slow cookers and store-bought baked goods. Plates are optional, and most of us who aren’t seated lean in over the counter as we sample the dishes.
As parents of three young boys, my wife and I rely on our own home to be the place of gathering in order to keep any semblance of a social life. Truth be told, having multiple children means maintaining a perfect home is rarely possible for us. While our approach to hospitality may look like that of resignation—of succumbing to the forces of entropy surrounding us—it’s instead something we’ve chosen to embrace.
We invite our friends to be active participants in our home, to be involved in our mess, and comfortable resting in theirs at the same time. Establishing a lifestyle and environment of authenticity allows—and hopefully even encourages—others to be more authentic themselves. To feel at home enough to peruse our bookshelves or rummage through our fridge. To bring food to share, or to cook with us, or just come with an empty stomach, ready to eat.
But that’s not to say the casual demeanor is effortless. Even the appearance of being laid-back requires a modicum of intentionality. Often I struggle against the inner voice that tells me hosting requires showing your best side. The thought of running out of food makes me anxious (and with a stocked pantry, that has yet to happen). Or sometimes, I keep my kids out of certain areas for an entire day to ensure those rooms remain spotless. During the gathering, I might catch myself not even really interacting with guests, but checking their “vitals” as if they were my patients during a check-up. Do they have enough to eat? Are they comfortable? Do they love me?
My goal to be a perfect host often has little to do with guests, and more to do with my own desire for approval. How can I best impress them?
Often I struggle against the inner voice that tells me hosting requires showing your best side.
The way we present and offer up our home is the way we want others to feel in it. Our “come as you are” desire is a purposeful effort of making sure those who pass through our door feel they’re among family, including all the compassion and chaos that comes with it. In those moments when guests feel at home, our public masks and personas are mostly discarded. The goal is no longer to impress, but to rest together.
Yet the most crucial times hospitality is needed are those occasions when we might least expect or even want it. A couple years ago, over a span of several months, a close friend stayed at our house periodically and randomly. During a very difficult chapter in his life, while wrestling with severe depression, anxiety, and panic attacks, he felt unsafe living on his own. Most episodes were unanticipated, even for him. Sometimes we would receive a call or text in advance; occasionally a knock on the front door late at night.
When our friend stopped by, he felt welcome enough to join us in whatever we were up to—whether a family movie night or working quietly together at the kitchen table. In the most difficult moments, we would stay up to keep him company or take a middle-of-the-night trip to the Waffle House for a change of scenery. During this time, we came to a realization: True hospitality is much more than being prepared for guests.
I can try to convey welcome in my persistent words of invitation or by opening our home for gatherings. But more importantly, are my friends and neighbors actually taking me up on my offer? It’s socially acceptable to have a demeanor of being welcoming, but do my friends think of me at 2:00 a.m., in the middle of a panic attack? Do my neighbors’ children walk into our home without a knock, asking if our kids are free to play outside?
The most crucial times hospitality is needed are those occasions when we might least expect or even want it.
One of my favorite passages concerning hospitality is in Romans, where Paul encourages fellow believers to “be devoted to one another in brotherly love … practicing [or pursuing] hospitality (Rom. 12:10-13). There’s something lovely about the idea of “practicing” and “pursuing” hospitality. Those are words signifying a sort of generosity that is both continuous and incomplete. The word practice itself relieves us of the pressure of having everything figured out. It also allows for making mistakes along the way. More than simply an activity I participate in on a Friday night, true hospitality is about loving God well by learning how best to love and care for those in my community. Through hospitality, their concerns become my concerns. Their struggles become my struggles. Their liberation becomes my liberation.
So we don’t prepare too much for guests. We might have to pull in chairs from other rooms and move books and papers off the dinner table. The food probably won’t be gourmet or served in multiple courses. And depending on the level of stress earlier in the day, we might just order in pizza or tacos. But we eagerly share in all of it.
Illustration by Jason Ford