[Editor’s Note: This school year, many students are learning online and at home–which is uniquely challenging. In this #schoolathome series, we are asking: What difference does Jesus make in our new normal? How can we live out this season well? To not just survive, but thrive? We hope you discover some helpful and practical tips along the way.]

Online hospitality. Is that an oxymoron?

With physical classrooms closed, suddenly the primary way I’m connecting with my peers and instructors is online. Which is a terrible trade. Not only does academic content feel compromised, but so does my ability to relate well to others. 

I want to be a person of hospitality, someone who welcomes others into my life, even if I’m not the official “host” in a situation. As a Christian, I’m trying to emulate Jesus, who made space for all sorts of people in his life. Most values—such as being hospitable—transcend context, so I set out to research how to be welcoming online.

A Google search for “being welcoming online” didn’t offer any advice about virtual relationships. So I tried “being welcoming virtually.” I found some suggestions for virtual office parties, but not about fostering relationships online. I searched for that phrase. Nothing. How about simply “online hospitality?” I only got results for online courses in the hospitality industry (i.e. restaurants and hotels). The closest I could get to some answers were in articles about etiquette for video calls or discussion forums. Did you know that “netiquette” is a word? 

So. How can I be welcoming online if no one’s talking about it? In a virtual world, is hospitality an impossibility? The Bible and Christian tradition speak highly of being hospitable, yet they came long before the internet. How does being a Christian affect my online presence? 

I think my search results came up so empty because there is a cultural definition of hospitality that looks different from the biblical use of the word. Culturally, hospitality means something about welcoming others into a carefully curated home, à la Martha Stewart or Marie Kondo. Many of the articles about Zoom etiquette did offer suggestions in line with this place-based understanding of hospitality, even if the word itself isn’t mentioned. Suggestions like Keep your background clear of clutter, or Turn off your video when eating or scratching, or Set up your lighting to be flattering. All of these are helpful, but they are mainly interested in making you look your best. The ordinary parts of life are hidden in favour of presenting only your best self. I don’t deny that these strategies are helpful for others, but I’m not quite sure that the attitude behind them is truly hospitable.

In the New Testament, the Greek word for hospitality literally means “friend of, or love for, strangers” (philoneksía: phílos=friend and xenos=stranger). It is a relationally-based hospitality, where people are invited not merely into my home, but into my life. 

Who is the neighbour in the story?

Jesus’s famous parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates this kind of love. He had been asked to define who is in—and who is outside—someone’s responsibility of care. The questioner wanted to know who they actually need to love, just as we might want to know who we need to love when we are online. Naturally, Jesus answers by telling a story, which scandalously features an unlikely hero. One conclusion from the parable is that being a neighbour is not a label we put on others, but an identity that we take on ourselves. When Jesus concluded his tale by asking Who was the neighbour in this story? the answer is clearly the one who acted with mercy, kindness, and love towards the other. It seems that I can choose to become a neighbour to any human being, regardless of who they are, whenever our paths cross, or wherever we’re interacting. My job is not to evaluate their worthiness, but to remember my identity as the neighbour and respond to them with mercy, kindness, and love.

It seems that I can choose to become a neighbour to any human being, regardless of who they are, whenever our paths cross, or wherever we’re interacting.  

But let’s be real for a second. Being loving is hard at the best of times. So how on earth am I supposed to love everyone who comes my way? I actually don’t think it’s possible unless I’m aware of Jesus’ love for me. I am the neighbour only when I remember that Jesus is my neighbour. Long before I knew him, when we were strangers to each other, Jesus loved me to the point of death, with a love so strong that he didn’t stay in the grave. In a way, when I forget this neighbourliness, my ability to be hospitable dies. But Jesus—my neighbour—reminds me of his nearness and I rise again. 

So when I am online, who is my neighbour? The answer is: everyone––since I am the neighbour to those I interact with. As I attend video calls, contribute to discussion boards, offer comments and suggestions, or send yet another email, these all become opportunities to demonstrate love with my actions. I’m not necessarily cultivating a feeling of love, but intentionally choosing actions based on who I am, not who they are.

Sure, many of these people will be strangers to me—in fact, who is more strange than an internet persona? But if hospitality is loving and being a friend to the other, then it’s only a special type of “neighbouring” when it’s moved online. Online hospitality is possible, but it’s not what I expected it to be. 

Loving others online

This begs the question: How does one love those online? What does that even mean or look like? 

First, I think it begins with soaking in the reality of having Jesus as our neighbour. Until we know his love for us, our online hospitality won’t get very far. You’ll know you know his love when you find yourself taking on the identity of “neighbour” for others as well. 

But after that, there is no one right way to love others. Rather it becomes a matter of infusing graciousness and service into our ordinary routines, displacing the harshness that so often creeps into our actions. A good first step might actually be applying the ideas from those articles on Zoom etiquette or discussion board tips. At the very least, love probably involves not being a jerk. Just keep in mind who your actions are for: others, not you. 

Maybe you are already a pro at politeness. For you, loving people online might look like: 

  • giving your full attention to each individual, whether they be typing or speaking 
  • “speaking” with careful attention to how your tone, attitude, and means of communication come across
  • finding positive words of encouragement and thanks in every situation
  • persevering through disagreements or misunderstandings
  • refusing to publicly shame or name-call. These have never helped anyone anyways.

A further effort towards love might look like taking greater initiative to reach out, to actively get to know those you are regularly working with. Depending on context this might be: 

  • a private message of welcome or encouragement 
  • an open invitation to study or watch lectures with your classmates
  • hosting a virtual (or if possible a physical) lunch hour or coffee break
  • a note of thanks or encouragement for your prof or TA

A wise friend once shared a helpful diagnostic question. Regardless of how people respond to me, at the end of the day, what matters is my personal answer to the question: But did I love them? Though many of my interactions are online, I want to be able to say Yes, I did love them. I loved them as Jesus my neighbour has loved me.  

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About the Author

Sam Robins

Sam loves writing reflections on life and faith, whether as articles, short stories, poetry, or even as academic papers at McMaster Divinity College, in Hamilton, ON. When not writing or reading, you’ll probably find Sam exploring some kind of outdoor space, preferably on a bicycle in the city or in work boots on a farm.

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