From Hostility to Hospitality: Reconciling Evangelicals and Post-Evangelicals by Sharing in the Divine Welcome

I wrote the following essay in October 2010; there’s a lot I would probably word differently today, but I’m not in the mood for re-writing. If you have any suggestions for amendments or additions, let me know in the comments!

 Justin was, in many respects, a typical evangelical high school student.1 He attended church with his family every Sunday and came early to youth group on Wednesdays. He read through the Bible in a year, every year for six years. He had the Romans Road memorized, and looked for every opportunity to ask strangers if they were to die tonight, if they knew for sure they’d spend eternity in heaven. He wore his Christian parody t-shirts proudly to Republican rallies, supported the war while opposing abortion, and refused to smoke, drink, or hang around people who did. He was genuinely committed to holiness, evangelism, and his personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Then, Justin went to college—a small Christian liberal arts college—and his life changed dramatically. By the end of his second semester, Justin’s bookshelf had been cleared of books by James Dobson, Max Lucado, and John Piper, and restocked with titles from Donald Miller, John Howard Yoder, Shane Claiborne, N.T. Wright, and Brian McLaren. When he came home for summer break, he spent his time trying to convince his family and friends to spend less time “going to church” and more time “being the Church.” Justin began sleeping in most Sunday mornings, often because his nightly dorm room Bible study extended into a three-in-the-morning Taco Bell run. He did, however, join the church next door for their monthly cookout with the homeless downtown, which, in Justin’s words, was “great, but not nearly enough to reverse the gross injustices inherent in the American socio-economic system.” By the time Justin graduated, he was an unofficial Democrat (with a tendency toward socialism and pacifism), a member of a small, artistic witnessing community (they would rather not be called a “church”), an amateur mystic with an appreciation of ancient contemplative traditions (especially Taizé, labyrinths, and yoga), and an urban monk looking for an intentional community to join. Justin was now a post-modern, pluralistic, emergent, missional, hipster Christian. He was, in other words, a post-evangelical.

Of course, when his family discovered his new values and practices, they were equal parts horrified, distraught, and irate. His younger brother wrote him off as a hippie. His mother warned him that he and his friends were being deceived by Satan. His father forwarded him links to Glenn Beck clips with titles such as “Why the Heresy of Social Justice is Ruining America.” Justin responded by calling his parents “old-fashioned and mean”, refusing to visit their “ticky-tacky church” on Easter, and finally concluding that “they can be Christians all they want, but he was going to be a Christ-follower.” Justin and his family have not spoken openly about anything significant in over a year.

Justin’s story is not unusual. In fact, Justin’s transformation is representative not only of the average progression of young American Christians through late adolescence and early adulthood, but also of the chasm of hostility that typifies the relationship between the previous Christian generations and the emerging generation. It is within the context of stories like Justin’s—the battleground between evangelicals and post-evangelicals—that this reflection on hospitality takes root. In essence, the remainder of this essay asks the question, “What place does the hospitality of God have in reconciling evangelicals with post-evangelicals?”

Evangelicals, Post-Evangelicals, and Christian Hospitality

Before diving into a reflection on the role of hospitality amidst the evangelical/post-evangelical tension, it is important to define—or at least describe—these key terms. When working with titles as amorphous and subjective as “evangelical,” “post-evangelical,” and even “hospitality,” it seems impossible to arrive at a definition that will satisfy each person’s concept and experience of the term. Yet, attempting to discuss ideas without agreeing upon a working definition cripples the argument with unclarity and divergent “vocab-angst.”

Evangelicals

By “evangelicals,” I mean American Christians who share a commitment to the traditional values of 20th century Protestant faith, including: the necessity of personal conversion, the unique inerrancy and authority of the Bible, the substitutionary role of Christ’s death and resurrection, eternity in heaven after death, and the importance of sharing the message of the gospel. Some might label members of this group as “fundamentalists,” but such an explosive and subjective term is hardly useful for this reflection. Most evangelicals hold to patriotism and tend to vote Republican. Evangelical faith is often expressed through membership in a local congregation, active proselytizing, and opposition to and abstinence from “worldly activities” including drug and alcohol abuse, abortion, homosexual behavior, sexual promiscuity, cursing, and consumption of media which contradict Christian values. Also important to evangelicals is the preservation of the purity of the absolute Truth of Christianity, both in doctrine and in practice. Thus, evangelicals are often labeled “conservative.”

