The Gospel Comes with a House Key

9781433557866_grandeInspirational. Provocative. Enticing. Raw. These are some of the words that quickly come to mind as I reflect on Rosaria Butterfield’s new book, The Gospel Comes with a House Key. Let me confess, I didn’t read this book. I listened to Rosaria read it. She kept me captivated from the minute I left Canberra until I drove into my street in Bonny Hills. Eight hours of ‘radically ordinary hospitality’.

If you haven’t come across Rosaria Butterfield, let me introduce her briefly. She grew up in an atheist family and went to a Catholic school. She found herself attracted to the lesbian and homosexual communities at an early age, pursued studies in literature, and eventually became a professor in English and Women’s Studies at Syracuse University. Rosaria was a influential radical and a leader in LGBTQ rights. In an earlier book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Rosaria describes how she set out to write a book critiquing Christianity, and how in the process she became a Christian herself.

The Gospel Comes with a House Key is a book about the importance of hospitality. Not the hospitality of tea parties and lace tablecloths. This is a long distance from ‘entertaining’ others. This is radical and ordinary, and it is motivated and shaped by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s about welcoming strangers and turning them into neighbours. It’s about welcoming neighbours and inviting them to become extended family.

Rosaria’s conversion came about over many months of dinners at the home of a Presbyterian minister and his wife. They demonstrated to her the deep difference between acceptance and approval. They accepted Rosaria for who she was. Her beliefs, lifestyle, aspirations, and politics were no barrier to real welcome, hospitality, acceptance, and friendship. Her experience of God’s grace through the hospitality of a Christian couple has radically shaped her desire to pass it forward. Together with her husband and family, they welcome anyone and everyone into their home, and they do it not occasionally, but on a daily basis. Their modest and functional home provides a safe haven for many in their community. They share meals, discuss current affairs, explore what it means to be a follower of Jesus, assist the needy, provide a refuge for discarded and abused, provide warmth, and model genuine love and friendship to others.

It’s a costly process. They give time and love in spades. Their food bill each week is double or triple what they would spend on themselves. Rosaria is making extra food literally every single day. When a family is in crisis, she is out delivering homemade meals. She makes regular offers on a social media app to the entire local community of 300 homes to assist the needy. All this on top of caring for her own family, supporting her husband in the ministry of their church, looking out for wider friends and family in need, studying the Scriptures, praying for many people, and even writing books. It’s a family lifestyle. The children consider it normal to reach out to others and invite people into their home. Her husband takes this attitude of hospitality to the jail, where he provides support for men who society has rejected and forgotten.

The Gospel Comes with a House Key is a gripping read because it is so real and raw. Rosaria tells story after story. We learn of her mother who absolutely hated Christianity and made life hell for the family. We meet the bloke across the street, his pit bull, and his drug addicted girl friend, and the account of the DEA raiding the house to dismantle his crystal meth lab. And we learn how God worked through the patience and love of Rosaria’s family to introduce these people and many more to the saving love of Jesus.

There is nothing showy about this hospitality. The regular menu revolves around rice and beans and the occasional chicken. Chairs are optional. Dogs are welcome. It’s barebones, rough, honest, and unpretentious. It’s attractive and daunting at the same time. Rosaria doesn’t have all the time and resources at her disposal, but she finds them and makes them. It’s costly and sacrificial.

There’s a warning too. Those who will find it most difficult to offer hospitality to the stranger, the sinner, the outcast, the unloved and unlovable will more than not be the rich—people like me, and maybe you. Those who have the most, fear they have the most to lose. They can’t risk their carpet, or their dining setting, or their polished reputation, or their safe, self-contained lifestyle. It’s hard following Jesus if you’re well off. Jesus had meals with ‘sinners’ and prostitutes. He met with lepers and social outcasts like the tax-collectors. He didn’t care about his reputation. He was willing to be waylaid and interrupted. He taught us what hospitality should really look like.

I asked myself a couple of questions after finishing this book:

  1. How much of my hospitality is merely catching up with friends, rather than reaching out to care for the needy or the alienated? How much of my hospitality is literally the philoxenia—love of strangers—that we find in the New Testament?
  2. We have a nice home, fairly new, matching furniture, close to the beach. Will I ensure that our home is for people? Will I care more for the welfare of those around us, than the welfare of our couches and coffee machine?

“Please God, help me to love others before myself. Help me to love people more than things. Help me to be generous with my time, gifts, possessions, and particularly our home. Teach me to become more and more hospitable. Teach me to delight in the love and care of those around me. Move me to share the great news of Jesus Christ with strangers and neighbours as you give me opportunity.”

