Book Review: The Gospel Comes With a House Key

The Gospel Comes With a House Key: Practicing Radical Ordinary Hospitality in our Post-Christian World

by Rosaria Butterfield

As a fan of one of her other books, I was looking forward to this one.  After reading it, my thoughts on it are mixed, though overall positive.

Rosaria is obviously an intense woman who is passionate about things and pours her copious energies into the truth as she discovers it.  And the truth that Rosaria has discovered is that Christian hospitality can be a powerful means of engaging people who would otherwise never accept an invitation to Church or respond to a shallow sharing of the Gospel.  She knows this firsthand because this is how she came to faith, leaving behind a life that I dare say was the antithesis in almost every aspect of who God has now shaped her to be.

This book is a call to hospitality.  Not a cute exhortation or a cheery sharing of favorite recipes, but rather a call to the oftentimes gritty and taxing work of opening ourselves and our homes to other people in order to build relationships by which the Gospel might be shared.  This is a sobering book, a book that holds nothing back in insisting that every Christian needs to engage in Christian hospitality while refusing to paint it as a anything less than obedience to the Lord’s call.

The book is structured as a series of snapshots from her life of hospitality, literal days and the events that transpired on those days.  Some are wonderful and encouraging.  Many are painful to hear, despite knowing that God is at work in the midst of it.  She makes the case that any and every Christian should engage in this hospitality in some way.  Introvert or extrovert makes no difference.  Married or single makes no difference.  Young or old makes no difference.  Every Christian can either open their home or help another Christian open their home to be hospitable to friends, neighbors, and strangers.  Her passion and dedication are admirable, but perhaps at time swerve more into a sense of legalism of the most dangerous kind, the kind that justifies its existence on the Gospel.

Scripture makes clear that while Christian hospitality is desirable (Romans 12:13; Hebrews 13:2; 1 Peter 4:9) , it isn’t necessarily a universal gift to every Christian (1 Timothy 3:2; 1 Timothy 5:9-10; Titus 1:7-8).  It is something special and of note that leaders should be evaluated on, and this is perhaps a better direction for some of her more strident urges to hospitality.  Given that her husband is a pastor, this makes much more sense than insisting that every single Christian bears this perpetual obligation.  She shrugs off the idea that some people might not be well-equipped for this type of ministry too easily.  She also has some strong opinions on what sort of arrangements constitute hospitality, which she doesn’t really bother to substantiate.

This book might terrify some people, and that’s good.  Because hospitality and entertaining are somewhat conflated and confused in our culture, it is necessary to show that Christian hospitality is not always pleasant.  The results are not always discernible, let alone storybook.  There are costs that come with it both financially and emotionally.  In opening ourselves to others we are made vulnerable, something that our culture of independence and individualism is pitched against.

Butterfield’s exegesis is generally not very deep or elaborate  but is often very perceptive.  She grasps clearly that in a culture where Christians are increasingly cast as the villains of whatever soap opera is playing out, the only effective way to combat such an image is not through legislation but rather through hospitality.  She understands that accepting an invitation to church is far less likely than accepting an invitation to dinner, but that a Christian bringing someone into their Christian home for dinner places guests in the tangible presence of the Holy Spirit.  Who we are, what we do, how we do it, and why we do it should be different for Christians than anyone else, and this should become obvious over time to those we draw in close to us.

Once again I’m struck with the lonely aspect of what Butterfield describes here.  Yes, hospitality is personal and sacrificial but it doesn’t need to be isolated and unsupported.  There is – as with other books on this subject I’ve been reading – little or no acknowledgement or encouragement of the larger Christian community of the congregation being supportive and encouraging of this kind of ministry, financially or otherwise.  I  think this is a glaring area where we need to  think things through further.  Scriptural admonitions to hospitality are implemented individually but they are often directed to communities of faith.  If a faith community doesn’t see this as an important aspect of the Christian life, the odds of individual members taking it upon themselves in an obedient and permanent way is less likely.

This is a good book to read if you’re considering embarking in Christian hospitality.  It’s a very good book for pastors to read before encouraging their parishioners to hospitality, as it helps prepare pastors to deal with fallout that can (and perhaps will) occur in such settings.  I’d suggest pairing it with a lighter read that provides a counter-balance to the sometimes gritty and heavy aspects of Butterfield’s book, while making sure to talk about those areas because they are very real and, knowing our Enemy The Satan, most likely to come up sooner or later.

Above all Butterfield conveys clearly through both the heavy and joyful aspects of her book Christian hospitality as a holy calling and privilege.  Our neighbors need us.  More accurately, our neighbors need Christ, and if they can meet Christ through us and in our homes around well-worn dinner tables and mismatched table ware,  then we need to take seriously hospitality as a missionary activity.  I objected in a review of an earlier book to the characterization of Christian hospitality as a weapon.  I’ll be amending that review a little bit, as I believe it is a good metaphor in the proper context.  It is not a weapon against our neighbors themselves, but against any power that might hold them and seek to keep them from Christ.  Christian hospitality invites the non-Christian into Enemy territory in this regard, bringing them intentionally into an environment where the Word of God is lived out, and an environment where they can and should encounter the Word of God, which as we are told, is dangerously life-giving (Hebrews 4:12).

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