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Book Jacket

1576834379
Hardcover
160 pages
Oct 2003
NavPress

When God Is the Life of the Party: Reaching Neighbors Through Creative Hospitality

by Norm and Becky Wretlind & Jim Killiam

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt

Excerpt:

Introduction

THERE’S AN EPIDEMIC IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD . . . AND YOU HAVE THE CURE

Imagine that everyone in your neighborhood contracts a disease, one that will prove fatal if they don’t get help. Some know they are sick but don’t know where to find the right medicine. Others try remedies that seem to ease the pain, but those work only temporarily. Still others don’t even know they have the disease and won’t know until it’s too late.

You, on the other hand, have been given a free, unlimited supply of a miracle drug that will cure the disease. Your own family is well, and you’re busy with your own lives. Surely, the neighbors will see how healthy you are and will want to know your secret. If they ask, you’ll gladly give them all the medicine they want. You care about them and desire to help them. But you don’t want to seem pushy. If they don’t approach you, if they just keep to themselves and live with their sickness, it must mean they don’t want your help. And they’ll die, even though the medicine that would have saved them was right there, just a couple of doors away.

Can you live with that?

For us Christians, that’s exactly the situation in our neighborhoods today. And many of us do live with it. If our faith is the least bit alive and vibrant, we see the problem clearly. We have what our neighbors need. We want to help them, but we’re not even sure how to begin. We feel frustrated that we genuinely desire to assist them but aren’t sure how to do so.

The purpose of this book is not to send you on a guilt trip. The fact that you’ve picked it up in the first place probably means you have the desire and motivation to reach your neighbors with the gospel. We want to equip you with the tools to effectively and naturally reach out to your neighbors with love and kindness. And we want you to know the deepdown joy that results when you and your family touch your neighborhood with the love of Jesus Christ.

We will share with you what we’ve learned during our more than thirty years of ministering to neighbors and teaching others to do the same: how to meet your neighbors, form friendships, pray for them, care for them, and share Christ with them. We’ll offer many ideas for hosting parties and get-togethers in your home, events where neighbors can get to know each other and where the gospel can be shared in a natural and nonthreatening way. Believe us—it can be done.

Throughout these pages, you’ll meet people from all walks of life who have amazing stories to tell: stories about lives and neighborhoods that were transformed because Christians took simple steps of obedience to God. There are two common denominators to these stories:

    1. The Great Commission is fulfilled when Christians live out the Great Commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself.

    2. Successful witnessing happens when Christians take the initiative to befriend nonChristians, share their experiences of Christ with them, depend on the power of the Holy Spirit, and leave the results to God.

These principles can transform individual lives, marriages, families, and entire neighborhoods. They free us to lovingly engage those who live around us without worrying about how they’ll respond. So if you’re picking up this book with questions about whether or not God can use you, believe us when we say He can and will. We’ve been there. You’ll read about our early struggles to overcome the fear of reaching out to neighbors.

You’ll read about how God took our simple acts of obedience to Him and moved in miraculous ways. We’ll look at how today’s neighborhoods present challenges and obstacles that didn’t exist a generation ago. Our current neighborhood in Littleton, Colorado, already had the hidden heartaches common to so many middle-class suburbs when the Columbine High School massacre forever changed us and the way we see our world.

What have we learned over these many years? First, that our mission field happens to be right outside our door, across the street, and down the block. We’ve also learned that a neighborhood party—an intentional, friendship-building gathering hosted by a Christian—is a powerful approach to demonstrating the love of God to those who don’t know Him. In many cases, it’s the first time neighbors will ever meet each other, and in some cases, it’s the first time they will hear the gospel communicated clearly. Almost always, neighbors begin to feel connected and linked. That sort of feeling lays the groundwork for a neighborhood where people begin caring about each other and opening their homes and their lives to each other.

In the chapters that follow, you’ll learn that the powerful ministry of reaching out to your neighborhood requires no special training. We’ll focus largely on the impact a husband-and-wife team can have, but any Christian individual can do it. We’ll confront the fears that keep Christians from stepping out. We’ll talk about specific ways to show hospitality— and, in the process, show Jesus—to your neighbors.

We’ll also talk—sometimes from our own painful experiences— about what not to do. Your neighbors will sense right away if your outreach is insincere or manipulative. Genuine hospitality requires time, effort, sensitivity, and, most importantly, diligent prayer.

So if you’re ready to let God work through you to bless your neighbors, read on. Go ahead and list your reasons why it won’t work. We had them, too. Then let this book, through God’s leading, address those reasons and your fears. You needn’t own a huge house, be a catering whiz, or be the neighborhood social butterfly. All you need is a place you call home—a house, apartment, condo, whatever—and the willingness to let God use you in your neighborhood. The question isn’t whether your home is big enough; it’s whether your heart is big enough.

