I have a good friend named Sherry. Sherry is a Veterinarian that I have worked with over the past several years. A Taiwanese immigrant, Sherry was raised as a Buddhist, but considers herself non-religious. She and I meet often for meals, and we have an unspoken rule that no topic is off-limits. We talk about politics, culture, racial tension, and both religious and nonreligious belief systems, and how to reconcile these very different worlds in meaningful ways. I treasure the time we spend together because even though we come from different places, we respect one another so much.
A couple of weeks ago, Sherry and I were going to meet for lunch, and I remembered I had a meeting at church and couldn't make it. She was going to pick something up from me when we met, so I told her she could swing by the church to pick it up. She said “no” before I even finished my sentence. Not just a regular “no” but such a strong “no” that I could feel the physical revolt behind her words. Now from previous conversations, I knew that Sherry didn’t have the greatest impression of Christians or church, but her reaction still shocked me a bit. After I made an ill-timed joke about God no longer being in the smiting business, I pushed her to tell me why she had such a strong reaction. She had a general list of the usual grievances, but then she said “I’ve just had way more negative experiences with Christians than positive experiences.” My heart sunk down into the pit of my stomach and spilled out onto the floor. Even though she knows me and considers me a friend, it wasn’t enough for her to feel welcome to walk through the door of the church I attend.
If you know me in real life, you know that I’m passionate about identifying what imaginary walls we build, not just around our churches, but around Christianity in general, that make people feel like they aren’t welcome in. Because of this, The Church and I have had a somewhat complicated relationship. I went from loving The Church, to being cynical and critical of all her flaws, to falling back in love with what I know she can be-- a holy, redemptive, compassionate, functioning body that wants people to meet and fall in love with Jesus Christ. I have seen her function in all her Jesus-emulating glory, but I have also seen her hurt people, alienate unbelievers, become moralistic instead of grace-dwelling, and wrongly label cultural issues and political parties as “Christian and Non-Christian.” I don’t point this out in anger, but out of knowing that The Church can’t be what it was meant to be if we don’t recognize the ways that have been destructive to our calling.
I know this can be hard to hear. Maybe you’re feeling a little defensive. I totally get it. However Just like any healthy relationship, sometimes the healthiest way to love is to “tough-love.” Many people view churches as unapproachable places and Christians as unapproachable people. This is a tough pill to swallow, but even just acknowledging that the Christian Church isn't considered a "safe" place by everyone, tears down walls and builds bridges. Think of a time you've been deeply hurt. Now think of a time someone acknowledged that pain in a sincere, non-dismissive way. Did it soften you? Did it bring comfort to you in knowing that someone tried to extend understanding to you? We have an opportunity to soften others by listening to their stories, acknowledging their pain, and reflecting the true love of Christ. In practicing forgivingness and in being forgiven. In taking a chance and planting seeds on rocky soil and praying they sprout.
When I heard about “The Welcome Initiative” I got excited. It would be naive to believe that a remodel alone is going to cause people to be more comfortable walking through our doors. What a huge opportunity though, to use this time to be purposeful in finding points of connection with people that maybe wouldn’t come to church outside of a special event or Upwards sports. Putting our best foot forward not just in aesthetics, but in an attitude of love for a whole community of people that God has charged us to reach, reflects the overflow of abundant blessing and resources He has given us. We each have a circle of influence, and it’s good to be intentional about how we can use that influence to introduce people to Christ. Our church should be a resource, and place where we feel good about inviting people to walk through the doors.
In the sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called Children of God.” There is a good reason Jesus didn’t say “blessed are the peacekeepers...” You can’t “keep” what hasn’t been attained. We must act and make peace with those around us. Like Pastor Glen said on Sunday, going first is tough, but maybe we need to initiate the handshake across the aisle to the people around us that maybe haven't seen the best The Church has to offer. After all, we have all been created by the same God, so there is no them there is only us. There is no set demographic, just children of God. I hope that during this next month (and onward), our hearts would be greater burdened for the people in our community that need the love of a good God, and support of an imperfect, but compassionate community of Jesus-loving people.
Let’s let our “welcome” become a multifaceted attempt to be everything we’re called to be and who we say we are.
Jake McGregor, Pastor of Missional & Spiritual Formation