Further adventures of a former lesbian, feminist, and tenured professor of English and women’s studies at Syracuse
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Twenty years ago Rosaria Butterfield professed faith in Christ. Subsequently, she married Kent Butterfield, a pastor, and moved to Durham, N.C. She told her story of God’s grace in The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert and in WORLD issues dated March 23, 2013, and Aug. 6, 2016. Her new book, The Gospel Comes With a House Key, describes why and how to be hospitable in our neighborhoods.
In your Durham neighborhood, a reclusive neighbor, Hank, had a meth lab in his house. You didn’t know what he was doing, but it had an effect on you. We were his only friends. And we learned something about what it means to love the sinner. You love the stranger, and you will be strange. You love the sinner, and your neighbors will hate you because they will think that you are colluding in some way.
So how did you react? By God’s grace, we decided to open things wide. The Drug Enforcement Agency rang my doorbell at 6 a.m. That morning I put out all the Bibles. I made copious pots of coffee. Scrambled all the eggs in the house. And we invited everybody in. That day unfolded to the next and the next. We started practicing radically ordinary hospitality, because our neighbors were terrified, angry, scared, hurt. Our friend is now incarcerated for 18 years and those are big things. And the gospel is ready for big things, but these big things unfold one step of grace at a time.
What did you learn about your neighbors? They don’t want to be invited to church. They don’t want to be told they’re being saved from their sins. Quite frankly they just want to be saved from you, not their sins. So these kinds of crises are wonderful opportunities to say we serve a Lord who is alive. He is risen. Authentic Christianity is not sucker-punched by sin because the blood of Christ has covered that.
‘Hospitality is about strangers to the gospel. Your home is an embassy, not a castle.’
Take us into the scene. The neighbors are angry. How did the conversations begin? The neighbor says, “You were friends with this guy. The problem with Christians is that you’re so open-minded it’s like your brains are falling out of your ears.” Kent came into the room and said, “We’re going to have family devotions now. Let’s open our Bibles to Philippians, Chapter 1.” We want our neighbors to see that we ask Jesus to enter into hard conversations not to stop them, but to transform them with the gospel of grace.
How do you make that transition? You just do it. At some point people stop eating their eggs. There’s a Bible in front of them. Kent says, “Let’s open our Bibles.” We have been doing this for many, many years. We’ve had some people who have said, “Is this some strange ritual you have?” OK. Whatever you want to call it. Then Kent will take prayer requests. Sometimes people are tentative, but there was a lot to pray about that day.
Then what happened? A few days after the meth lab was exposed, Kent put something out on Next Door, a social media app that arranges information among neighbors. Kent invited the 300 neighbors that are part of our community to come over that Lord’s Day after church for a cookout, so we could talk about what happened. That might sound crazy, inviting 300 people, but 10 percent of the people will show up, and everybody in your neighborhood will feel loved. You’ll get private messages from people that will let you know what they need, how to find them, and how to help them. They’ll tell you nobody has invited them to anything since the divorce, or they’re shut-in and they need help.
What happened next? Kent was able to proclaim the gospel again. To different neighbors that time, not just the ones on our block. One older woman told Kent, “I was a little girl once in a Baptist church. I heard that Jesus was there, to save me from my sins and to transform me with the blood of Christ. I stopped believing that, and it’s been decades. Do you think Jesus is still there for me?” Neighbors started to come over and say, “I’ll bring the pot of soup, and I want to understand where is God in my suffering.” “Why is my neighbor who is the sole parent of a special-needs child dying of liver cancer?” Why? Why? Why? And so, it was a season filled with these opportunities to be a bridge for the gospel. And I don’t think anyone was not changed.
Did some become more hostile? Yes. Certainly some people still think that we are raving fools. But you could offend everybody on Twitter or you could do what Jesus does: He came with truth and bread and fish. Even with our neighbors who persistently think that Kent and I are really just a bunch of wackos, we are continuing to come with truth and bread and fish. Or if you have a gluten allergy and you are vegan, with truth and Brussels sprouts and rice crackers.
Any way to predict which neighbors will get warmer and which colder? There’s no way. There’s a mystery of how faith works in the lives of all of us. A life transformed by the gospel is a life that has experienced the proclamation of the gospel in word and deed, over and over and over again, along with the application of grace by the Holy Spirit. I can’t be the Holy Spirit. I can be me. But we dare never ask the Holy Spirit to do our job. When we pray that our neighbors would come to faith, we need to do more than pray. That’s true if your neighbor is a meth addict or just a really nice cleaned-up heathen.
What if you had found out earlier that Hank had the meth lab? I would have called the police. I have sometimes had women call me wanting to pray about a situation of sexual molestation in the youth group in the church. I would say, “Stop. Let’s call the police first, and then let’s pray.”
Let’s isolate some other principles. Seems to me one is to understand our homes are not our own. God owns them. Absolutely. If you’ve made your white carpet an idol, repent of your sin right now. Many Christians experience the twin idols of acquisition and achievement. You need to know what your idols are, and you need to destroy them.
Lots of loneliness out there … Experience in our neighborhood forced us to repent of the sin of not being loving enough for singles within our church. It’s hard to be a single Christian. It’s hard to be at work all day and then go home to a lonely house. We started opening our home nightly for our church family. It is amazing what a meal put together with friends and a time of family devotions, and then saying good night, can do for a Christian. And then gathering our neighbors into that: Hospitality is about strangers to the gospel. Your home is an embassy, not a castle.
Sometimes we think of evangelism in terms of passing out tracts, but to our post-Christian neighbors, practicing radically ordinary hospitality equals street credibility. Right! And if you don’t feel adequate, you’re not. None of us is. We’re not adequate. But your friendship, your struggles, the way the Lord has worked in your very imperfect life, the transparency of that to a watching world: That is what matters. Share the gospel in intimate settings. Certain things in your life compete against that. You might not love your white carpet, but you foolishly think your best friends are people you see on a little blue screen.