Here’s what we ask of you at the outset: Begin with the belief that God has placed you in your neighborhood for a reason. And regardless of how well you know your neighbors right now, start praying for them. Then don’t be surprised when God begins to answer those prayers.

Now, get ready for an adventure that can become the greatest joy of your life.

Chapter 1

THE MAGNET OF HOSPITALITY

Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
ROMANS 12:13

Welcome to Anystreet in Yourtown, U.S.A. Join us as we stroll down the sidewalk and take a look around.

There are Bob and Christine, leaving for work. We’re not sure of their last name because we’ve spoken to them only a couple of times. We do know that Bob drives a Saturn, Christine a Toyota. Every morning at 7:30, like clockwork, their garage door slowly rises, just long enough to let Bob’s car out. As the car backs toward the street, the garage door closes again, and he’s off to work. A few minutes later, Christine’s car repeats the same scene.

Then, about 6:00 P.M., it’s like watching the same movie backward. The garage door rises, even before we see Bob’s Saturn. Finally, the car appears from down the street. Barely even slowing down, the Saturn whips into the driveway and into the garage. The door comes down. Ten minutes later, Christine’s car cruises in. Door goes up, door comes down.

That’s about all we see of Bob and Christine for days or even weeks at a time. We really don’t know much about them other than their taste in cars. They don’t have kids. Their house and yard always look neat—almost like those magazine pictures of homes that no one really lives in. Oh, and they have a really powerful garage-door remote that works from at least a block away.

We could talk about how routine comings and goings—loading and unloading the car, carrying groceries in, leaving for work—now often take place behind closed doors and without interaction with neighbors. We could mention how the electric garage-door opener represents the drawbridge to the modern-day castle that so many people make their home. Only when the drawbridge closes is it safe to open the inner door to the house—a house that, on average, is larger than it used to be, though the yard is often smaller.

But we’ve only been past one house so far. Let’s keep walking. Now we come to the Petersons’ house. They moved in a year ago. Nice family. We’ve talked to Tom and Denise a few times as they were working in the yard. They have three kids, all in elementary school. We hear that family more than we see them. They have a big backyard with a six-foot wooden stockade fence. Sometimes we see the kids flailing their arms and legs as they soar above the fence, so we’re pretty sure there’s a trampoline back there. Tom and Denise built a big deck a couple of months ago. We know because we saw the redwood lumber in the driveway for a week or so. From our upstairs window, we can see that they spend a lot of time out there on summer evenings—not that we’re nosy.

If they want to keep to themselves, that’s their business. If we didn’t have more houses to see, here’s where we would talk about how the front porch of yesteryear has been replaced by today’s back deck as the home’s prime outdoor hangout. We could lament that it’s nearly impossible to walk by our neighbors’ houses, see them out on their front porches, and stop to shoot the breeze for a few minutes. After all, front yards today are mostly for show. And backyards are surrounded not by a friendly, waist-high picket fence but by one that’s tall and imposing.

Though we once built fences to keep our kids and pets from running into the street, we now build them with a secondary purpose: to keep out prying eyes and unwanted invaders.

Remember Wilson, the neighbor in the TV sitcom Home Improvement?

All we ever saw of him were his fishing hat and his eyes, peering over the fence as he dispensed wisdom to Tim the Tool Man. Unfortunately, that was a powerful commentary on backyard America. Even good neighbors, the ones with whom the conversations go beyond small talk, can be mostly obscured by our desire for privacy.

How about that gray house down the street, the one where the drapes are always drawn and the lawn is overgrown? We’ve never even met those folks. From here, it looks like there’s a single mom with a couple of teenagers. The kids always dress in black. One of them had blue hair for a while. Cars come and go over there at all hours of the day and night. The cops have been there a few times. Who knows what’s going on behind that front door? We think somebody might be dealing drugs, but that’s pretty hard to prove.

This next house belongs to Rick, who went through a divorce two years ago. His ex, Diane, got the kids. We used to talk quite a bit when she was still around, but we’ve lost that point of contact. Rick’s a Christian, but he always seemed hesitant to talk about it. We don’t want to push. He’s not home much now, and when he is, he usually stays inside. When we think of it, we pray for him. But that isn’t all that often. You know what they say: out of sight, out of mind.

This neighborhood hasn’t always been so quiet. When there were more families with young kids, we talked a lot more with neighbors. Many of those families have moved out. A few couples besides Rick and Diane got divorced. And the families that haven’t moved or split up are so busy with their kids’ school and sports activities that they hardly have time to talk. If we’re outside, we still wave when they drive by as they speed off to their next event.

Come to think of it, people tend to be a lot more guarded than they were a generation ago. Safety concerns account for part of that. But sometimes it’s also because they don’t want anyone to know what goes on behind those high fences and closed doors—anything (or everything) from a disorderly house to a crumbling marriage, pornography addiction, child or spousal abuse, or drug dealing. We may not want to believe those problems could be going on just a few paces from our own driveways. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we know they do. It doesn’t matter whether we live in big cities, suburbs, small towns, or rural areas. People around us are hurting on all kinds of levels.

