In 2005 the late novelist David Foster Wallace gave an iconic commencement speech to the graduating class of Kenyon College. Often referred to as “This Is Water,” his speech is about the difficulty of staying attuned to others in the day in and day out drudgery of normal adult life, and he opened the speech with the following illustration:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What … is water?”1
When it comes to pursuing biblical hospitality as a way of life, we immediately happen upon a major obstacle: almost everything in our culture is set up to hinder us from pursuing it. Much like those two young fish, we are so pulled by the drudgery of our everyday lives that we fail to stay attuned to God’s call on us to be missional. Our default is to swim along with the current of our culture, not giving a single thought about the water that surrounds our every move and pushes us in the opposite direction of intentional mission.
We know what you may be thinking: No! Not my home. You can’t have my home! We get it. The invisible cultural currents shape our view of our home in ways we don’t even realize. So let’s take a look at some of the currents and how they hinder our efforts at practicing hospitality.
Turn your television to the HGTV channel and you are likely to find one of the dozens of shows where a real estate agent helps a prospective renter or buyer find the house of their dreams.2
We both have spent many hours watching HGTV (and let’s be honest, we’ll probably spend many more). The thing about a channel like HGTV is that it can actually teach you what people believe about the homes they live in, what they value most, and how they approach the spaces they inhabit. In this way, it’s an amazing tool to understand our culture and the ways we are most likely to think about our own homes, even as Christians.
If you’ve spent any time watching HGTV, consider some of the most common phrases you hear there. Words like oasis, privacy, and retreat come to mind.
Anytime a salesman, whether a television producer going after ratings or a real estate agent pursuing a commission, tries to sell something, they go after what they think the consumer wants. And we want our homes to isolate us from the world.
Even for those located in a bustling high-rise, we want our actual living space to be private. Our homes get us away from others (or at least the vast majority of others). Garages, privacy fences, building security guards, and key codes—all of those reinforce our desire for isolation. There is, of course, nothing wrong with appropriate isolation and wanting your own defined space. When taken to the extreme, however, a desire for isolation is at odds with the biblical values of community, hospitality, and neighborliness.
Think about this: what if you could see a bird’s-eye view of your neighborhood—if you could see your neighborhood as God sees it? Odds are you would see lots of people who may not admit it, but who desperately long for connection and community. Yet they spend most of their rare free time cordoned off in their respective homes, doors shut and locked tight, as they scroll through social media apps or watch other people live on screens. This scratches their itch for connection and community, but leaves those desires profoundly unfulfilled. Isn’t that sadly ironic?
I (Brandon) have never seen this more clearly than I did last year after my family and I moved into a new neighborhood. We invited all our closest neighbors over for dessert in order to meet them, and two of my neighbors approached each other and introduced themselves. They lived two doors down from each other. I heard one of them say to the other, “It’s nice to finally meet you. It’s sad that we’ve both been here fifteen years and we’ve never met.”
Though we hosted the dessert get-together, I admit that meeting neighbors like that is not natural for me. I am an introvert to the nth degree. So is my wife, Kristi. We both get energy from alone time—from peace and quiet and good books and stillness (at least before we had kids). At parties (when I am forced to go), I find a quiet corner with fewer people. I identify with this isolation current, the my-home-is-my-refuge sentiment, because in many ways, for me, it is. I love my home, I love the people in it, and I love the way God uses it to refuel and refresh me.
Half of all people identify as introverts,3 so if you are one, we realize you may be thinking, Yeah, but I really can’t practice—I don’t want to practice—hospitality because I’m an introvert. It would be too draining. Please do not read this book thinking the message is, Force yourself to be an extrovert because of the gospel! Please don’t let your personality type be a barrier to living out a God-ordained calling that is actually tailor-made to suit your personality type. I understand that introverts get the rap that they don’t like people, but that’s not true. We just like people in smaller, quieter doses than our extroverted compatriots do. I have found that inviting one person (or a couple of people) to my house where we enjoy quality time together, have good conversation, and experience a volume level that never gets too stressful is actually totally my speed (and completely fits the bill of hospitality!).
We think a primary purpose of our homes is for them to be temples of relaxation. They are the one place that is ours—where we can kick back, veg out, and unwind. This may or may not be explicitly stated, but the default stance in our culture is that a home’s primary purpose is to rest, relax, and recharge, so anything that seems to threaten your home’s ability to be a sanctuary for you may not be a welcome prospect. We believe our homes have a unique ability to restore our sanity and help us recoup after a stressful day or week, and we’ll do almost anything to protect that sense of refuge.
The first home that my wife, Renie (pronounced “Rainy”), and I (Dustin) purchased was a 1950s, small, Craftsman-style, red brick home, which needed work. By no means was this house the ideal place to practice hospitality. The floor plan was the opposite of open. And when measuring its pluses and minuses during the buying process, the last thing on my mind was to look at it through a hospitality lens. As a matter of fact, one of the positives I liked most about this house was the privacy of the backyard. Not only was it secluded, it had its own natural canopy made by God Himself—huge oak trees surrounded the yard. The idea of the backyard becoming my own personal oasis was a primary selling point for me. My grand strategy was to buy a hammock, and I already had the two trees picked out to hang it from.
