Perhaps the most difficult area for me as an introverted Christian woman and pastor’s wife has been the biblical call to hospitality and our culture’s interpretation of this calling.
Popular Christian discussions of hospitality are often centered around women, especially homemakers, and include strikingly extroverted elements of actively inviting over neighbors and strangers, making meals for a crowd, instituting an open-door policy, and embracing noise and mess.
While I have benefitted from and been challenged by such views, they often feel like impossible standards I will never be able to meet.
But then I remember that Jesus had no home on earth to invite others into. When he sat with the woman at the well or crossed the sea to purge a single man of his demons, he wasn’t trying hard to attract crowds at a neighborhood block party. Sometimes, no one could find him—he was off on his own, displaying suspiciously introvert-like tendencies.
And yet he embodied hospitality—which translates from the Greek to love of the stranger—in everything he did, to everyone he met.
Henri Nouwen wrote in Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life that the term hospitality “should not be limited to its literal sense of receiving a stranger in the house—although it is important never to forget or neglect that!—but as a fundamental attitude toward our fellow human being, which can be expressed in a great variety of ways.”
When we remember Jesus, the concept of hospitality breaks out of its enclosed husk and is revealed for what it truly is: the eyes to see the marginalized and lonely, the heart to embrace those in pain, the ability to offer an unhurried and loving presence in a world that is busily rushing by. And this is something we can and must cultivate as believers, no matter our personality or temperament.
Being an introvert does not exempt me from following Christ in loving my neighbors, but it also does not mean I have to love others just like extroverts do. The gospel doesn’t always have to come with an actual house key—but it does have to come with a key to our hearts.
The extroverted ideal of hospitality
Susan Cain traces the rise of the Extroverted Ideal throughout history and in many cultures in her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.
As a culture, we have come to see the ideal self as gregarious, energetic, action-oriented, and thriving when among people. “Introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness—is now a second-class personality trait,” writes Cain.
Discussions around Christian hospitality usually lean toward the same extroverted ideals. For example, The Turquoise Table by Kristin Schell sparked a nationwide movement of placing a picnic table in the front yard to connect with neighbors and strangers. Other books and articles suggest frequently hosting dinners and issuing a standing invitation to all the neighborhood kids.
More introverted writers such as Rosaria Butterfield, who wrote The Gospel Comes with a House Key, acknowledge that introverts may need “to prepare for [ministry] differently than others might,” but still advocate for the same extroverted lifestyles of nightly meals with the community, neighborhood block parties, and regularly hosting homeless families.
Not to say that such “radically ordinary” things are not commendable—they are, immensely so. But all these seem to suggest that the only way to faithfully show hospitality is to transform our homes into Christian communes of a sort, or at least to actively support those who do.
As an entire family of introverts, a brief experiment in inviting congregants to our house every week failed spectacularly for us. What could a life of ordinary, radical hospitality look like for us? For someone like me, who suffers physical symptoms of illness when subjected to prolonged social interaction, is the only answer to simply pad a subpar extroverted lifestyle with more me-time?
The power of introverted hospitality
In an interview, Rosaria Butterfield speaks of her neighbors Ken and Floy Smith, who were instrumental in bringing her to faith and inspiring her own vision of hospitality. “At their home, the door was wide open. People were always in and out of the house—people from church and people not from church.” Ken, a minister, would warmly welcome all who came.
This is extroverted hospitality at its best and most beautiful. But I would argue that it’s not for everyone, and it’s not the only way.
In contrast, I remember my friend Rebekah. When I was in college, I took a year off to live and serve at an orphanage in South Korea. The first few months were some of the most difficult in my life as I struggled with loneliness and depression.
During this time, I had a friend in Seoul named Rebekah who I would visit from time to time. In her little apartment, I would sit on the yellow couch and look out the window as she puttered around in the next room. Sometimes she’d have some soft music playing. We took walks together in the beautiful Korean fall and had deep discussions over tea in cafes. We read books, watched movies, and ate together. Her quiet friendship was a balm for my soul.
Both Rebekah and I are introverts. Had she opened her home to a steady stream of interruptions and invited over 10 of her friends each time I visited, her hospitality would have quickly lost its depth, power, and intimacy. Her door was guarded, and it magnified her ability to be hospitable toward me in the ways I needed at the time. She modeled to me how a life of love can flow from the rhythms and guardrails of solitude.
Through remembering friends like Rebekah, my husband and I have learned to give ourselves permission to embrace our own introversion in our hospitality and ministry. Instead of forcing ourselves to host weekly dinners, we take conversations outside the home and mostly during the workday.
Each month we ask God who he might be leading us to, and then we pursue spiritual friendships in places like nature trails, coffee shops, or a quiet corner of the church. And we really enjoy these times with beloved friends both new and old.
When we do have people over, it’s scheduled, intentional, casual, and usually in smaller groups. We balance these with time alone and time with our family, carefully tending our schedules as best we can while leaving room to be flexible. Our door is not always open, but our neighbors and friends know we’re here for them with all our hearts when they need us.
Introversion is not an unfortunate handicap to our culture’s extroverted ideals of hospitality. It is a uniquely powerful form of hospitality on its own. As introverts, we give in depth what we lack in breadth. We meet with the one man on the other side of the sea and the woman at the well, rather than the thousands on the hillside or the crowds ripping off the roof.
We are mindful of the ways God has created us and unashamed to embrace our need for time alone. Our solitude is not only life-giving for us, but overflows into the life of the world. Our kind of hospitality is vital to the health of the church.
The communal call and moveable tent of hospitality
We often make hospitality a highly individualistic call. But the church is called to practice hospitality together. We need extroverts, introverts, and all those in between.
Maybe you, like me, wouldn’t be the best fit for the church welcoming team and struggle to invite neighbors over. But maybe you are an administrator, organizing events that bring others together. Maybe you are an artist, creating beauty that draws out the longings of our hearts.
Maybe you are a gifted listener, opening yourself to interruptions from colleagues as opportunities to show compassion. Maybe you’re a professor, offering a space for your students to not only learn but to be heard and loved. Maybe you make it a point to always stop and talk to the homeless man on the street.
Whatever your temperament, whatever your vocation and gifts, we all need a greater vision for hospitality that extends beyond the walls of our houses. We need a vision for hospitality that is more like Jesus.
When we free ourselves from other people’s conceptions of hospitality, we can be free to discover our own unique ways to bless those around us. And we can begin to carry a heart of hospitality wherever we go.
I will never forget how our family was sitting together in a hotel room one morning while on vacation, when the housekeeper came in to clean. She had a nasty attitude toward us as she made the beds, and I felt my own heart begin to seethe. My mother-in-law, an introvert, had been quietly watching from a corner.
All of a sudden, my mother-in-law got up, took hold of the other side of the sheet, and said to the housekeeper with a smile, “Let me help you.” The housekeeper was stunned speechless, as was I. This was a hospitable heart in action, and it was disarming in its power and beauty.
Jesus has promised that when we love and obey him, he makes his home in us (John 14:23). It is to this home, above all, that we invite others when we meet them with a spirit of generosity, welcome, and care. His home on earth is more like a moveable tent than a fixed mansion, going with us wherever we are, and he is the tender host to all who enter.
Thanks be to God for his church, for all the manifold ways he shows hospitality to a lonely and hostile world. Thanks be for the long table of his great feast, which we can taste even now—be it in a bustling home in the suburbs or in a quiet apartment in Seoul.
Sara Kyoungah White is the senior editor of the Lausanne Movement. She has a BA from Cornell University and has worked as a freelance editor, journalist, and writer. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with her husband, Brian, and two children.