We have walls – all of us. We have the physical walls of our homes, plus the emotional walls we may place around our hearts. Walls serve three main purposes: They define a space (e.g., this is the living room, and this is the office, and both are delineated with their walls); they keep unwanted things out; and walls keep desired things in. In short, with our walls, we create boundaries and borders.
Churches have walls, too, and these walls serve the same purposes as the walls in our homes, but in a way I find sadder and more disturbing. The walls in my home keep out many things – uncomfortable weather, bugs, precipitation,
unwelcome guests (you know, like the kind who want to help themselves to your things while you’re not home). How often, though, are the church’s walls used to keep out the undesirables, too? Who are they? Who does the Bible define as undesirables, those who are to be made unwelcome for God-worship? I’ll give you time to look that up.
Take your time. I’ll just be trimming my nails and knitting my shawl.
You came up empty, didn’t you? While Jesus had no church and didn’t concern himself with details of worship during his time on earth, his life and ministry should be a great example to us of who we should exclude and include in our own worship. That would be no one and everyone, respectively.
Yet, we want to exclude. We want to exclude those whose sins are different from ours and may make us feel uncomfortable. We don’t have a problem welcoming those who may be divorced and remarried (labeled as adultery in both Old and New Testaments), and we don’t have a problem welcoming people who have made money or sports figures their gods to worship (breaking the first commandment there). However, we as a people of God fail repeatedly at welcoming and loving those who might have a different lifestyle from ours or who might have made a dire mistake twenty years ago.
The absolutely most heartbreaking incident of exclusion I’ve heard tell of happened to a person who’d made such a mistake. One Sunday morning, the pastor made the rounds of the Sunday school classes of parents with children. He told us about a woman who’d been bringing her infirm mother to church and staying with her to worship. This woman is a convicted sex offender, a secondary offender, which means she knew about the abuse but did nothing. (I can conceive of a whole bunch of perfectly good reasons why that might be the case, but I wasn’t her judge.) Under the law, she has to avoid places where children are cared for. The pastor told us how he’d invited this woman to his office and told her she couldn’t come to our church anymore. The majority of the people in the class looked at him like he was some avenging hero and were so grateful that he’d purged this “evil” from among us. Me, I was aghast, appalled, disgusted, and saddened.
You see, however it happened, this woman had made a mistake. Or not. I mean, it could be that she feared for her life every day. Regardless, this woman needed grace, not condemnation. Hadn’t she already had enough of that? If you can’t get God’s grace at church with your own mother, then where in the world are you supposed to get it? What the pastor did was legalistic, not Christ-like, and wrong. If it were me, I would have invited the woman into my office and, with her permission, gone to the county sheriff’s office and tried everything in my power to find a work-around on this law. I would have put my own reputation and standing on the line, because that’s what Jesus did for us, and that’s what we should do for each other.
The walls of the church keep stuff in, as well. They don’t just prevent the praise band’s practices from disturbing the neighbors or maintain our coveted physical comfort level for our worship experiences. Those walls do a pretty good job of keeping God in, too. Our churches become our boxes, and if we can keep God in our box, then we believe we can control Him better.
One of my favorite “heretics” is Giordano Bruno, a 16th century monk. Bruno read the books on astronomy that the Catholic Church had banned, especially those daring to suggest a heliocentric solar system. In his clandestine studies, he surmised that God is infinite, and an infinite God must have made infinite universes. (The Holy Spirit can speak through books other than the Bible, you know. No sense limiting what she can do.) Wow!!! What a concept! Can’t you even begin to imagine this? An infinite God. A God that’s bigger than the night sky, a God that can’t be contained within the four walls of a basilica or cathedral. While an infinite God might be challenging for our finite human minds to grasp, much easier to understand is how well this went over with the Church. Hint: Not well at all. Bruno’s books were burned, he was arrested and tortured to try to make him recant his views, and ultimately, he was burned at the stake as a heretic. The Catholic Church needed a God who’d fit in its box, a God they could control and use to control the masses. For Bruno to suggest a different concept of God was too frightening for them to accept.
Our churches’ walls keep us in, too. We show up, we want to be comfortable. The ambient temperature must be just perfect for every single one of us, and the message cannot offend of confront us; it mustn’t lead us to change at all. We sing, we pray, we go home. Those walls can prevent some incredible Kingdom-building.
If you put five Baptist ministers in a group, I’d betcha that the topic of numbers will arise within the first half hour – new converts, new members, how close to budget their churches are. The Methodist church is also numbers-oriented, but that pressure is more external than internal. The discussion came up last week at church about how many families started coming to our church due to the Easter egg hunt and VBS. Since there were none, the pastor wondered about doing the Easter egg hunt again, to which she got a resounding, “Yes!” As a guy who was there put it, it’s about planting seeds, and that did happen.
I recognize that in the “corporate world” of church, the CEO’s (pastor’s) job is dependent on how many new customers (members) he/she can bring in. If there’s no new growth, the pastor might suddenly find her/himself “being called to another church” (Baptist pastors never just resign from their positions). In the meantime, the current loyal customers (members) might be expected to live on the equivalent of spiritual fast food. Discipleship is down, there’s almost no personal spiritual growth, and no one is really doing anything to hasten the Kingdom of God on earth. Just as I get customers by speaking to people and putting myself out there, so, too, can churches attract new members by getting outside the walls, putting themselves out there, ministering to all sorts, not just those who bear a homogeneous similarity to the current members. No farmer ever planted seeds by sitting inside in the air conditioning; it takes work and dedication.
Let’s break down some walls. Let’s dare to get outside of our personal comfort zones to get out there and plant some seeds. It’s not about numbers. Really, it’s not. Jesus never told his disciples how many to witness to, how many to make disciples of, how many to baptize. He simply told them to get out there and do it. That’s the message for us, too. Let’s just do it. Let’s do it until the work is done, and then we can stop, rest, and be comfortable.