Post-Evangelicals

“Post-evangelicals” differ from the evangelical community from which they surfaced in many—but not all—ways. The Bible still matters to post-evangelicals, but as an ongoing narrative into which we are invited, rather than a rulebook or manual for life. The death and resurrection of Christ matter too, only as the central catalyst of the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom on earth, not the outpouring and fulfillment of God’s wrath against the sins of humanity. Since post-evangelicals often think of heaven as partially experienced on earth, the mission of gospel-spreading is usually incarnated in service, social justice, and acts of love, rather than verbal witnessing. Those labeled “emergent,” “post-modern,” or “missional” could all be considered post-evangelical. Institutional involvement—such as participation in politics or church membership—rarely matter to post-evangelicals, though some vote Democrat and belong to new, post-modern congregations. Among the other key values of post-evangelicals are cultural sensitivity, a spirit of tolerance and non-judgment, an emphasis on “doing good” over “being good,” and—most important to this essay—practicing hospitality.

Christian Hospitality

Effectively describing a uniquely Christian form of hospitality is a daunting task. I have no delusions about my ability to pinpoint a conclusive definition of such a broad term. Still, to continue this examination we must pause to consider what it means to say that hospitality is a central practice of Christian faith.

Christian hospitality is more than welcoming the other into one’s own space. It stretches far beyond the traditional images of having guests over for dinner or hosting a party, though these pictures fit well within the scope of Christian hospitality. Speaking more abstractly, Christian hospitality must be even more than “cultivating a space in which the authentic other meets the authentic self in order to create shared meaning.”3 For hospitality to be uniquely Christian, it must be inextricably linked to the Jesus event and the mission of God’s Spirit in the world.

Thus, for the purposes of this essay, Christian hospitality is best described as “inviting the other into the Divine Welcome made available through Christ and realized by God’s Spirit.” In other words, hospitality is not merely welcoming strangers into our homes or our lives, as if the time and space we inhabit is our private property. Instead, Christian hospitality is extending God’s welcome to others, essentially embodying the reconciliation of creation to God that is central to the gospel story. Through the resurrection of Jesus, God has welcomed humanity into an expression of that act of inclusion. By taking strangers into our homes, listening to people’s stories, and accepting outsiders into our communities, we announce and inflesh the hospitality already extended by God. Hospitality is recognizing the other as an equal recipient of God’s welcome.

Evangelicals vs. Post-Evangelicals

The centrality of God’s hospitality to the Christian story suggests that Christian experience is one of mutual respect and appreciation of the other. However, even a cursory examination of the state of the Church in America reveals a community typified not by unity and harmony, but by discord and hostility. While schisms and violence have arisen on a number of theological and ecclesiological fronts, the conflict most pertinent to this reflection is the divisive relationship between evangelicals and post-evangelicals.

Perhaps the most striking depiction of this disunity may be found among the message boards and comment boxes that fill the internet. Thanks to the anonymity and disconnect implicit in online conversation, the anger and mistrust lying beneath the surface of many evangelical/post-evangelical interactions find unabashed expression in blogs, YouTube videos, and discussion forums. The following is but a brief sampling of the language utilized by individuals on both sides of the conflict:

From the Keyboards of Evangelicals

From the Keyboards of Post-Evangelicals

For those that don’t know, the Emergent Church, while hard to define, is largely made up of people that do not believe in the authority of Scripture, most or any of the essential Christian doctrines or absolute truth. Most within the Emergent Church embrace Universalism and practice occult rituals” (A)t the very moment that he is upholding the Truth of Scripture, Mark Driscoll is not walking by it.”
Mclaren, Bell, Paggit are false teachers. ‘asking questions to stir up an age old conversation about how we follow jesus.’ Well, you’re following wolves and these men are nothing but goat herders.” I think that you hit Focus on the Family square on the head, and gave Dobson a smack between the eyes. I applaud you! He’s needed it for a while… Why would I ever want to follow a Jesus that thinks Dr. Dobson is okay?”
Brian mclaren makes the devil look godly.” (John Piper)is a douche bag, thank God for men like N.T Wright who rips this guy a new one in his theology.”
Wow, Pagitt does YOGA… that explains so, SO MUCH! Repent and believe in the Gospel, Doug! Please!” John MacAruthur is typical of many Christian ministers in that they speak out against things they know NOTHING about. That’s what I call ignorance.”
Rob bell is a TEACHER. I have heard what he says he believes. And frankly I’ve heard enough. He’s done plenty to show that he thinks God is a liar. That type of phony can’t be loved as a christian. Until he says he’s been a puppet of satan and regrets it he is worthless to me.” (in response to evangelical blogger) “You only have a 2nd grade comprehension, and your pastor reads from the dollar store coloring book bible.”

The resentment demonstrated here is not limited to a fringe group of extremists; it finds expression in other forms as well, including the writings and teachings of both evangelical and post-evangelical leaders. While more professional and tactful in their approach, many preachers, professors, and authors regularly hurl insults and accusations at those on the other side of the battle-line. Even more frequently, families and friendships are severed or tainted by silent suspicions and offhand remarks about the authenticity of the other party’s faith.

Where does this hostility come from? From the evangelical perspective, post-evangelical theology and praxis question and even reject certain essential truths. If a post-evangelical writer suggests that atonement is something more or other than penal substitution, that the Bible is not the ultimate authority for life, or that the teachings of other religious faiths reveal truths about our God, an evangelical is likely to suspect that the writer is promoting something different than true Christianity. Likewise, if a young adult stops going to church, starts doing contemplative yoga, and dedicates herself to simplicity and communal service, her evangelical relatives might assume she has slipped into a vague, non-Christian spirituality and/or communism. For evangelicals who are sincerely concerned about the long-term integrity of the Christian faith, post-evangelicalism represents a frightening opponent to orthodoxy.

To a post-evangelical, evangelicalism often seems inauthentic, hypocritical, and judgmental. The evangelical appeal to absolute, provable Truth makes little sense to a post-evangelical, who sees such truth-claims as totalitarian. Post-evangelical communities are usually made up of individuals who grew tired of Christianity which focused primarily on life-after-death and the apparent coercion that often accompanies traditional evangelistic efforts. To many young Christians, the combative, exclusivist, “too heavenly-minded to be of any earthly good” posture of evangelism does more to inhibit the cause of Christ than to advance it. So, both sides plant their feet, reinforce their pre-existent beliefs, and let the battle rage on.

Imagining a Unified Church

One cannot help wondering what difference would be made if evangelicals and post-evangelicals found a way to unite for the sake of the gospel. I am by no means suggesting uniformity as a solution, but rather, imagining a world in which both generations of Christianity were reconciled with each other in a partnership of mutual respect, commonality of purpose, and unity in the Spirit. What could happen if the relationship between evangelicals and post-evangelicals was typified by encouragement and cooperation, rather than resentment?

First, the reputation of Jesus would be spared a great deal of embarrassment. It would be foolish to suggest that the love of Jesus is incapable of breaking through the un-love of Christians, but it seems likely that more people would be drawn to Christ if the “body of Christ” was not at war with itself. Also, if both parties utilized their strengths to compensate for each other’s weakness, rather than exploiting them, the Church would be able to embody God’s love more effectively. American evangelicalism has access to an incredible amount of money, while post-evangelicalism is known for its youthful zeal and radicalism. Could not cooperation between the two lead to the well-funded, well-managed, radical eradication of a number of societal evils, including extreme poverty and the global mistreatment of women? Finally, there is much that both sides could learn from each other about who God is, for it is through the face of the stranger that we often meet Jesus.

