The first Sunday I invited guests for lunch after church, the oven settings failed. We all arrived at the house, anticipating the mouthwatering aroma of baked ham, but instead opened the door to . . . nothing. The oven was cold, the ham even chillier, and my welcoming smile instantly froze on my lips.

This wasn’t at all what I had envisioned. As I hurriedly microwaved slices of ham on a dinner plate, I felt disappointed. I wanted my guests to come into my home and find rest and nourishment for both body and soul. I wanted them to sit at the table and enjoy themselves. I wanted the ham to be delicious.

And I don’t think my disappointment was wrong. With regularity, I see articles on hospitality that assert some version of this statement: “It’s not about your house or your meal; it’s about the Christ-centered fellowship that takes place at your house over your meal.” For many Christians, hospitality is good, but anything resembling “entertaining” is bad. We disparage well-ironed linens and beautifully arranged flowers. Like the austere guests in Babette’s Feast, we view a sumptuous meal with skepticism.

I can agree with the basic premise of these sentiments: Christians shouldn’t reduce hospitality to Instagram-worthy tableaux. If we’re motivated by a desire to impress others—or to use them for our own social advancement (Luke 14:12)—we sin. God abhors pride (Amos 6:8), sending his Son to die because of it and his Spirit to kill it where it festers in our hearts (Col. 3:5–13). Self-promotion disguised as a dinner invitation is not true hospitality.

Self-promotion disguised as a dinner invitation is not true hospitality.

Hospitality—welcoming others to share our homes and lives—can take place in the space of five minutes with little prior preparation. It can be practiced over McDonald’s coffee or PB&J or no food at all. It can happen in an untidy house or at the neighborhood pool. Whenever we invite someone into our life for the good of her body and soul, we practice hospitality. Hospitality is more than entertaining.

But it doesn’t have to be less. In fact, folding linen napkins, making a complicated new recipe, lighting some candles, or queuing a playlist of beautiful music can be acts of love toward the neighbors we welcome.

Entertain with Love

God himself welcomed the first people into a garden containing “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen. 2:9). And throughout Scripture, hosts honor their guests with extraordinarily effort-consuming hospitality. Abraham fed his angelic guests meat that was “tender and good” with cakes made from “fine flour” (Gen. 18:6–7). Jesus rescued the near-disaster at Cana by giving the wedding guests abundant “good wine” (John 2:10). And the consummation of Christ’s kingdom is described in Revelation as a marriage supper—a feast of blessing for every guest (Rev. 19:9).

In The Hidden Art of Homemaking, Edith Schaeffer writes:

Food should be chosen to give pleasure, and to cheer up people after a hard day’s work, to comfort them when they feel down for some reason, to amuse them when things feel a bit dull, or to open up conversation when they feel silent and uncommunicative . . . There is no occasion when meals should become totally unimportant.

Carefully chosen food, lovingly prepared and beautifully presented, demonstrates honor toward our guests. It’s an act of self-sacrificing love—serving the needs and desires of others at cost to ourselves.

Caring for People

Schaeffer goes on to tell the story of a homeless man who stopped by her house one day asking for a cup of coffee and some bread. Rather than simply giving him the bare essentials he requested, Schaeffer went inside and prepared soup and two different kinds of sandwiches, which she cut into triangles and arranged on her best china plate. She brought this food out to the waiting man with a copy of the Gospel of John and a bouquet of flowers entwined with ivy on a tray.

When her children questioned her efforts to make such a beautiful and tasty presentation for a transient man who’d only requested a crust of bread, Schaeffer replied, “Who knows, perhaps he’ll do a lot of thinking and someday, believe. Anyway, he may realize that we care something about him as a person, and that’s important.”

These days, I finally have my oven settings figured out, and the food is usually ready on schedule after church. When I’m able—admittedly not the case in every season of life—I iron the damask napkins from my husband’s grandmother and stack the plates from our wedding registry, and then I serve the men and women and children who join me around the table. It’s not perfect—not even close. But I do hope each guest realizes I care about him or her as a person. And I think that’s important.

Editors’ note: A version of this article appeared at The Christward Collective