The church heritage I grew up in left me with the impression that a person should get themselves cleaned up before coming to church. I’m not talking literally. Of course it’s a good idea to grab a shower, brush your teeth, comb your hair, etc. whenever you go anywhere, not just church. I’m talking metaphorically, morally, spiritually. In the vernacular of the day, one should get their s#&t together before coming to church.
I don’t think I was the only one with that impression. I remember non-churched people explaining why they couldn’t come to church with me. They knew they were far from God and assumed he wouldn’t be approving of them. I’m pretty sure they got that impression from the same people at church that I heard murmuring with each other in dark corners when someone showed up at church not in proper form. I remember the near scandal caused when one of our enthusiastically evangelistic members came to church barefoot. He did so because the people he was trying to get to join him at church were hesitant to come because they didn’t have nice Sunday-go-to-meetin’ shoes to wear. He wanted to make the point that God doesn’t care what you wear just that you come to see him. Oh that it were the same for the greeters at the door. I remember feeling sad that we had that automatic judging reaction. (If you’re struggling to keep up here it may be because you’re still figuring out how offended you should be because I said, “get their s#&t together” in the first paragraph.)
As a young adult I came across a church that had a very different approach. This church had a sign in the yard outside the building that read, “Come as you are, you’ll be loved.” I was intrigued. Could it possibly be true? My wife and I started to attend. I remember being amazed and delighted to see during one worship time a middle aged guy in a suit standing next to a kid with a 12-inch tall purple Mohawk haircut and leather jacket with chains. It just felt right to me. My wife and I decided this was the place for us. We wanted in. I remember getting involved in the ministry at that church. I helped with support/recovery groups. After the “Come as you are” sign in the yard this was another indicator to our neighbors that we were ready for you to show up in any state you were in. Well, we thought we were.
We had this romantic vision of drawing in outcasts: the least, the last, the lost. We loved the notion of welcoming in the people who had been rejected by other churches because they weren’t already Christians and didn’t already have their lives together. We fancied ourselves as truly following the Jesus who ate with sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors and was chastised by the religious elite of his day. We loved the thought of having these ragamuffin people welcomed into our family. We loved it … until … they actually started showing up!
It dawned on me that it’s one thing to love the notion of saving the lost. It’s another thing altogether to love the lost you are saving. Those people, who have been outside the church most of their lives, don’t know the rules and the etiquette of the inside. They haven’t yet been acculturated into church life. They don’t know that it’s not good form to cuss in the middle of your prayer. They don’t know not to say that Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed are all about the same. They don’t know to be embarrassed for living with their girlfriend. They don’t know that you can’t punch someone for taking your parking space in the church parking lot. They don’t know that the offering basket is only for putting money into and not for taking out of as you feel you have the need.
I still, to this day, catch myself reacting when people are carrying on conversations during the worship. Inside I’m thinking, “Hey, we’re trying to talk to God here! Show some reverence.” I see people getting up and going for more coffee during the message, sometimes 2 or 3 trips and I want to yell, “Sit down and pay attention! The preacher is speaking on behalf of God right now. Don’t be rude!”
They don’t know, because they didn’t grow up in church like I did where my preacher actually stopped his message one Sunday evening to tell me and my buddies on the back pew to be quiet, right in front of the whole church! I remembered that, for a long time. These people never felt a mother’s death grip on their leg for messing around during the song service. They were outside of the kingdom while we were learning these important lessons. So they are ignorant of the protocol. When we invite them in, they bring their ignorance of theology and their sin and their dysfunction. This is the challenge of an outward focused church.
We thought about changing our sign to, “Come as you are, you’ll be loved, but for God’s sake, don’t stay that way!” We just eventually took the sign down. It’s been twenty years now that I’ve been a part of the effort to walk out the balance of invitation and challenge. It’s not easy. I have to remind myself to have grace for churches that are afraid to let people in while they’re still full blown sinners. It’s dangerous. I try to have grace for churches who try to address the conditions associated with lost-ness but do it superficially. It’s complicated.
I hold out hope that one day the church will be more of a healing place and less of a wounding place especially for those who are already injured from living out in the world. I dream that one day the reputation of the church will not be that of self-righteous hypocrites who demand that others get their lives straightened out before coming to church even while we engage in judgement and gossip. Maybe one day the church will be known for being a sanctuary for anyone who gets tired of living outside of God’s ways. One day the church might be known for having an intelligent, compassionate and skillful solution to the damage a soul experiences when being knocked around outside of the protection of God. Maybe, one day.
I’ve just published a book called, What is Wrong with People?! in an effort to give churches a more complete framework for what can happen to a person who lives apart from God and what God desires the church to do as a response. If you come across a church that’s trying to do well but is perhaps struggling to know how to respond, buy the pastor a copy of the book. Maybe one day won’t be too far away.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Alyssa L. Miller