Friday, August 24, 2007


"My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, 'Here's a good seat for you,' but say to the poor man, 'You stand there' or 'Sit on the floor by my feet,' have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have insulted the poor. "- James 2: 1-6

I think that the Lord is trying to get my attention lately on a particular issue, and it's been uncomfortable for me. But I want to share what I think He wants me to learn with you. Remember, I'm preaching to myself here. Take from this what you will, but I'm not trying to point fingers at anyone in particular but myself. =)

David and I have visited some large churches in the past weeks. (I hate visiting churches, because I feel like I'm evaluating instead of worshipping, but that's another story.) Anyway, some have had interesting ministry focuses that I haven't really experienced much before. Specifically, one of them had ministries that involved drug addiction recovery, serving single parents, extending a hand to unchurched teens, and reaching out to those with disabilities and their families. They also had a mentoring program outreach to a couple of local housing projects.

When we visited on Sunday morning, the first thing that I noticed was that the church didn't look much like a traditional church. It looked more like a hotel lobby, with soft seats against the walls, multiple coffee and donut stations, and large screens on the walls. The second thing that I noticed was that I wasn't mainly surrounded with people who look just like me. This church looked like the world at large, not the small microcosm of it that I'm slowly realizing that I'm used to seeing on Sunday mornings. There were African families in full traditional garb. There were multiple people in wheelchairs, and I nearly knocked over a blind man whose dog was being a bit unruly. The teens were a bit more scantily clad and pierced than I usually see in church, but hey, they were in church. And I'm pretty sure that I was in the nursing mother's room with a single, teenage mother. This church was a rainbow of young, old, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, dressed up, dressed down, etc.

And when I went home, I realized, to my own discomfort, that I hadn't been comfortable at church that morning. And that, quite frankly, was a puzzle to me. I started thinking about why I had been uncomfortable, trying to flesh out the reasons. Did I hear any faulty theology being preached? No, the sermon had been meaty and doctrinally sound. Did anyone do or say anything ugly to me? No, everyone had been very friendly and kind. So why was I uncomfortable? I finally had to admit to myself that I was uncomfortable because several of the people I worshipped with that morning had their problems and sufferings on display for me to see, and I wanted to hide from that. I realized that I've gotten used to common middle class sins and sufferings, and any that are outside of those are apparently outside of my current comfort zone.

Here's a partial list of things that I'm comfortable hearing about from fellow believers:
a. difficulty overcoming road rage
b. spiritual pride
c. inconsistency with a morning quiet time
d. difficulty disciplining toddlers
e. problems with in-laws

And here's a partial list of things that make me want to hide because I feel incapable of helping/don't want to be reminded that there's such hardship in the world:
a. relapse in drug addiction
b. grief over a spouse who has committed adultery
c. coping with a child's severe physical disability
d. new believer who doesn't even know yet that much in his/her lifestyle is sin

I have learned, to my shame, that I am more comfortable with certain problems and sins than others. I, without realizing it consciously, have wanted others to show me a shiny, squeaky clean exterior when I see them at church. I, without realizing it, have wanted to be surrounded mainly by people who come from my background and have my same education level.

David and I have been members of two very different churches in the past couple of years. One was a very small church with few workers and many needs. The last one was a larger church with many strong believers and few unmet needs. The first church taught me that there needs to be a good balance of strong and weak believers, because you need to have enouch stronger believers to provide for the needs of weaker ones who may need more at that moment. The second church had so many strong believers that I knew of very few people who were in need. Now, maybe that was just because I didn't know enough people in the larger church, but I really doubt that many in the church were struggling with drug addiction or broken marriages, and I also didn't know of many teens whose parents did not come with them to church. It was a church of super Christians and amazing Christian families, and that was inspiring to see.

But I wonder... should a church be composed mainly of super Christians? Our last church is thrilled and happy to disciple new believers; I know they are. But I it possible that many newer believers, struggling with obvious sin patterns, come in the door, see the high level of spiritual living, and run for the hills? Do they feel comfortable enough there to stay and be loved on? And would there be a place for them to exercise their gifts there, or would they always feel like there were so many people who were stronger than them, that they weren't needed?

And I wonder if I, in my unconscious desire to have a church where people look whole on the outside, am showing favortism to the "rich." Is today's church equivalent of a "gold ring and fine clothes," a smiling Christian family, wearing clean, neat, modest clothing, each carrying a Bible under their arm? Is today's church equivalent of the "poor man in shabby clothes" a distrustful looking teenage girl, coming in alone, with purple hair and a belly button ring? How do I treat the smiling family? How do I treat the girl? And what does it say about me when I am not as comfortable sitting next to that girl on Sunday morning as I would be sitting next to the family? Nothing good, my friend, nothing good.

