The term ‘housewarming’ literally means to ‘warm a house’. Centuries ago, friends and family would come over and start fires in the various fireplaces of the new home – in part to warm the house, and in part to banish evil spirits by providing protective warmth.
On a recent Sunday evening I was asked to a housewarming. As far as I remember, there was no fire place – just central heating. Nor was there any concern to repeal evil spirits. My task was to bless the new home of an Indian family whom we know well. As I discovered, it was the last of three house-warming parties – my understanding is that on the Friday evening there had been a party for work colleagues; on the Saturday a party for friends from the local Indian association; while on the Sunday they had invited members from several Tamil-speaking Christian fellowships. Some of the songs and prayers were in Tamil, and others in English.
For the formal dedication of the new home I chose to read Psalm 127, which begins with the words “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who labour build it in vain”. After a brief exposition, I led in a prayer of blessing. Instead of simple extempore prayer I chose to use a ‘prayer of dedication of a house’ written by the Corrymeela Community:
We dedicate this house to you and your work as the God of peace.
May it be a place of joy, laughter and freedom;
A place of renewal; and refreshment for those who are weary.
A place of hope for those who have become disillusioned.
A place of healing and comfort for those broken and hurt.
A place of forgiveness for those who seek a new way of life.
A place of encouragement for those who hunger and thirst for peace and justice.
A place of vision and inspiration for all those who seek a new and better way for our country.
The ‘service’ was then followed by a wonderful feast of Indian food. It was a very happy occasion.
I find it interesting that ‘the dedication of a new home’ does not feature in many standard denominational worship manuals – perhaps because today few British Christians – as distinct from Christians from other parts of the world – seem to see the need for a blessing of a new home: if they have a ‘house warming’ party, then it tends to be a party and nothing more. Certainly I could only find readings and prayers for such an occasion in the old Baptist Orders and Prayers for Church Worship (first published 1960) and the Church of Scotland’s Book of Common Order (1994) – there was nothing, for instance in the Church of England’s many volumes of Common Worship (2000). However, A New Zealand Prayer Book (first published by New Zealand Anglicans in 1989) devotes almost ten pages to a liturgy which involves blessing the living room, a bedroom, the bathroom, the kitchen, a study, a workshop, and a terrace or garden – with the optional inclusion of the Lord’s Supper.
What is the rationale of such a house blessing? According to A New Zealand Prayer Book, “The blessing of a home encourages Christians to dedicate their life at home to God and to others”. In the past this has been my reasoning too. I have seen it as a ‘pastoral’ rite of passage. In Living out the Call: Serving God’s People I noted that it can prove helpful, especially to “older children and young people [who] can find the move to a new area difficult; and all the more so because the move has not been chosen by them but imposed by their parents”.
However, on reflection, I now realise that I failed to see the evangelistic potential of a ‘house warming’. Such an event can be a great opportunity to invite into the home new neighbours – as well as friends (including some who will presumably not share our faith) – and in the relaxed context of a party for a minister to be asked not just to say a prayer of blessing, but also in a non-threatening manner speak of the difference Jesus can make to family life. The fact is that we live at a time when the Christian church in the West is in major decline – we need to be creative and take every opportunity to reverse the trend by sharing our faith with friends and neighbours. Ministers need to encourage their people to share their faith in the context of a house warming party!