Not exactly a Norman Rockwell picture so far, is it? For Christians today, just getting to know our neighbors, let alone befriending them and sharing Christ with them, can be a formidable challenge. It’s easy just to give up, to tell ourselves that the people behind those fences and castle walls don’t want to be bothered. But then, every time we look out our front window, mow the lawn, or walk to the mailbox, we feel that nagging sense of frustration and guilt. Love thy neighbor? We’d settle for knowing our neighbors!

Here’s one more house. Now this family we like: John and Sue and their kids, Erin and Josh—solid Christians. They invited all the neighbors for an open house when they first moved in last year. John has mentioned that they’re going to have a Christmas party this winter, and Sue’s talking about starting a neighborhood Bible study. It’s not that they’re social butterflies—they just seem to intentionally care about people.

Wait a minute. There’s somebody home. The front door is open, with just the screen door closed. Let’s take a closer look. Get a load of that décor in the living room: knickknacks everywhere, plaques with inspirational sayings, souvenirs from old vacations, scrapbooks, family photos and pictures of other people’s families, books all over the place, and a couple of Bibles, too. It’s kind of cluttered in there. You’d never see this house pictured in Better Homes & Gardens. But still, we like the way this house makes us feel. It’s inviting, cozy, and comfortable.

Earlier, a couple of girls from the neighborhood dropped by to ask Sue if she’d show them how to make cookies. And Sue, true to form, set aside what she was doing and invited them in, even though she just got home from her part-time job. Baking cookies may seem like a mundane task, but these girls are obviously delighted. Hospitality seems to be a lost art. Neighbors spending time in the kitchen together? It’s such an “Ozzie and Harriet” or “Leave It to Beaver” thing to do. Hardly anyone does that these days.

There’s something deeply sad about that. When traditions or activities that once meant something get crowded out or forgotten, it brings a sense of loss. And when that sense of loss combines with factors like stockade fences and garage-door openers, it’s no wonder hospitality is so rare and people feel disconnected.

It’s not John and Sue’s house that attracts people. There’s nothing remarkable about it. It’s the people. The spirit of Christ seems to radiate there, and it isn’t just for that family—it’s for this neighborhood. We’re sure glad they moved in.

Times Have Changed, People Have Not

Maybe the previous scenario is stereotypical. Granted, not every home in every neighborhood looms like a well-protected fortress. In plenty of neighborhoods today, especially those with younger children, casual friendships do develop over time. But most people would agree that true hospitality—extending love and generosity to guests—is rare, even among Christians.

Neighborhoods may have changed, but people today are not all that different from those a generation ago. Maybe they’re busier and more stressed. There definitely are more broken homes and more drugs available. But people’s need for God and their need for love and friendship aren’t any different. It just takes more time and effort on the part of Christians today to build bridges, to fit into somebody’s life.

Our first house, purchased in the late 1960s, was located in Anaheim, California. Typical of people in suburban neighborhoods with young families, the neighbors on our cul-de-sac interacted regularly. A comfortable sense of community existed. Divorce was still rare and families were, by and large, stable. People drank alcohol, of course, but drugs still were something those crazy hippies did. Crime was almost nonexistent in our neighborhood. We didn’t lock our doors or worry about leaving things in the yard overnight. Neighbors got together for block parties, volleyball, even a neighborhood bowling league. Getting to know people was easy.

Neighbors freely invited us into their homes and backyards. Whatever might have changed, there has always been a difference between simple, neighborly hospitality and Christian hospitality, which carries with it the sincere purpose of loving people into God’s kingdom. Even in that friendly, comfortable Anaheim neighborhood, for the first three years we lived there we were frustrated by our fear to share our faith with neighbors, which resulted in a bitter fight between the two of us.

After fervent prayer, God showed us that it wasn’t nearly as difficult as we’d imagined. The sense of hospitality that already existed provided a natural springboard to share Christ, simply by taking the initiative to be open about our faith and our feelings.

We don’t have that head start today. In many neighborhoods, it’s rare even to see people outside. Unless you make a concerted effort, how are you going to interact with your neighbors? With an implicit “Do Not Disturb” sign hanging on most front doors, how can a Christian family hope to have an impact on the people around them? It might surprise you to learn that most of those overworked, private people in your neighborhood desperately would like to know you, too.

People who don’t know their neighbors feel a sense of loneliness and isolation, regardless of how many friendships they have in other places.  Every time we have organized a simple little neighborhood gathering, the majority of the neighbors show up. Consistent with basic human nature, they long to feel connected, wanted, and cared for. People from any walk of life desire to be invited to do something with other individuals or couples.