Jesus came to die for all of us. All. Of. Us. And I have no right to want my church mainly composed of people who look just like me, who share my same middle class problems, and who I find most easy to relate to. Yes, I know that the middle class have problems. Boy, I sure know I have problems. But I don't get to decide which problems I'm ok with and which problems I'll reject when I serve the body of Christ.

I need to think more about the way I choose a church. I need to be more open to the Holy Spirit leading me to serve other Christians with problems that are foreign and potentially uncomfortable to me. I don't need to pick a church primarily because I feel comfortable there. I need to realize that I'm asking "What's in it for me?" when I visit churches, and I need to start doing less of that. I'm not sure what kind of church that God will call us to, but whatever kind it is, I want to be sure that I'm not joining because it's a place where I won't have to serve people or deal with problems that I'm not used to.

This post is already far too long, but this is a weight that I needed to get off my chest. The church hunt is far from over, but regardless of what church we choose, I know that I'll be looking at things with different eyes now.


Anonymous said...

It is important to serve others, and it is a blessing to have that opportunity right in your own church. However, it is also important to realize that SERVING is not the same as SPOILING. We live in a culture that encourages spoiling, from churches to parents who are unable to say no to their children and teach them right from wrong.

While I truly believe that we are to love everyone, to reach out to everyone, to minister the love of Christ to everyone, the place where you need to draw the line is when it comes to giving in to sin. Yes, we forgive. But forgiveness means that we first recognize that there is a wrong that needs to be forgiven. Truly loving as Christ loves means not leaving people to steep in their sin.

So if you find a church that has open arms to draw people in by the love of God and to be used by Him in some way as conduits of the grace that transforms, TRANSFORMS, lives, then that is a good thing. But if it is all about making people feel comfortable in their sin, accepting them in sexually revealing clothing and putting up with foul language, irreverence and Biblical ignorance without taking strides to help to improve these issues, then please beware.

Ellen said...

I completely agree that a church should not condone sin. That doesn't do anyone any favors. Sin should always be pointed out lovingly. I am not in favor of churches being comfortable with sin in the name of getting people in. However, we must give everyone the chance to hear the Gospel, even if they are dressed inappropriately when they come in the door. Every new believer, (and all old ones, too), have sin issues that they need to deal with. We don't conquer them instantaneously when we come to Christ. Whether it's immodest dress or jealousy, for instance, we're all struggling to overcome each day. We need to extend each other some grace as we learn how become more like Jesus.

Alice said...

I loved your post! You said so many things that I have been thinking myself, (only you said them much clearer!)

I have to say that we all, as Believers, are on the sin spectrum. If I believe if it my duty to Christ to point out to others the areas where they are "not quite there yet" then I am a HUGE hypocrite. And let me tell you, I am a huge hypocrite - because that is what I tend to do all the time (but cowardly and mostly in my mind or behind their backs).

I wonder if maybe the balance comes in remembering that all who profess Christ all accepted, AND all who profess Christ are in need of on-going discipleship. How that plays out is a mystery to me, but I've seen it done and I've been the recipient of that kind of love. And it is awesome.

But I have to tell you that if I feel discipline coming down on me with out the acceptance (without a loving relationship), it's feels very ugly and not of God.

Thanks again for your post. I hope you find a church home soon.

Alice said...

sorry for the typos! too much coffee.

Ruth said...

anonymous here again...

I think one of the keys to being able to help people grow past their sin is to be upfront about our own, which is something that is not very commonly done, it seems to me. "You need to be more perfect, like me," is a totally unaccepting and unacceptable attitude. "I'm dealing with a similar struggle, and these are scriptures God has used to speak to me," is a bit better.

Whether a liberal, seeker-sensitive, "it doesn't matter how you live because we are in the age of grace" kind of church, or a sour, judgemental, legalistic one, the problem often seems to boil down to personal pride: "We do church better than they do, because we know how to interpret God's Word and they don't." (Or, some churches don't even care about interpreting God's Word.)

We do have to point out wrongs even though we aren't perfect. Just think if, as a parent, you decided that you would not discipline your child until you were perfect. You would never discipline him, and society would devolve even faster than it is devolving right now. But you know that you need to discipline your child in love, for his own good. This is also how church discipline needs to take place--in love, and for good. Discipline means teaching. If you know more about something than somebody else, then you should teach them. Lovingly. And when you make a mistake (which you will), you need to be ready to admit it, and learn from the person who points it out, and apologize... the leaders need to set an example of humility. Hmmm. Seems like Somebody else once taught about leaders setting examples of humility.

Nobody likes to discipline. Ask me about the times I have neglected to discipline my own children, just because it was too "unpleasant." How much more unpleasant it is when it involves being candid with others about our own sins and risking humiliation by exposing them. However, that does not excuse mature believers from doing something that God has commanded us to do (yes, He has, even though it rarely happens).

