Dr. Elizabeth Drury on the importance of terminology in multiethnic ministry and discussions.

Generous hospitality can benefit immigrant congregations and their North American hosts, but it’s important to understand your motives first.

Last month, I referred to a common scenario: an immigrant congregation seeks space for worship services, and an established church with ample facilities weighs whether to make room.

I pointed out that more important than determining whether they should rent is considering why. What is the real motivation of both tenant and landlord?

For example, a declining church might need income, and immigrant congregations may want nothing more than space for worship. Both parties must admit this bottom-line need honestly rather than euphemizing it as something more spiritual, or frustrations will fester.

But material need is not the only motivation for renting. I have discovered at least two others. Renting as benevolence is today’s focus.

A desire to be generous

Sometimes the prevailing desire of both parties moves beyond the equal exchange of money for mortar to the unequal exchange exemplified by generous hospitality.

Immigrant congregations with limited means often seek access to facilities free of charge. Although Americans may first perceive this desire as opportunistic, many other cultural groups value generosity so highly that expecting it of others is not an offense but a given.

According to Robert McAffee Brown, many Latin American believers read Scripture through the lenses of generosity and material need. It is no wonder to them that the disciples on the Emmaus Road[1] had their eyes opened to the identity of the risen Jesus only after they offered him—a stranger—shelter for the night and served him a meal. Generous hospitality validated their faith and opened the doors to God’s presence.[2]

Living in Acts 2 mutuality,[3] they assume that their comparatively wealthy brothers and sisters—especially those who own or oversee church buildings—will do the same.

These believers have much to teach the North American church about hospitable, self-sacrificial community.[4]

Generosity in practice

I have rarely seen U.S. churches extend full access to facilities for free, though some do it and reap the rewards. A pastor in Fredericksburg, Virginia, told me of an immigrant congregation:

“They are the sweetest people, and we love seeing them every week. It might add a little expense to share space, but we’re delighted to pay it so that they can grow in their ministry. And they more than make up for it by helping out with maintenance and improvements. We don’t even ask them; they just do it.”

Extending a welcome without expecting anything in return, some churches replace landlord–tenant thinking with that of host and guest. Others—though few and far between—drop such distinctions altogether and legally share ownership of facilities.[5]

But usually, even hosts with benevolent intentions charge a fee, partly because many of those open to renting are declining churches with material needs themselves. They may need help simply keeping the lights on.

In that case, both host and guest must be honest. Rather than denying need and emphasizing only benevolent desires, hosts might say, “We’d love to let you use the space at no cost, but we’re struggling. How can we help each other?” Guests then recognize how details like turning off the air conditioner or assisting with upkeep might ease everyone’s material burden.

Coaching about benevolence

Benevolence is not business. Though these are two distinct motivations, too often, the parties of church rental relationships overlook the difference. They are then surprised to find that differing relationships produce differing actions. Coaching about the differences is thus a constant need.

A big-picture perspective encourages cheerful giving and gracious receiving.

To prevent bitterness regarding the inevitable changes that accompany sharing, host pastors should remind and encourage their people often about the decision to be generous.

A big-picture perspective encourages cheerful giving and gracious receiving. Hosts might tell their congregations, “We’d have a hard time reaching the Liberian people on our own, so praise the Lord that we have the opportunity to fund that work right here by donating space (or renting it at a low cost).”

They might remind their people that unlike a business relationship, benevolence as a rule quickly gives and forgives when needs and difficulties arise.

Guests might encourage hosts by sharing news of conversions, baptisms, and community outreach that have been made possible because of the free or affordable use of facilities.

Coaching among both groups might point out that benevolent sharing of space in the U.S. is countercultural and offers an opportunity for the stretching of faith.

Limits of renting as benevolence

Renting as benevolence or for material gain are just two types of rental relationships. In any form, renting lies at the end of the spectrum that least exemplifies the inclusive discipline of border crossing that Jesus modeled. However, when undertaken with eyes wide open, it can work for certain purposes.

The really good news is that renting for benevolence can deeply bless both host and immigrant congregations. Generous hospitality has a way of building trust, which leads to even better relationships than people originally set out to establish.

Next time, I’ll address a third type: renting as preparation.

Follow me @ElizabethCDrury and check back next month for more on border crossing as a discipline for every believer and every church.

[1] See Luke 24:28-31

[2] Brown, Robert McAffee. 1984. Unexpected news: Reading the Bible with third world eyes. Westminster John Knox Press.

[3] Acts 2:44-46 NIV

[4] See Pohl, Christine D. 1999. Making Room: Recovering hospitality as a Christian tradition. Wm. B. Eerdmans.

[5] Applegate, Jerry. 1990. The church is in a stew: Developing multicongregational churches. Beacon Hill.

An intercultural ministry facilitator, teacher, and researcher, Elizabeth Drury currently teaches part-time at Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University. She earned her PhD from the Cook School of Intercultural Studies at Biola University and lives with her husband, Scott, and four sons in the Washington, DC metro area. She is involved in The Wesleyan Church.

Article originally posted at Ed Stetzer’s The Exchange, a Christianity Today blog. Read part one here.