Christian hospitality today rarely just happens. In every neighborhood we’ve lived in, friendly or otherwise, we have found evangelistic holiday parties to be one of the most effective icebreakers. These parties often have been the first time that some of our neighbors actually met each other. We plan the event carefully, always including a time of sharing based on a seasonal topic. As you’ll learn in chapters 6 and 7, these conversations aren’t at all awkward, and they don’t send people scurrying for the door. Instead, they open doors to something beyond small talk.

That’s the beginning of a neighborhood transformation. From there, anything can happen, as we later learned when we moved from Anaheim to the Dallas suburb of Richardson, Texas. A true neighborhood fellowship grew there, built around Bible studies in people’s homes. And it all was based upon Christian warmth and sincere hospitality. When even one Christian extends that to a neighborhood, it attracts people like a magnet. We’ll let one of our former neighbors in Richardson relate those days.

King Nash:

My wife, Dottie, and I were one of the first couples to move into that new neighborhood in the early 1970s. The first neighbors who moved next door to us were Barbara and Patrick McGee. They were such irresistible people. They always had a smile and they exuded peace, which I didn’t have. They were superfriendly, always gentle and mild-mannered, always volunteering to help.

We had been in new neighborhoods before, but this one was different. Most of the people who moved in had fairly young children, so we had a lot in common that way. It was the social activities that divided people. You had the partyers and you had the Christians . . . but I guess most everyone considered themselves Christians of some sort.

Although Dottie and I called ourselves Christians, we really were not dedicated. When Barbara and Patrick invited us next door for Bible studies, we went more as a social thing than anything else. It was a way to meet people. The McGees were close friends of Norm and Becky, who moved in a year or two after we did. Those two couples became instrumental in neighborhood Bible studies and parties that were religious in nature.

Initially, I went without resistance but without much enthusiasm either. My enthusiasm grew as I got to know some of the people and became more serious about the Bible study. I was kind of attracted like a moth to a light, I guess, by the outgoing personalities of the McGees and the friendship and kindness they extended to us. It was just pleasant to associate with them. And then when other people got involved, it turned into a nice social arrangement.

As things developed, some of the party-type people started coming to the Bible studies and became seriously converted. A couple of the guys were in sales and were making a lot of money. They previously had not been religious at all. One guy and his wife were always having parties at their house, but he felt depressed and unfulfilled. I remember him saying to me, “I’m the one with the swimming pool. How come I’m not having any fun?”

When some of these partyers got really involved in the study, that was an incentive for some of the other people to investigate it. I can hardly explain the amazing growth that took place in a neighborhood where one normally would have expected a lot of resistance.

I don’t think some of them were really seeking a religious experience at first. But when people get together with a group of Christians who are having a good time without being smashed and are comfortable with themselves and with others, there’s a good feeling that’s created.

No one felt they were being pushed or conned into anything. There was no pressure. That’s important. People nowadays don’t like highpressure sales for anything, not even for a good product. With the help of Patrick McGee, I went over the hump and made a commitment to Christ. I was part of a miraculous growth story that started with two couples and became an entire neighborhood church. I know times have changed, but if those same people went back and started over in any neighborhood anywhere, I think they would transform it.  

Stepping Out In Faith

You’ll read much more about that neighborhood and about developing a neighborhood fellowship in chapter 8. For now, we would quibble with only one point in King’s story: God did indeed use the McGees and us in that suburban Dallas neighborhood, but He did the transforming. We simply responded out of obedience and sincerely loved our neighbors. We left the results to God.

We still look back in amazement at those years when more than sixty neighbors came to know Christ in the first three years we lived in that neighborhood. Living there was like being part of the early church: “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:46-47, emphasis added).

No matter what your neighborhood looks like to you today, whether you’ve already opened your home and lives or simply would like to take the first step, the most important recommendation we can give you is this: It starts with earnest, believing prayer.

We are active members of the Mission America Coalition, a national initiative of evangelical denominations and ministries dedicated to empowering every Christian to be a beacon to his or her neighborhood. By application, that means covering your neighborhood first through praying, then through active caring, and finally through sharing Christ. Try walking through your neighborhood regularly, praying for the residents of each home as you walk by. Make a list of homes and names. Pray that God will prepare those people, just as He prepares you to reach out to them. Pray for encounters, conversations, friendships, opportunities to show hospitality, and open doors to share Christ. Then be ready for God’s answers, and be obedient to His leading.

During the time early in our marriage when we did not have an effective neighborhood ministry, we used to pray regularly for lost souls. But it wasn’t until we began to engage in friendships with our nonChristian neighbors that we felt a passion for the lost. At that point, God worked in our hearts as we made our time available and sought opportunities to love our neighbors.

Hospitality today often occurs “by invitation only.” Why not be the family in your neighborhood who issues that irresistible invitation?