The Western Church faces a growing challenge and opportunity. Our cities, once culturally Christian and populated by people more-or-less similar to us, are now inundated with immigrants and refugees, many of whom are Muslims from the Middle East. For example, any major American metro area is likely to have at least several thousand new residents who are Arab, Persian, Turkish, Kurdish, Somali, or of other Middle Eastern ethnicity. The cultural distance between these newcomers and North Americans is not to be understated. Yet the same gospel which compels us to send missionaries to the Middle East also compels us to reach the Middle-Easterners who are now our neighbors. How then can the Church be equipped to practically reach out so that evangelistic conversations and relationships can take place, and so that Middle-Easterners can repent and believe in Jesus Christ? Equipping the Church in good hospitality is one way to make a major impact in reaching local Middle-Easterners with the gospel.
Why hospitality? Modern Westerners are generally weak in hospitality compared to many other cultures. Conversely, in the culture and worldview of a Middle-Easterner, hospitality remains an extremely important value. Often Middle-Eastern families live for years in Western nations without ever being invited into a Western home. If a Westerner were to not only host a Middle- Easterner, but host them well, this would make a major impact and open the door wide for friendship and spiritual conversation. But not only is good hospitality strategic, it is also biblical. Let us remember that Jesus himself ate meals with sinners and Pharisees (Matt 7, Luke 19). In these settings, while eating together, he shared powerful truth about the kingdom of God. We ourselves are commanded in Hebrews, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:2).
Important Gospel and Culture Disclaimer
Before we begin with some basic cultural guidelines, we should acknowledge that these rules are not meant to be unbending laws that Christians must follow or else be doomed to fail in their evangelistic outreach. They are meant to equip, not to paralyze. We should expect to commit cultural blunders. Often our friends will graciously ignore these blunders, will be understanding, and will give us the benefit of the doubt. Genuine love covers a multitude of cultural faux pas. Follow these rules with freedom and trust in God. Do not trust in your cultural expertise or lack thereof. Your friends’ salvation is in God’s hands and only possible through his power. Under-gird all of your cultural efforts with believing prayer and earnestly seek to love your guests through honoring their culture (Rom 12:10).
Keeping this perspective in mind, the following are some basic guidelines to follow when hosting a Middle-Easterner.
Culture and Values
At the values level, Middle Easterners strive to be above reproach in their hospitality and generosity. The opposite attributes of being inhospitable or stingy are shameful and to be avoided at all costs. When hosting friends from the Middle East, generosity, warmth, gratitude, and attentiveness are important ways to communicate love. Keep in mind that some aspects of American culture, specifically our casual “make yourself at home” hospitality and valuing of frugality, can actually be offensive and rude in Middle Eastern culture. Strive to be a host who is generous, welcoming, thoughtful, intentional, and joyful. If these things characterize your hospitality, you will do well.
In many Middle-Eastern cultures it is very appropriate to invite someone to your home at the first meeting or anytime afterward. An Afghan proverb states that “the first day we are friends, the second day we are brothers.” Middle Easterners extend hospitality quickly and can throw themselves into deep friendships quickly. Sometimes your friend will decline your invitation the first time in order to avoid the appearance of taking advantage of you. Kindly press your friend and usually they will happily relent, realizing that you truly do want them to come and are not merely being polite. Be sure to communicate how honored and happy you would be to have them in your home.
In preparing for a visit, it is wise to think through how you will dress. In Middle-Eastern culture the way you dress communicates respect for yourself and for your guest. When hosting a friend for the first time men should dress smartly. Wearing a collared shirt is a good rule of thumb. Women should dress smartly, but modestly. It’s often appropriate to wear a longer skirt, or if wearing jeans, with a longer top that covers the hips. It is also important that tops be modest and not too tight, with sleeves that go to the elbow or forearm and without revealing necklines. Women should also be careful not to have wet hair when a guest arrives, since wet hair can sometimes carry loaded cultural connotations. Wearing socks in the home, for hosts and guests, is generally more polite than being barefoot. Even if you normally wear shoes in your house, doing so while hosting might be an unnecessary (even scandalous) distraction, so it would be best to remove them.
Your mother was right. A clean home really does convey respect to guests, at least if they are from the Middle East. Middle Eastern women keep their homes and especially their hosting rooms immaculate. Clean before your guests arrive and put away the clutter so common in Western living rooms. No tour of the house is expected, as in many American hosting situations, so it is OK if you are unable to clean the entire house. As long as the areas you host in are respectfully clean, you will do well.
