You’re Not Welcome in Our Church Because…

Posted: July 20, 2007 in Doctrine, faith

Had a good conversation last Sunday afternoon in our Galatians growth group about the “good news” of Jesus and how churches can take the “good news” and, whether they mean to our not, end up presenting it as “bad news.”  Specifically, we talked about what it means to “join” a church; or become a “member” of a church; or just the whole process of getting to be “a part” of a church thingy. 

Let me say up front that I really struggle with this issue.  I do not have the answer and I don’t even particularly like what we presently do at the Living Stones Church.  We tend to be very informal, but we still have categories of “member” and “non-member” although none of us are really sure what happens when someone who has been coming for awhile decides to become a “member.”  They don’t get a special card; learn a new handshake; or get to use the “member-only” bathroom.  So…I’m not sure what really changes.  Even the language of “member” seems weird.  I’m a member of a gym.  I can be a member of a neighborhood association.  I’m a member of the zoological association (I like the lions!).  But being a “member” of a church as if it is another institution in which one joins seems weird.

O.K. back to my issue.  How does someone get to be a part of the church?  I’m talking philosophically for a second.  It seems for most churches (and this is a discussion lots of churches are having) it usually means the following order:

  1. You believe certain things.
  2. You behave certain ways.
  3. Then you can belong.

So, in this respect it goes believe, behave, and then belong.  For most of my ministerial career I’ve followed this pattern.  But it hasn’t worked all that well.  Whether I like it or not, it comes across as very exclusionary and thus…not “good news” or “gospel” to people who are trying to find Jesus.  What they are thinking, whether I intend them to or not is this, “So if I believe these 12 points…all of which I’m still trying to figure out, and then stop behaving in these four ways (and why is it all about sex?), then I can belong to your church?”  In the end…it is all about what “they do.” (seems to rub againt a little with Paul’s understanding of grace in Galatians).

Yet, when I see Jesus’ ministry (which I assume to be an important pattern!), it seems like he reverses the order.  When he calls his disciples he gives them immediate community and belonging.  And IN THE CONTEXT of belonging, they begin to believe differently, and then behave differently.  It doesn’t seem Jesus asks Peter, “Do you agree with these twelve propositions (including whether Peter believes Jesus to be the Messiah which it seems he didn’t even ask his position on this matter until halfway through his ministry); will you quit behaving in these ways…then you can come follow me.”  He says to Peter, “Follow me!”  And as Peter follows Jesus he comes to believe different things.  And then he behaves differently.  I wonder if Jesus would have begun with the believing and behaving if Peter would have ever followed in the first place.

I know some of my greatest ministerial regrets are moves of exclusion.  They were well intentioned (at least I keep telling myself that), but they were exclusionary.  Let me give you one such example that I shared at our growth group.  Years ago we had a woman who started coming to our church that was living with her boyfriend (who she had been with for years and had two kids), had overcome an addiction, was putting her life together by undergoing state licensing to open a day care and came to me one day to ask if she could work in the nursery (you know…like hold the little babies).  My answer…”no.”  Why?  Because of the whole believe, behave, then belong thinking.  Now, if I was worried about the safety of the childre that would be one thing and that is non-negotiable…period!  But I wasn’t.  I’m not sure what I was worried about other than she didn’t fit into the whole church “believe” and “behave” policies.  So, after I told her she couldn’t work in the nursery do you know what she did?  She left our church never to return!!  That’s what people do when they hear you say (no matter what language you choose)…you don’t belong.  She just wanted to help mothers by rocking their babies for goodness sake!!

I know the Scriptures give us standards for those with spiritual authority such as pastors/elders/deacons, etc.  I’m not saying you abandon those principles for some enthusiastic moment of inclusion and tolerance.  And I don’t think you have to throw out discernment and allow anyone to do anything (e.g., if you have been convicted of embezzlement, we’ll love you, forgive, etc. but you probably won’t be our church treasurer).  What I’m asking is the whole nature of what it means to belong

What if this woman that I said “no” to would have truly felt like she belonged among us?  What if she just knew that she fully belonged in our community that was journeying together in God’s Kingdom?  That she was among the rest of us that are “in process” of having our lives changed.  If she would have felt a part of this community of faith taking another step closer to Jesus she may have from that context very well changed in beliefs and behavior.  But who knows because she never felt like she “belonged” and thus left! 

And it seems that is when the church, rather than demonstrating the “good news” of Jesus undermines it with the “bad news” of “you’re not welcome in our church (or at least not really) until you believe these things and do these things.”

I’m still confused as to what is the thing to do.  I like the idea of people saying, “this is my church.”  It helps shepherds to know who’s in the flock.  I think some sort of acknowledgement or moment of commitment like “this is where I’m working and worshipping” is a good thing.  But somehow in that process we must grant people belonging.  True Jesus-like belonging.  Because it seems beliefs and behavior are best changed within that context.  At least it was for Jesus.  So far, I have never had anyone come to me and say,

  •  “A few years ago I wanted to help in your church but you wouldn’t let me because I had some sin in my life and that really helped me a lot and I just wanted to say thank you.

