When my kids were small and we’d host guests, there was always a moment just before we’d fling open the door when I’d need to wipe my forehead and upper lip. (Places, everyone!)

I literally perspired—partially from anxiety. But mostly because no matter how many Tinker Toys I’d lobbed toward their container or diapers I’d changed, someone always wiped their nose on my T-shirt or conspiratorially ran down the stairs without pants 30 seconds before guests pulled up.

When you have little kids, gathering around the table anyone who doesn’t need their sippy cup filled is tough, y’all.

Yet reasons like these can be exactly what keeps us from the power of sharing our table, even our hamburgers, with someone else.

We’re busy. And hospitality is so stinkin’ exhausting, the preparation mundane. We can’t seem to get (and keep) all rooms of our house clean at the same time. Our cooking may involve hot dogs sliced into mac and cheese or Domino’s on speed dial. Cooking? Like, three dishes in one meal so I don’t look like I always serve something from the InstaPot? Ain’t nobody got time for that.

But not gathering around the table—or sharing a false, curated one—can have the opposite power: short-circuiting true community.

What hospitality isn’t

During my family’s time in Africa, my friend Monica invited us to her home, where she lived with her three daughters in one room. We ate outdoors from well-used plasticware while ducks waddled around our benches in the dust. Monica didn’t have a table. We washed dishes together using soap and massive jugs of water. We watched Tom and Jerry on her tiny television.

Over bowls of rice and beans, Monica’s hospitality sparkled. She honored us. Gave generously. Enjoyed us.

Monica altered the perspective of my sweating, toddler-raising days. Confession: There’s an element of image tempting my hospitality energies. Even my attempts to be casual can mimic hours spent to give a supermodel that “just rolled out of bed” look. My hospitality has occasionally been a curated imperfection.

In short, hospitality can entice me, so subtly, to be a bit about … me.

And in that, I can quietly don a mask. Rather than hospitality conveying authentic connection and presence, I choose an agenda. Artifice.

The goal of gathering friends around the table isn’t our family’s glory as the host: Look how much we have our act together! Aren’t we impressive in our ability to serve you?

It’s loving well in the name of Jesus. To offer a cup of cold water in His name.

Ruth Haley Barton reflects in Life Together in Christ: Experiencing Transformation in Community, “Paying attention to these inner dynamics [of opening our homes] can tell us about ourselves. How comfortable am I with myself and my life as God has given it to me right now?”

Maybe people spontaneously showing up when beds lay unmade means my home’s attraction is an inner beauty. Perhaps the power of a prepared, approachable place lies not in the Pinterest-curated souffle in the oven, but space for relationships.

Why gathering around the table matters

Sharing our table is about accepting and welcoming all sorts of people (Luke 14:13), creating for them a warm sense of home. Rather than through showy perfection, this is about genuine care and presence with others. As God does for us, hospitality extends unseen resources, filling up our sense of confidence, care, connectedness, joy—often through our five senses.

The Bible communicates vital intimacy when we invite others around the table.

  • In Genesis, Abraham hurried to invite his three heavenly visitors to the close fellowship of a meal (18:1-8).
  • In seven feasts a year (three mandatory), God’s people recounted His faithfulness around the table (Leviticus 23).
  • Jesus, particularly after His resurrection, shared many meals with His disciples. But even before, He was scorned for His close fellowship with sinners; think of the privilege of Jesus going to Zacchaeus’ home. People commented, “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2, emphasis added).
  • In Revelation 3:20, Jesus encourages, “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”

There’s something intimate about the generosity of sharing our provisions and even inviting someone into our homes. Our photos on the wall, our zany middle schooler, our medicine cabinet to snoop in (kidding!)—the environment we create and call our own.

As God describes the early church, Acts 2 mentions community and “breaking bread” as one of its cornerstones. And check out the results: “They devoted themselves … to the breaking of bread and the prayers … breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (verses 42, 46-47, emphasis added).

Wondering how to mentor? Download our free guide.

Starved of Community

Could reluctance to invite others around the table reflect how community itself has sunk in priority? That busyness—our tasks—edge out the time or need to draw others into our oh-so-real families?

Societally, we’re more isolated than ever, subsisting on perceived, surface-level connection often without actual presence. Our passing “How are you’s?” and 140-character tweets curtail our hunger for others.

In Lost Connections, author Johann Hari relates how, for decades, social scientists have been asking, “How many people in your life could you call in a time of crisis?” In the 1970s, the most common answer was three. Today’s most common answer? Zero.

Hari continues, “every one of the social and psychological causes of depression and anxiety [social psychologists] have discovered has something in common. They are all forms of disconnection.”

When we don’t dive into community, our isolation moves directly—dysfunctionally—against the mutual dependence of the Body of Christ: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Corinthians 12:21). I get it. Isolation can feel safer than needing others, than exposing us to judgment or rejection or misunderstanding.

But disconnection stops us from experiencing God’s fullness through community. It keeps the world from seeing the beauty of God’s church. And it prevents the authentic relationships we’re created for.

I’ve found visitors may not remember whether my bathroom mirrors were spatter-free or if I served homemade cookies. But they remember if I was sincerely, undistractedly present with them. They remember if I was interested in their story. Whether they felt loved and received.

Gathering around the table doesn’t have to be complicated

There’s an element of our relationships that longs to be untucked, just-as-I-am … and finally unashamed. To finally be accepted as we are, embarrassing needs and all. Happily dependent.

Do we really want to live life and raise our kids alone? How can we make hospitality doable so we’re not just shoehorning something else into hectic family life … and everyone arrives wearing pants?

Maybe gathering community around your table looks like:

  • Mastering the one-pot dish or cake-mix cookies.
  • Being cool with compostable plates and board games.
  • Ordering pizza or takeout.
  • Texting someone when you put on a pot of chili, are planning to grill on Saturday (potluck! Bring your own meat!), or want to celebrate something going right in their lives or yours.
  • Having friends for coffee after the kids are in bed or just planning on doubling the casserole recipe.
  • Making “community” a goal: You’d like to host a family one night a month, or every other week.

More than activities commanding our schedules, we can choose a priority of time and presence. Let’s gather community around the table—and get un-alone.

Copyright © 2021 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.

Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House), releases October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.