Sunday we wrapped up our series “The Welcome Initiative” with a call to a financial and prayerful commitment to improve our church in ways to become more welcoming. I think it’s been clear from the beginning of our series that this isn’t simply about money, but truly about the heart of First Baptist—a church with a rich history of being a friendly church, and the mission that we’ve all been given to be a light in a world that can be exceedingly dark.
Over this last month, I’ve had to ask myself some tough questions about my own life, and the ways my own attitudes and pre-conceived notions about people, hinder me from being someone actively welcoming people into my story of God’s redeeming grace and love. I definitely struggle with my own judgements, and often view myself as being on the “right side” of this whole Christianity thing—as if any hopeful testimony of my life is truly of my own power. Just last week I was having judgy thoughts about someone in my life that is struggling with a consequence of sin. God did like God does to those that dabble in pride, and used a book I’ve been reading for my devotion time to smack me around a bit. The day’s mediation just happened to be about how God’s goodness is reflected in His choice to love us despite our sin, and used scripture about adoption to drive home the point of our imperfection.
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Galatians 4:4-5
Being adopted by Christ means that despite our circumstances, failures, and backgrounds, that he chooses us anyway. I think the Bible uses the word “adoption” to highlight that God didn’t have to love us. The earth he created was perfect. Over and over through the creation story, you hear God describe it as good. That day in the garden, humanity ruined what God called Good. He could’ve abandoned humanity right then and there. We could’ve be orphaned by our own sin. He could’ve washed His hands of all of us.
But He didn’t.
Instead, he sent his son Jesus to tell us how to be better—not for His sake, but for ours. Then he let Jesus die so we wouldn’t have to face the consequences of our sin. God chooses to welcome us into His kingdom of goodness even though we’re not good. He didn’t abandon us when we didn’t fit into His itinerary, He made a way for us to join Him anyway. Because Christ has a heart of welcoming to all people, we must emulate that same heart. We must love people as their authentically imperfect selves, because we ourselves aren't perfect. That is hard work because some people at their “true selves” are difficult and messy. Sometimes they struggle with things we just don’t understand. We might know that we’re supposed to love people, and be welcoming to them, but their lives are so outside of our comfort zones that we just don’t know how to.
Authenticity is a double-edged sword. We want to be honest, and want others to be honest about their lives, their struggles, their fears etc.. But we’re not meant to dwell in those things. We’re meant to have a life that is transformed. As Christians, we believe that transformation comes from Christ alone. We’re not only messengers of that transformation, but examples of it.
One of my favorite passages that touches on this is Ezekiel 36:26:
“Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”
This is why our welcome is so important. Expecting someone’s behavior to change before knowing the love and freedom of Christ, is having an expectation in the wrong order. We want people to be authentically seeking new life. God’s love for us is proof that what really changes the heart of people is being loved. It’s extending understanding before judgement, it’s not just forgiving someone that has hurt you, but blessing them. It’s seeing everyone as imperfect, but beloved children. It’s changing the lenses of our hearts from what we see in people, to what He sees in people. This is hard work, but the hard, painstaking, all-in, risky work of being a people welcoming others into the kingdom of God, and the transforming power of His love, is our highest calling.
We have a responsibility to be a welcoming people. We have a responsibility to deconstruct imaginary church walls to allow more people in. That doesn’t mean agreeing or condoning behavior that is unbiblical or destructive, but it does mean not letting those things hinder you from loving people anyway--just like God hasn't let our sin hinder us from His love.
As we end our “Welcome Initiative” series, let’s keep praying for and actively pursuing God’s will for our church as a place of refuge for the weary. Of hope in a world of so much pain, confusion and brokenness. May we be different in all the best ways.
Steve Steele, Pastor of Community Life