The author of 5 Habits of Highly Missional People helps us understand how to apply the principles in his book in the light of Scripture.
P&P: The 2nd habit in your book is to “Eat with 3 people this week, at least one of whom is not a member of your church.” Why such an emphasis on this practice?
Michael: Because the shared table is the supreme expression of hospitality in every single culture around the world. And at the heart of the Gospel is the message of hospitality – that God makes a way for us to have fellowship with him through the work of Christ. We need to learn how to un-busy ourselves so that we can share food with our friends, neighbors and work colleagues in a more mutual fashion. A meal should be an equalizing experience. It should be a time when people share in the truest sense of the word. Only when a guest feels welcome, honored and safe, will he or she open up to their host. We need to be committed to creating such safe, welcoming spaces. And that means freeing our social calendars and enjoying the company of people who don’t share our faith. We should cook the freshest, healthiest fare, complementing it with great wine, supporting small businesses and family farms. Our menus should reflect our concern to avoid products made in countries without fair labor laws or that are produced or stored in ecologically unsafe ways. Our tables should be a place of justice, generosity, laughter, safety and conviviality. Serve up something delicious and then just watch the conversation flow and trust God to stick his nose in somewhere.
In the introduction to the book, you speak of living questionable lives- that is, living in such an intriguing way that people start asking questions. How can we be questionable through our eating?
Jesus gave us a number of “rules” for hosting dinner parties – don’t just invite your friends; invite the poor; don’t treat some guests as honoured ones and others as second-class guests, etc. In First Century Israel if you hosted a meal the way Jesus tells us to it would have been flabbergasting! We need to figure out what would be equally intriguing today while still satisfying the spirit of hospitality, generosity and justice he speaks about. That might include making choices around where you source your food, about how you include the “least of these”, about the conversation and the time you take. In a world of fast food and eating on the run, or eating out all the time, opening your home and your family to the guest can be very “questionable”. Likewise, the amount of food we eat. We should be great hosts, but we’re not purveyors of gluttony and avarice.
Instead, we should eat well, but with responsibility. We should see the table as a sacred space. The Bible is full of examples of people who were prepared to risk a great deal to show hospitality and got more than they bargained for. Abraham welcomed a stranger to dinner and found it was the Lord telling him of Sarah’s pregnancy and the birth of a nation through him (Gen. 18:1-15). When a widow offered food and shelter to a stranger, it turned out that it was Elijah, a man of God, who then raised her son from the dead (1 Kings 17:9-24). When some disciples were travelling away from Jerusalem, where their teacher, Jesus, had been executed, they invited a stranger to stay with them for the night. As the stranger broke bread their eyes were opened to him being their risen Lord (Luke 24:13-35). Jesus himself calls us to do something as “questionable” as giving food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, succour to the stranger, clothing to the naked, care to the sick, and visitation to the imprisoned (Matthew 25:34-36). The writer to the Hebrews enigmatically suggests that entertaining strangers can produce the same baffling results that those on the road to Emmaus saw: “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by doing so some people have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Heb.13:2)
You wrote “let communion precede conversion.” Why is this an important point?
Well, genuine hospitality is an end in itself. We practice hospitality because we’ve experienced God’s hospitality in Christ. We don’t host meals in order to convert people. That feels more like a party plan where I’ve only been invited so I can buy something. Our tables should be safe places. Having said that, in the context of a meal where people are opening their lives to each other, then sharing about our faith or those things that are important to us happens naturally in the context of relationship and grace. It’s not an enforced presentation. When St. Paul was addressing food laws to the Corinthians he was anxious that they not give up eating with unbelievers. For him, eating was more than refuelling. It was a chance to glorify God, to share his faith with others or to encourage the faith of a fellow believer. He embraced freedom within the constraints of abstinence.
Ever have anything surprising happen during a shared meal?
Are you kidding? Over a meal in a slum in Cambodia, I have shared the gospel with a French atheist human rights activist, who shared my passion for justice, but not for Jesus; in a bar in Berlin I’ve had a clairvoyant want to tell me my future, and I returned the favour by telling him what his future would be according to Jesus; in a restaurant in Pittsburgh I was caught up in a going away party for a woman moving to San Diego who shared with me her doubts and fears about leaving; in a pub in Pasadena where I took some of the students I was teaching at Fuller, some other patrons overheard our conversation and joined in our discussion about faith and culture; at my own table in Sydney people have shared about their divorces, their past failings, their disappointments, the abuse of their family, and more.
In case anyone wants to invite you over for dinner, what’s your favorite meal?
Well, if you’re from Texas, then Texas BBQ or tex-mex food. If you’re from elsewhere, whatever your passion is and whatever the local cuisine is. But if you’re Lebanese, I’ll be right over!