If this dream-like unity can be achieved, it must begin with hospitality. Only through sharing in the welcome of God with one another can a common identity and mission be realized among evangelicals and post-evangelicals. And, if hospitality is the key to a future of unity, the initial responsibility for action rests squarely on the shoulders of post-evangelicals.

After all, post-evangelicals cling to hospitality as a core element of the gospel in a way evangelicals admittedly do not. Evangelicals emphasize the purity of the faith above even unity; thus, admitting the stranger poses a more significant danger than potential benefit. Post-evangelicals, on the other hand, identify with themes such as tolerance, openness, and inclusion. If there is to be hope for unity, they must extend the same hospitality typically associated with welcoming “sinners” and “unbelievers” to their evangelical brothers and sisters.

Practicing Hospitality Toward Evangelicals

In her book, Hospitality the Sacred Art (Skylight Paths, 2008), Nanette Sawyer includes a chapter entitled “Hospitality to Enemies,” around which I would like to structure the remainder of this essay. It may appear odd to approach the topic of practicing hospitality to evangelicals as “hospitality to enemies,” but considering the enmity between evangelicals and post-evangelicals, the framework of “enemies” seems quite appropriate. Basing her argument on Martin Luther King’s sermon, “Loving Your Enemies,” Sawyer presents three primary steps toward developing a spirit of hospitality toward one’s adversary: receptivity, reverence, and generosity. As I will highlight below, these three steps are essential for the post-evangelicals to exhibit hospitality toward evangelicals.

Receptivity: Examining One’s Self

Before one can hope to show hospitality in the midst of hostility, Sawyer claims, one must take the time to examine one’s self and one’s potential contributions to the enmity. In essence, this step culminates in the asking of the question, “Why do they hate us?” While in some cases hostility may appear unfounded and one-sided, enmity rarely exists for no reason. Even if the hatred one experiences seems completely unfair, Sawyer suggests à la Dr. King that one always consider the possibility that something may have been done “deep down in the past” to provoke animosity.

In the context of evangelical/post-evangelical discord, it is thus important for younger Christians to examine the history of the older generation of believers. Could something have happened in the first half of the 20th century to elicit the beliefs and practices now typical of evangelicals? Why are they so concerned about protecting the faith against false teachings? And what about post-evangelicalism might trigger negative responses in their collective memory? Through just a bit of historical digging and reflection, the groundwork for tolerance and understanding may be laid.

The second half of self-examination involves considering in which ways one might be perpetuating hostility. Even if the root of the animosity is strictly one-sided, the other side’s response to the hatred may fan the flames of disunity. This idea is at the heart of the New Testament teaching to not repay evil with evil, but to overcome evil with good. Post-evangelicals must, then, reflect upon their actions and reactions toward evangelicals. Could anything about their words or actions be perceived as hostile? It seems unlikely that many of the comments made in opposition to evangelicalism (see the right column of the chart above, for example) could be taken as anything other than unkind. Less obviously, while the mass exodus of young adults from conservative congregations and mega-churches may seem to be a clear indictment of the failure of evangelicalism in the eyes of post-evangelicals, to older members of these congregations, it may appear to be a gesture of hostility on the part of the exiting post-evangelicals.

Regardless of the details and conclusions which result from self-examination, it nearly always produces humility, a pre-requisite for Christian hospitality. As will become even clearer in the next step, honest reflection dispels arrogance and prepares us to extend the same hospitable grace God has extended to us.

Reverence: Looking for the good in others

If I can acknowledge my own shortcomings—the tension between the good I ought to do and the evil of which I am capable—then I am also able to acknowledge the good existent in my enemy. If a community admits they are not “all good,” they are compelled to admit that their enemy is not “all bad.” Thus, the natural next step for a post-evangelical community which recognizes its own inadequacies is to celebrate the divine gifts and callings at work in the evangelical movement.

This action requires a sort of intellectual hospitality, a space-making for outside ideas and practices. Authentic hospitality does not require assimilation before allowing entrance into one’s space; it welcomes the other as other, and celebrates that otherness. To reframe that image in the context of the Christian story, all people have been welcomed into God’s space, regardless of their shortcomings. By seeking out the good in the other—even in an adversary—we discover the image of God in the stranger and participate in the divine welcome.