But I have had people say:

  • I love this church.  I love it because I came here and my life was a wreck and you loved me and accepted me just as I was and now, because of Jesus, I’m a totally different person.”

Belonging…believing…behaving.  Maybe that is the order.

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Comments
  1. Doug says:

    Right On!

  2. Voice in the Wilderness says:

    Brilliant!

    I also have found ways to exclude some from our fellowship because of “my pet sin”. Championing it over all others, choosing to ignore some sins, including most of my own.

    Jesus was not soft on sin, but he also never sent those away who were seeking him and seeking forgiveness. He wanted those that were searching for a better life close to him.

    I think we are the best example of the Master’s love when we lead by example and to do that, they must first see Jesus in us.

  3. Jim says:

    Yet when a church leader steps out and says, “Yes, we will let this woman work with the children, even though she lives with her boyfriend,” many in the congregation will make with the eyes-bugging-out and say, “But… but… she’s sinning and she isn’t repenting of it! What message are we sending to others, especially visitors, when they see that? That we tolerate sin? Heaven forbid!”

    It’s really an opportunity for everybody’s growth, but it can sure be a hornet’s nest along the way. It’s not for a faint-of-heart leader.

    I know that when Jesus called me and I came up out of the water, if anybody in my congregation had any idea of the serious sins I was involved in, and would continue to be involved in for a couple more years yet, the day of my baptism would have gone a whole lot differently. I’m very grateful that my sins were not so visible as living with someone, because those hidden sins let Jesus work in me without the unbearable scrutiny of my fellow Christians.

  4. Clarence says:

    OK I’ve waited to comment on this.. thanks to Google Reader, I get your stuff pretty quickly ;-).

    I’ll come in and play that hard line conservative type (such a stretch for me huh…).

    I see a huge difference in letting this women attend your church and be involved, and letting this women attend your church and being a leader. Example is so much more powerful than words… so much more powerful.

    Finally, I know at least one person that would say:
    ”A few years ago I wanted to help in your church but you wouldn’t let me because I had some sin in my life and that really helped me a lot and I just wanted to say thank you.

    Me. When my wife and I were first invited to a church we were living together and had one son. This church wouldn’t let us get baptized because of our sin. They were very diligent in explaining why and explained how they would be glad to help us in anyway. So they called us on our sin, but didn’t just leave it at that, they offered to help fix it. And THAT is the difference, if you said no to this person and just left it at that, you failed. If you said no to this person but then offered to help fix it and she rejected it, then I see nothing wrong on your end.

    When we are talking leadership roles, especially with children, I’d rather error on the side of caution.
    So lets give a hypothetical situation here for you.

    So Caleb is 2 years old and this lady wants to teach his nursery class, and Caleb really likes her…. looks up to her greatly. Fast forward just a short 11 years and this lady has for one reason or another still not married her live in boyfriend, and Caleb’s hormones are raging… who is he going to listen to or gravitate to? What are you going to say when you lecture him on sexual purity, and he brings up this mystery women.. “well its OK for her…., I mean look at all she does and she is still a good Christian, I can do the same!”

    A comment on Jim’s post, I couldn’t agree more that I’m sure many of the ‘good’ folks have some hidden sin that would make me cringe, but the fact that it is hidden is better than it being in full display.

  5. Kelly says:

    About Clarence’s last paragragh….It is better for sin to be hidden than in full display?!! I would rather it be in display, where we can discuss it in love and keep each other accountable. Only then can we help people know the life God intended for them. How can we do that if we say “no” before we even begin? And the Caleb scenario is ridiculous. Do our own babies not grow and as they get older we hold them more accountable for their actions? Why can’t that be done with new believers?

  6. Clarence says:

    Tell me how you really feel Kelly 🙂

    Well I can see why my last statement came across as it did, but if I had the choice (and these are my only choices) to be taught by a person in blatant and public sin (the example Sam gave was not something that takes a long time to repent of, it isn’t like we are talking about an addiction) or a person in blatant but unknown sin… I’d choose the one unknown.

    A lot like Michael Jordan compared to Kobe Bryant. Both had their extra marital issues, one was well known and one wasn’t…(actually didn’t become known until a few years ago) who would you rather your child looked up to between the two?

    Now none of this negates the fact that we want all sin to be worked on, and the fact that the womens sin (in this situation) is more public is only because it is a public sin. But a wife or husband in hidden adultery really has zero effect on my children if it is indeed hidden. My child can’t look at that person and say, ‘if its ok for them then its ok for me.” Both are sin, and I’d even say the adulterous relationship is worse. But if I had to choose between the two, I’d choose the hidden sin. Now if this women was really open to repenting, its not hard to get married (frankly its probably to easy). My wife and I got married in a span of 7 days (decision->buy rings(which took the longest)->marriage). Cost less than $500… and I’ll even go this far, if a person in this situation came into my life I’d make sure that $500 was not an issue and I know whatever church I’m attending at the time would think the $500 was worth it to pay for itself. Also realize the high majority of our cost was the rings, if a person is really wanting to repent of sin… you don’t need rings.