This thought process seemed easy to justify because that season of life and ministry was very stressful. We were in a city where we knew hardly anyone, planting a church we were pretty sure no one was going to attend, and I was getting paid a cool $12K a year. So having a domain that would serve exclusively as a place to relax was at the top of my priorities list. Wanting to come home after a hard day and not be bothered by anyone was not something I simply wanted, it’s something I felt I deserved. Hospitality was not even on my radar, but that hammock definitely was. Fortunately, God showed me a way to both relax and practice hospitality, which I’ll tell you about in a later chapter.
Our homes should be places where we relax and unwind. They are a grace gift from God, meant to rejuvenate and restore our bodies and souls through rest and Sabbath. As with any desire we make too ultimate, however, if we place personal relaxation and refuge at the forefront of our home’s purpose, we lose God-given opportunities to practice gospel-driven intentionality.
Our desire for isolation and relaxation often fuels our addiction to entertainment. There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with entertainment. There is nothing inherently wrong with passing time in an enjoyable way—watching Netflix, playing a game, or looking at Facebook on our iPhone. We can participate in all of these things from a place of spiritual fullness, and we can use them in redeeming ways.
Increasingly alarming studies show, however, just how much time we as a culture spend entertaining ourselves, primarily through technology and screen time. One recent Nielsen study states that the average American watches more than five hours of television a day.4 That average is quite a lot when you remember that the average person sleeps for around eight hours and works for at least eight hours per day (and that figure only counts television, not the approximately two hours per day the participants in the same study spent with apps on smartphones or tablets).5
The time we spend with screens seems to be rapidly filling the little free time we have, as well as much of the time we spend in our homes. There is even a new term called “show hole,” meant to describe the feeling that comes after you binge-watch a TV show.
Show hole: When you finally finish binge-watching all the episodes of a favorite TV series on Netflix/Hulu/Amazon, as the credits to the final episode roll, that empty feeling that wraps around your soul because you don’t know now what to do with your life. Like a good friend just left you forever.
“I think I cried three different times during the finale and now I have a show hole where my heart used to be.”6
This is, of course, a humorous way to describe the addictive tendencies of entertainment and the “hole” it can’t quite fill in us. Ask anyone who has binge-watched a TV show and they are likely to smile knowingly at the concept described here (and we certainly would be part of that “anyone who has binge-watched a TV show”).
The truth is, entertainment has taken a prominent role in our modern lives. The center of many homes is the living room, and much of the “living” done there is actually watching productions of other humans living on screens. Our devices usher us into another realm, and we gladly take them up on the offer. For the Christian it is necessary to look critically at this trend, because if screens take up too much of our time and energy, that will lead us to further isolation and we will forsake any sense of mission for our homes. (We will further discuss the relationship between technology and hospitality in chapter 5.)
The final cultural factor that hinders us from practicing biblical hospitality is busyness. Most people are so busy and frantic that they do not have a vision for how a lifestyle of sharing life with others in their homes could possibly fit into their schedules.
Our time is already filled to capacity with work, school, kids’ activities, clubs, hobbies, and other commitments. We run through life at a frantic pace and then finally get home, lock the dead bolt, and isolate ourselves, hoping to gain the strength we need to face the next day.
This addiction to busyness often keeps us from enjoying life the way we were designed to enjoy it, and it keeps us from practicing hospitality as a way of life. We cannot haphazardly live out hospitality. We must pursue it intentionally, and frankly, it needs to be calendared. Having people in my (Dustin’s) home for a meal or game night or to watch a big game tends to happen only if my wife and I put it on the calendar. I spend a lot of time traveling for work, we have two kids who love extracurricular activities, and we live in a city that is driven by busyness. Renie and I constantly deal with the tension that lives in the space between our hectic schedules and our conviction to slow down and enjoy people. We have to remind ourselves that busyness is not a medal of valor to be displayed.
The harsh reality is that because of these factors, you won’t accidentally fall or stumble into changing the world through biblical hospitality. In many ways, your culture has you set up to fail, because the dominant values and ways of thinking about your home is at odds with how the gospel causes you to view your home. The water you and I swim in is polluted with things that make hospitality difficult.
Pursuing biblical hospitality as a way of life will take a very intentional shift in your life and mentality. It will happen only by offering the entire way you view your home to God and letting Him turn it upside down in the best way possible. You’ll have to learn to think of your home primarily from a Christian perspective and let that mindset uproot the ways your culture has taught you to view your home.
This will take stepping back and seeing the cultural waters you swim in. Then you will likely need to drastically reorder your rhythms and priorities. If you do nothing, you will continue to think the same way you always have and do the same things you’ve always done. Maybe a simple movement against the current becomes a way of life that leads to seeing lives and neighborhoods transformed. Imagine hundreds, thousands of believers swimming against the current.
Rebelling against the cultural norms and turning your home into a weapon for the gospel is not only completely possible, it’s a thrilling and meaningful thing to give your life to. It may just be the simplest way to change the world.
Dustin Willis, Brandon Clements, and J. D. Greear, The Simplest Way to Change the World: Biblical Hospitality as a Way of Life (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2017).