The Key to Evangelism in the 21st Century

The twelve of us sat in silence, on the edge of our seats. You could’ve heard a pin drop.

Three of us had pilgrimaged from Minnesota to muggy Orlando and her stifling August humidity for a week-long intensive course on evangelism with Steve Childers. Fortunately, Reformed Theological Seminary is as air-conditioned as it is Reformed.

With a dozen students on board for five nine-hour days with one of the country’s top church-planting strategists, it was a rich week, to say the least. During these precious hours, the Beijing Olympics were playing second fiddle to learning about the advance of the gospel around the world and in personal conversation.

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Time and again, Childers had thrown us curveballs. He knew how to keep us on our toes. But now he had us nothing short of captivated.

Key to 21st-Century Evangelism

“You know what the key to evangelism in the 21st century will be, don’t you?”

He wasn’t talking Global South, but the Western hemisphere—and America in particular.

I’m sure he could see on our faces how eager we were for his answer. Wow, the key, we thought. This is huge.

He paused and gave his memorable world-evangelism grin. Finally he lifted the curtain.

“Hospitality.”

Then another long pause to let it sink in.

Hospitality in Post-Christendom

In our progressively post-Christian society, the importance of hospitality as an evangelistic asset is growing rapidly. Increasingly, the most strategic turf on which to engage unbelievers with the good news of Jesus may be the turf of our own homes.

When people don’t gather in droves for stadium crusades, or tarry long enough on the sidewalk to hear your gospel spiel, what will you do? Where will you interact with them about the things that matter most?

Invite them to dinner.

For several of us in Childers’s class, the lights went on. Biblical texts on hospitality were springing to mind. A theme we’d previously thought of as first-century background noise was taking shape as a significant strategy for evangelism in a post-Christian milieu.

Love Outsiders

The New Testament word for “hospitality” (Greek philozenia) comes from a compound of “love” and “stranger.” Hospitality has its origin, literally, in love for outsiders.

One of the more memorable texts is Hebrews 13:1–2: “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Yes, love the brothers, but make sure you don’t forget outsiders. Don’t neglect to love strangers as well.

Love for fellow Christians is important, essential—some call it “the final apologetic,” based on John 13:35—but there’s a way in which it may not be all that impressive. Loving those who love you—“Do not even unbelievers do the same?” asks Jesus (Matt. 5:47). But showing love to outsiders, now that rings of life-change. That bears the fingerprints of your heavenly Father.

In Romans 12, as the apostle Paul points us to important flashpoints for how our lives should look when claimed by the gospel, he says, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality” (Rom. 12:12–13).

It could be that this charge to hospitality is another way of saying “contribute to the needs of the saints,” but it seems more likely a summons to demonstrate kindness to outsiders—like what Paul experienced from a man named Publius on the island of Malta: “Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the chief man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days” (Acts 28:7).

Keep thinking through the New Testament mentions of hospitality, and see that it’s no peripheral theme. Hospitality even finds its way into such a prominent place as elder qualifications:

  • An elder “must be . . . hospitable.” (1 Tim. 3:2)
  • An elder, “as God’s steward, must be . . . hospitable.” (Titus 1:8)

Are we listening? When was the last time we turned down a man from joining the elder team because he wasn’t hospitable? For Paul, it was important enough to mention to both Timothy and Titus for their elder selection.

It matters tremendously how the elders orient themselves toward “outsiders.” After all, the elders set the tone for how the congregation will engage with nonbelievers. A previous generation may be taken aback to read that an elder “must be well thought of by outsiders” (1 Tim. 3:7), but as Christendom crumbles, we begin to see this value in new light. If the elders who are to be “examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:3) don’t show up on the front lines to engage with the city’s unbelieving, will the flock really embrace the mission the shepherds are avoiding?

Living Room as Launching Pad

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Lest we swing the pendulum and think the charge to hospitality (“stranger love”) no longer enjoins us to care for fellow believers, 1 Peter 4:9 and 3 John 5–8 stand ready to provide the balance. See 1 Peter 4:9 in context with verses 8–10:

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace. 

So full Christian hospitality includes inviting in other believers as well, caring for each other, “washing the feet of the saints,” “contributing to the needs of the saints,” and so on. Not just for making converts, but for the Great Commission task of making disciples. And there’s more.

Christian hospitality serves Jesus’s global mission by welcoming traveling missionaries. John’s third epistle commends this kind of care:

Beloved, it is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers, strangers as they are, who testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God. For they have gone out for the sake of the name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. Therefore we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth. (3 John 5–8)

So let your hospitality include not only unbelieving neighbors and co-workers, but also furloughing missionaries sent out for global gospel advance. John Piper calls this “strategic hospitality”:

Strategic hospitality . . . asks: How can I draw the most people into a deep experience of God’s hospitality by the use of my home? Who are the people who could be brought together in my home most strategically for the sake of the kingdom? . . . Strategic hospitality is not content to just have the old clan over for dinner again and again. It strategizes how to make the hospitality of God known and felt all over the world, from the lonely church member right here, to the Gola farmers in Tahn, Liberia. Don’t ever underestimate the power of your living room as a launching pad for new life and hope and ministry and mission!

Lavishly Hospitable God

Christian hospitality makes room for fellow believers and global gospel carriers, but the note we’re striking here is evangelistic—inviting in the outsider, welcoming unbelievers into our space, in hopes of bringing Jesus into theirs.

The reason this is no minor biblical theme is because the streams of hospitality flow deeply from the well of God himself. Christians love the stranger, because we’ve been loved by the Father when we were strangers. Hospitality rises in its purest form when we heed Paul’s counsel: “Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).

In Jesus, we’re the enemy loved, the sinner saved, the stranger welcomed. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). And welcomed strangers should be quick to learn to welcome other strangers.

Our love for outsiders runs deep as it flows from remembering ourselves to be outsiders loved by a lavishly hospitable God.


Editors’ note: David Mathis will be speaking on the cost of disciple-making at the 2017 Bethlehem Conference for Pastors and Church Leaders, January 30 to February 1. Register soon.

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