    On your last comment, would you let your child drive a car before he has learned how to drive a car? There are ‘age appropriate’ things, and I think any form of leadership needs to be age appropriate. And leading or serving in a childrens ministry (at any level) is leadership. Serving by hosting (not leading) a small group is not it may in fact be the way they get out of that sin and get married (having Christians in your home makes a world of difference).

  7. Jill says:

    All I have to say about all this is – No Sins are “Hidden Sins” to God. So are we saying that a Hidden sin is a lesser Sin…. I think Not and either does God. God forgives and maybe this lady was planning on getting married but we’ll never know. The chruch doors closed on her before we had the answers. I think that was the point that of the this conversation. Nobody is prefect!!

  8. Clarence says:

    Jill,
    I’m 100% with you. I personally feel that there is a way to set appropriate boundries with this women while still helping her.

    Now I don’t know what Sam or DCoC did outside of saying no, but you can say no and still meet them where they are at… and help them get to where they need to be.

    Had another thought after my last post, but didn’t want to flood this to much :-).

    Another difference between a person serving while having a hidden sin and a person serving with a very public sin, is that with the public sinning it is almost as if the behavior is ordained as acceptable. Where as with the hidden sin… well its hidden. Not ordained, but probably condemned from the church leadership.

    Back to Jill’s comment, I’d even say that a hidden sin is probably worse than a public one. Because not many people repent from hidden sins until they become public.

  9. Melissa says:

    First of all, she wanted to work in the nursery, which is babies and toddlers. That’s not teaching or leading, that’s hugging and rocking. I know this woman. I know her family. She has a cross in her front yard. She is not perfect and her sin might not be hidden, but neither is her love of God. I know there are times I have hidden mine because I didn’t want to seem too “churchy.”

    What if she’d been a gossip or a liar? What if she’d said, “Oh my god!” at some point in her life, taking the Lord’s name in vain and breaking a commandment? All of those are also sins and things we want to teach our children not to do. Would it have been OK to not let her rock the baby for those things as well?

    I will be the first to admit I am not an expert on Scripture. If there is something in Scripture saying that sexual sin is worse than other kinds of sin, please point them out to me. I take issue with Christians being so vocal about sexual sin when there are so many other types of sin going on. We neglect our elderly and mentally disabled. We abuse our planet, God’s creation. How many of us suffer from obesity and depression, which I believe are symptoms of bigger spiritual illnesses? Christians speak out against gay marriage and want to change the consitution to ban it, yet heterosexual affairs barely cause a blip on the radar. Why are we so involed in people’s bedrooms when there is so much hurt taking place in the kitchens and living rooms?

    I would also question it being better that sin is hidden rather than in “ful display.” I think those things we keep hidden in our deep, dark, secret places are the things that are most destructive in our lives. If I were brave enough to bring my hidden sins into the light and ask for prayer and help, I can only imagine the impact it would have on my life.

  10. Clarence says:

    You know, I think I’ll bow out of Sam land… I don’t think “I’m welcome at his blog because…” … yeah the irony got me as well.

    I first got to know Sam due to some friends that I led to the Donmoyer Church of Christ. They’ve since moved. I’ll move on as well.

    But I only bring up the sexual sin in my post because that was the topic of his example. Nothing more should be read into that. If this person was an alcoholic I’d say the same thing. And a matter of a fact I have said the same thing to an alcoholic.

    But I do disagree with you, even with infants and toddlers its leading. Those toddlers and infants grow up to be teens and sometimes the bond formed there last for a long time… I know it did for my children. Thats why I used Sam’s son as an example of growing up and looking back at this women. Whom by the way is probably the nicest person. But you didn’t mention if she was still living with her boyfriend, and while sexual sin is no worse than non-sexual sin, non-repentant sin is. I’ll stand by that comment. There is a big difference between sinning and living in sin. We all sin. We don’t have to ‘live in sin’, we can repent and move onto another sin. I was sinning when my wife and I were living together unmarried. I repented and got married. No I have to fight not being the best husband and father I can be, and many times I sin toward my wife and children.

    And I couldn’t agree more about the hidden sin being more destructive personally to a person. But I wasn’t dealing with that aspect of it. I was pointing at it from a church leadership perspective. Jesus took people as they were, but didn’t let them stay that way.. and sometimes that resulted in a challenge that the person wasn’t willing to accept (see the rich young man). Was that very loving of Jesus? Why not just accept that young man as he is and let him be an apostle?

    But I digress. I leave ‘Sam land’.

  11. Lori says:

    This is a great topic of discussion. I can tell you that when I joined the church I am going to now, I still did not feel like I actually belonged there until I became more involved in the daily life of the church. So, just because you actually belong to a church does not necessarily mean that you feel like you belong to the family of church family.

  12. Samantha says:

    “I love this church. I love it because I came here and my life was a wreck and you loved me and accepted me just as I am”

    🙂

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