When I first tried to describe our “Christian House of Hospitality” to my sister, the conversation ended something like this…
Lisa: So basically, you’re just living with your friends.
Me: Well, not exactly. We keep space open for people who need a place to stay.
Lisa: Well, yeah, we let people crash on our couch, too.
And it got me thinking. How is Christian community any different from just rooming with friends? I have lived with other people my entire life: my family, roommates, then housemates. We loved each other and tried to hold each other accountable. We talked about God and sometimes prayed together. We screwed up, fought, and forgave each other. And if someone we knew needed help, we were sometimes willing to open our doors, our table, our wallets, and our beds.
So how’s that any different from my life now? Well, in a lot of ways, it’s no different at all. God gives us this communal way of living because God knows we will flourish, we will become our best selves, when we live and work together. Because giving and receiving from one another is how we were created to live, there is something inside us that drives us to those kinds of practices naturally. Poverty can also force people to these practices naturally. If you don’t have much, you quickly learn to depend on others, share space and resources, and pray daily for your needs to be met. One reason Jesus favored poverty was because he knew that the poor could engage in communal life much more easily than the rich.
But poverty can also make us guarded and manipulative. College roommates might sometimes look like Christian community, but eventually someone will come along who you can’t welcome — after all, you never know who might steal your laptops. While we can surely stumble onto communities of hospitality without naming them as such, our practices become more deep, consistent, and simply possible when we self-consciously claim our communities for Christ’s welcoming, inter-dependent, prayerful living. I’ve noticed that when we do claim our communities for Christ, there is one notable difference from when we are simply living with roommates: our level of intentionality. That is, we do what we do on purpose.
Intentionality is important because while Christian communal practices may be good for us, they can also be hard and are often counter to what our culture assumes. You may happen to pray with your housemates, but if you don’t set specific time(s) aside each day, things come up, people lose interest, or you simply forget. You may naturally hold your roommates accountable for their ethical decisions, but if you haven’t made an intentional commitment to give and receive such comments, a roommate’s critique may seem petty, jealous, and unwelcome. Accountability is hard — it’s hard to tell someone you see her going down a harmful path. Without an intentional commitment to engage in such difficult conversations, the most difficult (and most important) comments are more easily left unsaid.
Finally, welcoming the stranger is hard, too. You may naturally welcome folks into your home for meals or to crash on your couch, but sustained commitment to welcoming any and all of God’s children can only happen when a whole community is committed to the practice and the support of one another in the difficulties of that practice. Welcoming people to meals means spending double or triple what you would normally spend on food. Welcoming anyone into your home means running the risk of lost property or even harm to yourself. Welcoming a person off the street means welcoming their needs, their legal and medical problems, and their lack of transportation. Such radical hospitality runs against the grain of what our culture tells us about security and self-reliance. While radical hospitality might be naturally somewhere deep inside of us, I truly believe we need intentional communities to help us engage in this widely-condemned welcoming.
If you’ve simply slipped into Christian hospitality without knowing it as such, you might miss the best part: meeting Christ in the face of another person every single day. Because I know why we do what we do, my eyes are opened to see Jesus hiding in all of our practices. Because I know that our table fellowship is made possible only by Christ’s giving of his body and blood, I see Jesus when we sit down together to eat. Because I know that we pray not simply out of necessity, but because Jesus taught us to pray, I can hear Jesus in my housemate’s recitation of our Lord’s prayer. Because I know that Jesus said when we welcome the stranger, we welcome him, I have the honor and privilege of meeting Jesus each day in those whose needs so quickly overwhelm me.
Because I know that we are striving together to be the body of Christ and not simply roommates, I can begin to see Christ in myself. I can begin to see my own inexplicable, astonishing worth as I see the Christ in me — and that’s a pretty big change from any way I’ve lived before. So while Christian Houses of Hospitality might be friends rooming together, and while friends rooming together might naturally engage in practices of hospitality, I ultimately think that the claiming of communities for Christ makes a difference: a difference in intentionality that visibly shapes the community’s life, and the blessed difference of having our eyes opened to seeing Christ in all we do.
[This article originally appeared in Prism Magazine. Sarah Jobe lives in Rutba House, an intentional Christian community in North Carolina.]