What good might post-evangelicals find in their evangelical siblings? They might discover that many of the apparent failures of evangelicalism contain value as well. For instance, the evangelical commitment to preserve a certain Christian identity is often (and, I would argue, appropriately) considered a detriment to the spread of the gospel and a primary source of the hostility examined in this essay. However, might this attribute also have its value? It could be reasonably contended that a preserving a stable identity is essential to practicing hospitality. No one feels at home when invited into an empty house; a hospitable host provides not only a space for a guest, but a furnished space, a space that has been lived in and that has an identity. In the same way, if a community has no consistent understanding of its own identity, it has nothing to offer the stranger but a cold, empty space. Hospitable post-evangelicals—often characterized as having no identity-statements, only identity-questions—might learn from their evangelical counterparts the value of holding firm to certain essential beliefs. This is, of course, but one example; there are a number of other valuable qualities unique to evangelicalism.

Generosity: Embodying Non-Retaliation

The third, and possibly most important, step suggested by Sawyer is resisting the urge to retaliate. This step may be illustrated in many ways—such as the active nonviolence of Dr. King and Gandhi—but may be summarized as a refusal to defeat one’s enemies, when the opportunity arises. Rejecting opportunities to turn the tables on one’s aggressor immediately ends the cycle of enmity and detracts from the amount of hatred in the world. Substituting love for hatred is essential to replacing hostility with hospitality.

In the eyes of many post-evangelicals, opportunities to best their evangelical adversaries frequently arise. The “tried-and-true” arguments of many older Christians have been tried and found wanting by the younger generation, and may easily be discredited with a bit of theological probing and a dash of charisma. In fact, it has been argued that many evangelicals need no help making themselves look silly; it requires little effort for an educated post-evangelical to step in and draw attention the weakness of many of the staples of evangelicalism.

However, practicing generous hospitality means that when an opportunity arises to defeat an evangelical on the battlefield of philosophy and wits, the post-evangelical declines. Rather than conquering or belittling an adversary, the hospitable Christian utilizes such moments as occasions for grace and love. Perhaps the most effective way to dispel hostility is to celebrate the insights of an adversary’s argument, rather than exploiting its weaknesses. In such moments, post-evangelicals may lose a temporary debate, but make great strides toward gaining an everlasting friend.

Refusing to defeat one’s enemies must not find root in an internal sense of superiority, however. Offering love instead of hatred does not equate to “letting them win” like a little sibling in a game of basketball. Instead, it requires a genuinely generous posture toward the views of the other. Finding the bits of good in even the weakest of arguments invites one’s adversary-turned-ally to seek out core of quality central to one’s own missteps and misspeaking.

Likewise, refusal to retaliate is not the same as refusal to resist. Hospitality does not require one to roll over and let attacks continue uncontested. Hospitality that demands that both host and guest—or in the case of Christian hospitality, co-guest and co-guest—retain personal identity must make room for conflict. However, conflict within the context of generously finding the good in the other and refusing to perpetuate hatred results in mutual edification, rather than mutual denigration. In other words, if a post-evangelical aims to learn from, rather than overcome, her evangelical sister, both individuals may be strengthened and the cycle of hostility might be unraveled.

Responding to the Call to Hospitality

Steps such as the three highlighted above are central to cultivating an atmosphere of hospitality among evangelicals and post-evangelicals. While both parties must cooperate to establish unity, it is initially up to post-evangelicals to offer hospitality toward their evangelical brothers and sisters, with whom they share in God’s enveloping welcome. The purpose of such hospitality stretches far beyond merely uniting two typically hostile Christian groups; it offers Justin and his family—and the thousands of individuals like them—a real hope of reconciliation. I believe it is for opportunities such as this that Jesus prayed that “all (believers) may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you… May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

May it be so.

1 The name of the subject of this anecdote has been changed to protect the innocent, who in this case is most likely the author of this article.

3 Although, I was very proud of myself when I came up with that definition of hospitality a couple months ago.