The Hospitality of Communication

I’m glad you’re retired!”

This comment on a social media post was aimed at shaming a retired Nazarene elder who asked the church to consider that the ethics of Jesus might sometimes call us away from our political and civic convictions.

In these days of social media, it seems that the art of graceful communication has been lost. And in our civil discourse, we seem to be talking past and over each other more than having actual, constructive dialogue. Instead of seeing Christ in each other and believing that theology can be a dialogue as the Holy Spirit inhabits our discussions, we tend to dehumanize the recipients of our monologues and make them “other.”

Many years ago, a friend and mentor, Dr. Lebron Fairbanks, introduced me to the concept of hospitality in leadership. He suggested that one critical conceptual framework through which we should see leadership is that of creating space and making room for others. Hospitality is more than simply welcoming people into our homes. It is an attitude and disposition toward others.

How Hospitality Affects our Communication

Hospitality should have a direct bearing on our communication. So often we focus on simply giving information through our communication: defending our dogmas or “setting others straight.”

Instead, perhaps we should see our communication as an opportunity to extend the hospitality of Christ to others. This kind of charitable discourse goes beyond simply being kind to others as we talk to them, but it also recognizes that our interaction with one another can be sacramental, a means of conveying the grace of God. Sometimes what we say has much less impact than how we say it. When we hold space open for others as we communicate, God moves in the space we hold. God becomes the primary subject of our communication rather than an accessory or object.

I find the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8) fascinating. The content of Jesus’ teaching in this is powerful enough for us, but His methods might also be instructive.

Many people have speculated about what Jesus wrote in the sand. I don’t intend to add any more conjecture. But notice how Jesus took the frenetic pace of this situation, with the jostling of the woman into the crowd as it reached a fever pitch, and He moved the pace to a crawl. Not once but twice Jesus leaned over to write in the dirt.

I think those moments when Jesus seemed to stop time were moments of space held for another’s sake. And what happened in that space? First, the legal experts and Pharisees reconsidered their blood-thirsty quest. Second, the woman experienced the life-changing grace of God. Jesus could have simply lectured everyone on forgiveness and the depths of our shared sinfulness. Instead, He extended hospitality and held wide open a space for grace.

More than Just a Dialogue

In spiritual direction, we like to imagine that all of our conversations with others do not involve two people, but three. Rather than seeing ourselves as the primary influencer in a conversation, we should give that place to God. This changes the trajectory of our communication from one of dissemination to one of facilitation.

One of our main objectives in this kind of communication is to both create space and hold that space for others. We do this with the conviction that God is helping that person find his or her own way. Don’t we grow best, after all, when we are given the opportunity to allow the Holy Spirit to move us, rather than simply being lectured or told what to believe or how to behave?

Our goal, after all, is not to create disciples of us. The goal of discipleship is for others to be formed into Christlikeness. To love others is to allow God to work through the relationship that God has already established with them. In Wesleyan terms, we call this prevenient grace. Hospitality and love are entangled together in marvelous ways.

Self-Evaluation of our Communication

The challenge, of course, is evaluating the Christlikeness of our communication. We are, after all, called to be influencers by modeling discipleship, including our humility and willingness to grow and learn from others.

The Barna group has a study, “Christians: More Like Jesus or Pharisees?” that asked respondents to rate statements as “Actions Like Jesus” in an attempt to assess “Christlikeness” in their lives.

The first action noted “I listen to others to learn their story before telling them about my faith.” That seems elementary, but it is striking how often we fail to do this first in our relationships. However, when we see other people as projects, or even as just people who need convinced of their wrongness, it is easy to objectify them and fail to adequately make space for their stories.

Two other statements that struck me were: “I regularly choose to have meals with people with very different faith or morals from me,” and “I personally spend time with non-believers to help them follow Jesus.” These two actions address the issue of incarnation. The beauty of this mystery is that God decided that taking on skin and flesh and tendons was the best way to be God-with-us. This is not just a nice tangent to our understanding of salvation, but is central to it.

God did not accomplish something while far off and disconnected, dictating to us a code of morality while remaining aloof. Instead, in the person of Jesus, God came down into our brokenness in order to redeem it.

A Christ-Centered Communication Paradigm

This should be paradigmatic for us who seek to engage people in the way of Jesus. Our methods of how we engage others may have as much or more to say to others as the content of our conversations. To extend ourselves, unselfishly, into the lives of others—having meals with them, discovering their needs, investing time in those who are unlike us—is the way of Christ. To extend radical hospitality to others in the way we communicate can become incarnational.

The Barna survey found that over half of American Christians self-identify more with the actions and attitudes of Pharisees, which major heavily on an inward focus and self-righteousness.

Seeing God-given value in every person; seeing God at work in people’s lives, even when they’re not following him; helping people know God is for them instead than making sure they know they are sinners; having compassion for people who are not following God or are acting immorally—these are some of the questions related to attitudes that are like Jesus, according to the survey.

As we work toward sanctifying our communication, perhaps these can become guideposts for us to discern a more hospitable method to hold space for others.

RICH SHOCKEY has been a Nazarene pastor and is now the director of the South Heartland Division of chaplains for Marketplace Ministries.