 

Beyond the first visit

Welcoming is a gospel issue. Our God is a welcoming God. Jesus died so as to welcome people into relationship with God and with each other. He calls his followers to show hospitality to others as an expression of God’s love and grace. So how can we make this a vital feature of our congregations? One way is to be genuinely friendly when people come to our church. Next is to take the initiative in welcoming, follow-up, hospitality, and inviting people to join with us in what we are doing. Nearly every church assumes it is friendly and welcoming, but it’s not what the insiders think that really matters. We need to learn to see things from the outside in. How do we come across to visitors and guests? This book invites us to take a look.

Beyond the First Visit: The Complete Guide to Connecting Guests to your Church by Gary McIntosh is a book worth reading. I’d advise following the author’s suggestion:

To get the most out of this book, as you read each chapter, make notes in the margin of the book, scribbling your thoughts and ideas. Then make a list of action steps that you want your church to take during the next year to get ready for company. (p14)

McIntosh begins by suggesting we review our terminology – stop speaking about visitors and think of guests instead. We don’t always want visitors, but guests are expected. Visitors are expected to leave, but we plan for guests to stay and we make arrangements so they can. A guest mindset is what we need in our churches. This book encourages people in our churches to become great hosts. The following checklist is a good way to assess how and where we can improve:

  1. Invite your guests with a personal invitation.
  2. Arrive early to make sure everything is ready for the guests’ arrival.
  3. Greet the guests warmly at the entrance and escort them to their seats.
  4. Assist guests in understanding what is taking place.
  5. Anticipate and answer as many questions as possible in advance, so guests do not have to ask.
  6. Do something extra to make your guests’ visit special.
  7. Walk guests to the door and invite them back. (p17)

Welcoming guests doesn’t always happen naturally. We need to plan for it to be done well and it’s the responsibility of the church, not the guest. It’s worth thinking about how we’d treat a guest in our home, and applying this to church. We’d invite them in, offer to take their coat, show them where they can put their bag, take them into the appropriate room, invite them to take a seat, offer them a drink, ask them how they’re doing, engage in conversation, invite them to the table for a meal, let them know where the bathroom is, and more… And yet, when it comes to church, so often we expect people to work everything out for themselves. Healthy churches will take the responsibility for welcoming people and helping them to get involved in the life of their church.

People will sometimes make assessments of your church on the basis of a single impression. The long grass surrounding the old stone building makes it look abandoned and unused. The out of date website communicates that nothing much happens anymore. The paint on the sign, making it hard to read the service times, indicates that they don’t want me to come. Whereas the attractive brochure describing the Christmas Carols, with pictures of families, and a warm invitation to come along, makes me think my family could fit in here. It’s worth considering all the first impressions we make as a church. What assessments are people making about what we’re like? If we can’t work it out ourselves, then ask others – those who’ve come and those who haven’t.

Churches who have their own properties are urged to think of the impact their facilities have on others. Are they welcoming or alienating? McIntosh suggests a stroll around, examining everything that people will come into contact with when they check out your church. A mother with a couple of young kids isn’t likely to return if her first experience of the bathroom is a gloomy, smelly, dirty, inadequate facility. If all the parking spaces near the building are reserved for church staff, then you get the message of who’s most important. If things are bright and clean, if directions are clear, if people say ‘Hi’ and smile and offer to help, then second visits become much more likely.

The book contains many ideas on letting people know about church. I nearly gagged at the direct marketing/phoning suggestion! The best idea was simply word of mouth! Spread good rumours! If your church matters to you, if it encourages you, if it’s great for your kids, if you love getting to know God with others, if Sunday is a highlight of your week… then spread the rumour! But be warned. Don’t talk things up too highly. People like their expectations to be exceeded – not let down.

Getting Beyond the First Visit helps churches to examine the pathways for people getting involved and belonging. This can be very simple in a church of 100 or so, but may require much more organisation and communication in larger churches. There is no one size fits all. Some smaller churches may be small because they’re not good at letting others in. The danger for large churches is that people come and go and no one notices or cares. This book helps us not to take it for granted.

At one level this is very light book. It’s not big on theology and there’s not much Bible. It devotes a lot of attention to surface issues and impressions, and a few of the suggestions made me cringe. But overall, it’s full of helpful analysis and practical suggestions that will get us thinking about how we can do better. The central issue is so vitally important. At a time when our churches are becoming more and more marginalised, we need to make every effort to connect with people. People need to know God today, as much as they did in our parents’ generation, and as much as they did in Biblical times. Our churches shouldn’t make it hard for people to get to know God. There’s no excuse for unfriendliness. It’s not up to our guests to ‘make themselves at home’ while we go about our own business. It’s our job to welcome, introduce, connect, and build genuine relationships.

I bought this book last year, so as to examine the issues afresh as we began to plant a new church. If you think about the principles being discussed, rather than simply looking for practices to adopt, then I believe you will find it a useful tool. Church planters should get a copy, but so too should existing pastors and church leaders. How long since we reviewed this area of church life? Have we ever? Maybe things are in need of a tune up, or even a serious rebuild. This book can help you to think it through, without spending $1000s on a consultant – unless, of course, you want me to come! 😉