When your guests arrive, greet them warmly at the door. They will automatically take off their shoes. You do not need to insist that they leave them on. It is usually rude in Middle Eastern culture to wear shoes in the home. The foot and the shoe is viewed as dirty and shameful (Hence the shoes thrown at George W. Bush, the beating of dictators’ statues with shoes, etc.). It is very important that all stand when greeting and that men shake the hands of all men who arrive. Shaking with two hands by cupping your guest’s hand in both of yours is also very polite. Women can shake the hands of women who arrive, but men should avoid shaking hands with women unless they extend theirs. Women likewise should avoid shaking hands with male guests unless they initiate. Take your cues from your guests about whether they find it appropriate for members of the opposite sex to shake hands. Instead, a hand placed on the heart can substitute for a handshake. In general, stay away from hugging until a strong friendship is established.
Sometimes guests will bring a gift if it is their first time to your home. Thank them for it and set it aside, not making a huge deal out of it lest your guest be embarrassed.
Middle Eastern culture views the seat furthest from the door as the most honorable. You should invite your guests to sit in that seat, or in whichever seat is most comfortable. Often your guest will politely refuse and sit in another seat, not wanting to appear presumptuous. During the visit, watch out for unintentionally pointing the bottom of your foot at your guest. This is a shameful gesture. This can happen when Westerners (especially men) cross their legs such that one foot is resting on one knee. An easy way around this is to sit with your foot underneath the knee you would normally rest it on top of.
As soon as your guest is seated it is polite to bring them a glass of juice or water. Do not ask if they would like something to drink, since in order to be polite, a Middle Easterner will often refuse a direct offer for food or drink the first time in order to not appear greedy. Without asking, simply bring it and set it before your guest. Something cold to drink (water, juice, soda), something to munch on (sunflower seeds, pistachios, cookies) and some tea are usually the normal minimum food and drink requirements for a typical Middle-Eastern visit. Once again, if you ask your Middle Eastern friend if they would like something to eat or drink, they will sometimes say no out of politeness. It is safer just to set out the food. If your friend is not hungry, they will take just a little of it. There is often nothing rude in Middle Eastern culture in drinking only a small portion of a glass or in eating only a portion of one’s plate.
As regards food and drink, Middle Easterners (and hence you as host) always err on the side of abundance and avoid having too little at all costs, even borrowing from neighbors if need be. Keep attentive to refill your guest’s cup. Again, do this without asking. If you serve a meal, remember to prepare more than can be eaten. Don’t be alarmed or insulted if your guest leaves food on their plate. This is their way of signaling that they are satisfied. Or it may just be that they’re still getting used to Western food. In order to be polite, guests will often wait for the host to be the first one to start eating and the last one to finish. Stay away from serving pork or alcohol at all times unless specifically requested by your guest. Black tea or coffee always, always follows a meal. Middle Easterners have a serious sweet tooth and typically take lots of sugar in their tea along with sweets while relaxing after a meal. But as diabetes increases in Middle Eastern populations it’s becoming polite to ask if your guest would like any sugar in their tea or coffee. In some cultures, when the host serves fruit later in the evening, this signals that the visit is drawing to a close.
If you are wondering what to prepare, it is usually a safe bet to go with a rice dish, a meat dish (again, no pork!), and a salad or vegetables. Also buy some flat bread or pita bread if you can find some at a local grocery store (or halal market – google it) and serve this along with the meal. Many Middle Eastern recipes are also available online and can be very helpful and delicious.
It is always appropriate to pray before a meal. Simply inform your guests before you begin the meal that you are going to ask God’s blessing for the meal. Do not be afraid to pray in the name of Jesus, a name most Middle Easterners greatly respect. It is highly unlikely that this will offend your guests. Many will even appreciate this and ask questions about how Christians are supposed to pray.
Engage your guests in conversation. If you don’t know where to start, ask questions about their home country and their family. Show an interest in who they are and where they came from and make connections where you can. Doing some internet research beforehand about your guest’s home country and society can equip you with good questions which can then lead to profitable conversation. Middle Easterners are often more willing than Americans to discuss politics and religion so don’t get uncomfortable if these topics come up. At the same time, be sober-minded, tactful, and gentle when discussing sensitive issues. Many Middle Easterners have lived through terrible suffering and personal tragedy. Your willingness to listen well can be used of God to truly minister to your guest.