Most important of all, we need to set our eyes and hearts on the Lord, spend daily time in His Word and in prayer, and never decide that we have figured it all out and are finished with our spiritual growth. That kind of attitude is what gets all kinds of churches into trouble (and not just legalistic ones; people who are convinced that grace trumps justice and campaign for gay rights share the same prideful attitude as the churches that turn gays away from their doors--they all think they know the answer). God isn't finished with anyone yet. Anyone who thinks he has figured out God's mind and no longer needs to search the scriptures is pridefully fooling himself.

God gave us a narrow path to find so that we, like Peter on the water, would need to keep our eyes on Him and our hands reaching out for Him. Love the sinner; hate the sin. It's an old saying, but who has accomplished it besides Jesus?

Ann said...

I am troubled by the comparison of one's relationships with other believers and/or church attendees to the parent-child relationship. Certainly we must discipline our children, even as we know that we ourselves-- as parents-- are not perfect. We're older and have more life experience than our children. Children can be impulsive, have limited understanding of consequences, and often lack in basic social skills! For their survival, if nothing else, we must responsibly and lovingly correct them.

To assume that I "know more about something than somebody else," just as I know more than my immature children, can have devastating consequences. People
"wearing sexually revealing clothing" have taught me about Jesus' love, as have people wearing designer labels. I would guess that the hidden sins of complacency and pride are pointed out less often than "irreverence and Biblical ignorance," but are they less displeasing to God?

Years ago I was the recipient of supposedly well-meaning correction by "mature" Christians. I wasn't campaigning for "gay rights," or using "foul language"-- and I'm sure I wasn't asking to be "spoiled." BUT I WAS DIFFERENT. Being treated like a misbehaving child tainted the professions of love and acceptance. When church "insiders" claim the right to correct others, it can quickly get out of hand-- and revealing Christ's love is the first casualty.

Sarah Shingler said...

Wow. This post is pretty killer. As someone who rarely felt like I fit in with the "Christian Kids" I think I have the exact oposite problem as you Ellen, dear. I go to church looking for White Stripes t-shirts and tattoos (exageration alert.. Redeemer has a nice mix and I haven't yet encountered too many punks.. still looking ;) ). Anyway.. Stephen and I always feel judged and misunderstood by the "Church Crowd" so we tend to put them in our box full of stereotypes. This is super hypocritical!!! How the heck do I know what kind of music they listen too or what sort of movies they watch??? They could be more like me than I know but I am so afraid that they listen exclusively to Amy Grant and shielded their eyes during Titanic that I don't give them a chance. That's not cool. I think it's important to feel comfortable where you worship... and I truly appreciate your honesty in sharing what pecks at the borders of your comfort zone. It makes me wonder about my own. Always nice to have someone put a mirror in front of your face. Thanks Anne girl.

Ruth said...

Why do you assume that the sins of pride and gossip would not be confronted? I think they do need to be confronted. I don't think we all ought to be wearing pantyhose and collared blouses to church, but we do need to be willing to learn how to live in a community of love. That could (should) involve older saints learning to open their hearts to people who do not look like "traditional" Christians, and it could (should) also involve new Christians learning things like, for example, how a woman's clothing can cause a man to stuggle with sinful thoughts, and how as a family where we love one another, we try to avoid tempting others to sin as much as possible.

I am sorry that some of the commenters were treated unlovingly. I have also been treated unlovingly. It made me very angry. I still don't have very positive feelings about the person who did it. But, unloving and hurtful as she was, there was a point to what she said, a kernel of truth (maybe more than a kernel) that I should learn from. She criticized me for being a mature believer who is shy and fails to reach out to people as I ought to. She really hurt my feelings. The way she approached me did not build my confidence or help me to feel motivated to do the things she said I ought to do; rather, she crushed my spirit and made me feel more shy and awkward than ever. But, all the same, what she said was true.

Another problem with the idea of church discipline is that the word "discipline" has such a connotation of judgement and punishment. But really, to discipline is to teach. Don't you think mature believers should teach new believers about how to increase in the life of love and respect for one another that God has called us to?

I don't think this is usually best handled by cornering an individual in a room and telling him/her what is wrong with his/her life. It is best handled in loving relationships. Ellen said at one point that we shouldn't expect sin issues to be dealt with instantaneously. I couldn't agree more! It is not where people ARE that concerns me--it is where they are HEADED. The thing that concerns me is that I have seen some churches that seem comfortable keeping people where they are, not challenging them to grow. I've never been to the church Ellen wrote about--I don't even know where it is. It could be an absolutely wonderful church, changing lives with the power of Jesus' love.

It just makes me sad when churches let people be comfortable in sin and don't challenge them to grow.

(from Ruth or anonymous, or however it comes out--I'm not too techy)