Meditating on the objections people raise to what you’re saying, I think of Dr. Seuss and Green Eggs and Ham. Would you be hospitable here or there, could you do it anywhere? Could you, would you in a dorm room? Would you, could you in a car? Could you be hospitable in the bar? Would you be hospitable far from church? Would that leave you in the lurch? Well, let’s start with the dorm room, since we’re on the Patrick Henry College campus. Yes, you can be welcoming in a dorm room, but your job in a dorm room is to keep it clean enough that you can find your chemistry book. You need to get out of there, and the church needs to take you in daily, if you can spare the time.
Let’s say you live far away from church, out in the countryside, in a house on a 5-acre lot. You don’t have any neighbors right next door to you. I’m a little covetous, so I’m going to try to hold it back. I live in a neighborhood where everybody has a 1979 ranch house. If you have some property, make it a place your church cannot live without—and your pastor will be blessed by that. Then build from there. Remember, this isn’t liberal communitarianism. This isn’t the social gospel. This isn’t just hot dogs and chips. This is bread and fish, feeding and gathering, and at a certain point stopping and opening the Bible. For some people that’s the first time in their lives. And, singing praises to God. For some people that’s the first time in their lives. And taking prayer requests, then following up with what you’ve heard.
What about questions of personality? God makes some people extroverts and some people introverts. What if you’re an introvert and get worn out among lots of people? Absolutely. That’s where boundaries and a sense of timing come in. You aren’t doing this every night of the week. But, if nobody in your church is, that’s a sin problem.
So it’s not always you, it’s the church body. Always. But your personality is not an excuse for neglect. If you’re a believer, your discipline in practices to which God has called you will yield joy if Christ is fueling them. And if He’s not, you will hate those practices. Tests of obedience are good tests.
Please explain the difference between entertaining guests and hospitality. Entertainment is where the focus is on matching dishes and a vacuumed house. Hospitality is, “Come as you are and help me.” I homeschool a middle schooler and a high schooler, and you all know what that means. It’s not unusual for me to be screaming at about 5 o’clock. And if there’s laundry on my dining room table, which often happens, the singles in our church all know what to do: Shove it back into the dryer. If you’re a kid in the neighborhood and you’re going to eat me out of Pop-Tarts and come to my house for dinner every night, the gospel will come with a chore chart.
What do you do with the gay rights activist in your neighborhood who knows your views and does not like you? You agree to disagree, and you make dinner together, because somebody is already chopping potatoes and you can help. We can start from there.
What do your children think about your hospitality? Sometimes it is just us in the house. The last time that happened, my son looked around and said, “What’s wrong with us? It’s just us here!” The two children that are at home are great lovers of hospitality. They have an open invitation to invite their friends. That really means open. Many children have hard, stressful lives, and their parents are going through hard, stressful things. Sometimes you need to call the parents and say, “Listen, can we help you in some way? We don’t want to pry, but this is what we heard.”
How noisy does it get at dinner? I remember Kent trying to quiet down a table of 20 people. He turned to the kid who wouldn’t stop talking and said, “Bill, do you want to pray?” He was being a little sarcastic, as in “You probably don’t want to pray, shut up so I can.” But instead, Bill felt honored. He hadn’t washed his hands yet—you could still see the grub on his nails—but took his hat off, grabbed the hands of the people next to him, and said, “Let’s bow our heads and pray.” It was a beautiful thing.
Practical questions: If you can swing it financially, should you have a house with more bedrooms than your own family needs? Ideally, it’s good to seek out houses for the purpose of hospitality, but couches and sleeping bags work. It’s about making room and knowing other houses in your church community that have room.
What kinds of rules do you have to guard against potential abuse? Basics. Nobody’s in your bedroom but you. I don’t even have kids playing in the bedrooms. They go outside and build forts. I’d rather have them hurt themselves with a saw than get hurt from indoor problems. So: outside where I can see you. We review rules about adults, including members of our church. We review regularly who are our safe people and who are not. Now my children are older and can participate with this in a different way than when they were younger.
Do you face a reluctance to show love to some individuals because that might suggest showing approval of sinful activity? I was a gay rights activist, the scary person who led all of your children astray. Then there was a Christian who realized I had deep questions, and a heart not really satisfied by answers I was feeding myself and others. I haven’t forgotten those days. So, to me the challenge is not, “What do the neighbors think?” If you’re really a Christian, your neighbors will think you’re a wacko. Some will think you’re just a liberal progressive nut. Others will think you’re a pharisaical fundamentalist Bible-thumper. The question is, “Are you obeying God?”
How do you keep discipling from leading to unhealthy dependency? I do not do one-on-one discipling. This is where, with an evangelical audience, everybody gasps in horror. You don’t disciple? I disciple my children, but our home is about the gospel going out, Kent teaching, people learning to tie into a local church. So, I will absolutely walk with you through seasons, but I am not going to commit to meet with you Tuesday at 1 o’clock every day for the rest of our lives. I have seen those relationships turn codependent very quickly. I also don’t have time to do it. Homeschooling at middle school and high school is a full-time job. But I also think that sometimes one-on-one can create a context where you become a savior for someone. When we become each other’s saviors, we live like functional atheists and we steal glory from God. I have seen Bible studies retrograde into this. So beware of becoming someone’s savior. You can’t be. You don’t want to be.
For those without experience with the hospitality you’ve described, what are some of the first steps to take? Start with prayer. There’s a lot of work involved, and you might have holes in your walls. Then tie into somebody who’s already doing that. Who is really good at getting a diverse group together—and then, against all odds, opening the Bible and praying together.