Beware of making direct compliments regarding clothing or jewelry as sometimes this will put an obligation on your guest to offer you the item you just complimented. Asking where they bought said item or being sure to add that it looks nice on them politely avoids implying that you want your guest to give you a certain possession. Having your hands in your pockets or your arms crossed can imply that you’re not listening to your guest. Avoid these postures if you can. Also be aware that unless you are close friends with your guest, physical affection between spouses in front of guests is not appropriate. Physical affection among those dating or engaged is never appropriate when hosting Middle Easterners.
Middle Eastern visits are long, prioritizing people over schedules. Understand that for the first few visits you will need to set aside most of the evening to focus on your guests, not trying to fit them into a one hour slot in your calendar. By giving much time to focus on your guests, you are communicating that you really value them and their friendship. To a Middle-Easterner who has been living in the West, finding a friend who will spend long amounts of time simply visiting and talking is like finding water in a thirsty land.
Children are highly valued in Middle-Eastern culture and much delighted in. If you have small children or babies especially, your guests will often shower them with affection. Often, modern Middle-Eastern children are undisciplined and somewhat spoiled, so don’t be worried about your guests if your kids get a little out of hand. Your guests in fact may encourage this. Be prepared to handle the aftermath and the sugar crashes, but by all means let your children make friends with your guests. It would also be wise to think through fun and engaging kids’ activities if your guests are bringing their children.
Many Middle Eastern cultures consider cats and dogs dirty or shameful. Because of this, pets should be put outside or confined to a room when guests are present. The Western tolerance for these kinds of family pets is much lower among many Middle Easterners. This is changing among the younger generation, but it is wise to be careful. Birds, however, are a very common pet in the Middle East.
It is always polite to walk your guest to the door, or even to their car. Be repeatedly expressive in your gratefulness for your guests and invite them to come again. It is often appropriate to ask to pray on the spot for your guests and many times this is received warmly among Middle Easterners. In this way Christians can be better hosts than others, through our kind intercession for our guests to our loving Father in heaven. An open home and considerate prayer can really open doors for extensive sharing of the gospel. Don’t be surprised if your friends also invite you to their home for the next get-together. Many Middle-Easterners readily enter into mutual hosting relationships, where friends and family regularly visit and host one another.
Sharing the Gospel
Strive to keep the sharing of the gospel as a much-desired result of hospitality, but not as a mandatory obligation. Be sensitive to the Holy Spirit, pray for open doors to speak the gospel, and by no means communicate that your hospitality or friendship is contingent on how they respond to the gospel. Jesus explicitly commands us to host those who cannot repay us (Luke 14:12-14). That means our hospitality as Christians is not an attempt to manipulate any kind of physical or spiritual return. Freely you have received, freely give.
Counter-intuitively, when we extend no-strings-attached hospitality to Middle Eastern friends, this often leads to greater spiritual receptivity and to long and fruitful conversations about Jesus. Let your sharing of the gospel be an overflow of your delight in Jesus and not religious point-scoring. Share your testimony. Hold up Jesus as beautiful and powerful and accompany the tasting of food with an invitation to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8). Share confidently, but with gentleness, respect, and love (1 Pet 3:15). Do not be surprised at initial resistance to the gospel on the part of your friend. Instead, pray and pursue more opportunities to spend time together. Genuine hospitality and friendship will lead to numerous opportunities to share the gospel clearly and compellingly.
Everything shared in this post comes from a desire to see Western Christians equipped to host Middle-Easterners in their homes. There will be slight variations from region to region regarding these cultural guidelines, so don’t treat these recommendations as law. Some immigrants and refugees will want to do certain things the Western way. These guidelines, however, have been checked and affirmed by many who have lived among Middle-Easterners or who are from the Middle East themselves. God willing, this information can serve as a good foundation to invite a Middle Eastern friend or family to your home. If Middle Easterners and believers begin to sit down in homes and to have meals together, much spiritual fruit can follow. As we break bread together God will give us opportunities to speak of the bread of life, the one whose body was broken for us, the one who promises that he himself will host many from the East and the West at his Father’s table (Matt 8:11, Luke 12:37).