Learning Civics and Christian Hospitality: A Better Way

Mark VanderWerfThe CACE RoundtableLeave a Comment

My classroom was buzzing with an energetic discussion of a hotly debated social topic when a back-row student confidently raised her hand. When I called upon her, she sharply protested another student’s earlier comment: “That’s a stupid idea, and clearly you don’t take seriously what the Bible says on the issue.”

Silence fell upon the classroom.

There was no charity or even curiosity in her comment, only contempt. In the speaker’s mind, there was no room for possible disagreement.

Patterns of this world: Division and polarization

Surely we’ve all experienced moments like this one, perhaps in classrooms with our students or around a table with friends or family. Deeply held beliefs are increasingly dividing our communities, our countries, and even our churches. We intuitively feel this division, and numerous studies are proving it to be true. A 2020 study by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture found that 69% of Americans perceived political polarization and divisiveness as the major threat to the country’s future, beating out concerns over racism, poverty, and external global threats.

“69% of Americans perceived political polarization and divisiveness as the major threat to the country’s future.”

Political scientists refer to this widening gap of division and the resulting distrust of others as “affective polarization,” suggesting that our differences are not just about ideas, but also about our loves (or lack thereof) and our fears. Even though David Hunt pointed out after the 2020 election in a prior CACE blog that Christian school graduates “show the greatest propensity to have an obligation to take action against wrong and injustice,” I suspect that I’m not alone in recognizing that each of us, including our students, are being shaped by our culture’s unhealthy pattern of anger, contempt, and division.

How then do we teach and equip our students to engage in a civic climate that is increasingly marked by polarization?

Transformed by God’s hospitality

Perhaps we ought to take our cue from the Apostle Paul, who instructed Christians living in the imperial capital city of Rome to not conform to the patterns of this world. Instead, he gave them a list of what a God-transformed life could look like (Rom 12:9-21). In the middle of that list was this seemingly simple but revolutionary command: “Practice hospitality” (Rom. 12:13). The hospitality Paul spoke of was quite literally the love of the stranger or “the other.” The Greeki philoxenia (hospitality) is made up of the words philio (love) and xenos (stranger). The meaning is literally the opposite of xenophobia, the fear of “the other.” This hospitable love is a love that welcomes and “makes room” for others, just as God has graciously welcomed us.

“Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”

Romans 12:13 NIV

Paul’s call to “practice hospitality” was an invitation for Christians to respond to and reflect the very character and actions of our God. In the opening pages of Scripture, God demonstrated hospitality by “making room” for all of creation and humanity to thrive. After rescuing the Israelites from Egypt, God “made room” for the Israelites in Canaan and called them, in turn, to welcome the stranger into their midst.

In the New Testament, Jesus perfectly embodied this radical hospitality. He welcomed and ate with sinners and tax collectors. He taught his students to love their enemies and pray for those who persecuted them. And with arms opened wide on the cross, Christ died to welcome and embrace sinners.

From beginning to end, God graciously showed costly hospitality toward us. God’s gracious welcome of us is a transforming embrace that sets us free to extend hospitality toward others.

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Romans 12:21 NIV

Returning to our classrooms, what if our civic education and civic engagement didn’t conform to the cultural patterns of contempt and division, but was transformed by the Christlike virtue of hospitality? How can our teaching and learning affirm truth, nurture faith, and at the same time still live well in a fractured society?

The Civic Hospitality Project

These very questions gave birth to The Civic Hospitality Project, a free civics education resource developed in partnership between the Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics and the Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning. The curriculum goal is to not just to have students talk about hospitality, but to cultivate their habits of generosity, hospitality, and love for one’s neighbor. The resource was developed with high school civics courses in mind, but its lessons and ideas could be easily used in other social studies, humanities, and religion courses.

“How can our teaching and learning affirm truth, nurture faith, and at the same time still live well in a fractured society?”

The resource is built around six themes, each theme including multiple lessons. The themes are intended to ground the curriculum in a Christian understanding and biblical practice of hospitality. The themes seek to address different questions:

  • Hospitality: What are the biblical and theological roots of Christian hospitality and how does the practice of hospitality relate to tolerance?
  • Humans: How is our engagement with others in civic spaces related to our basic ideas about human beings? How might our view of others affect our reactions when we disagree?
  • Stories: How do we listen to stories about others, and how do we tell stories about them? How can we honor others better in the stories we hear and tell?
  • Character: What kind of people would we need to become to be able to practice hospitality to others well? What postures and gestures might we need to practice until they become part of us?
  • Decisions: How do we think decisions should get made, and what does that reveal about who we are and how we interact with others? How can we make decisions in ways that make space for others to be heard?
  • Case Study: What could we learn from interviewing a local leader? What kind of questions could be asked and what kind of postures could be exhibited to embody hospitality?

We hope that teachers and schools find the resource to be a helpful tool to invite students into a more hospitable way to engage civics and love their neighbors.

About the authors of The Civic Hospitality Project

The Civic Hospitality Project was developed and field-tested over a two-year span by a collaborative team  of Christian school educators (Kelli Boender, Erik Ellefsen, David Tsui, and Mark VanderWerf); David Smith (Director, Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning, Calvin University); Kevin den Dulk (Associate Provost, Calvin University); Micah Watson (Executive Director, Henry Institute, Calvin University); and Matthew Kaemingk (Director and Chair, Mouw Institute of Faith and Public Life, Fuller Seminary).


  • Mark VanderWerf

    Mark VanderWerf (M.Div, M.Ed) teaches Bible and theology at Grand Rapids Christian High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he is also the high school chaplain. Previously, he taught social studies and literature at Calvin Christian High School in Escondido, California.

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