What are the parameters in your church before someone could say they have a sense of belonging in your body? Must they be fully aligned to your statement of faith, go through a class or two, and live in such a way that their sin would be buried deep enough below the surface of their life that even the most religious amongst us would give a hearty thumbs up?
Or, are people truly free to come as they are? Are they free to bring their questions and brokenness, and stumble through what it means to follow Jesus, gathered with the community of faith in your local church?
At the core, the question is: Will your church accept the worst sinners amongst them into church community and help them experience the love of Jesus?
An Ancient Way of Evangelism
This is the question that faced our old friend Saint Patrick and his followers as they sought to evangelize the barbarians of Ireland with the Good News of Jesus. They did so, not by demanding conversion before the barbarians could join community, but by creating safe and welcoming communes where people could come and live amongst God’s people.
Because of that hospitality, they saw many of those who were once welcomed as enemies of God became friends of God through faith in Jesus. In his book The Celtic Way of Evangelism, George Hunter writes, “There is no shortcut to understanding the people. When you understand the people, you often know what to say and do and how. When the people know that the Christians understand them, they infer that maybe Christianity’s High God understands them too.”
I think for us, we too might benefit from seeking to understand those who come from the margins of sin. In doing so, we might be the first people in a long time to reach towards them rather than turning away from them.
This week our church dumpster is full of tarot cards, occult worship items, and a ouija board — items we happily received into the trash out of the closet of a young lady who recently began attending our church. What a beautiful testimony of the work of God in leading people from darkness to light.
I remember the day I threw away my pornography. I was feeling the weight of the Holy Spirit’s conviction around not just having porn, but enjoying it. It was a mighty day of freedom for me when I realized pornography would not lead to life but to misery. I happily told my pastors what the Lord had led me to and they celebrated with me. Paul encourages Timothy to not let his growth as a follower of Jesus be only a private thing “so that all may see your progress” (1 Tim 4:15).
We must create church cultures where “progress” in Christ is celebrated and embraced as the Lord draws those far from him to him and transforms them in the same ways he transformed us.
Mitigate Risk, But Still Take a Risk
What if it all goes sideways? And I know this is not some metaphorical sideways. There could be real damage done to people if we welcome those on the margins and they commit evil to God’s people.
There are things we should do to mitigate risk: create and enforce policies to keep ex-abusers away from the vulnerable, have a security team trained and ready to act if someone is unstable, protect the sheep from wolves, but never at the expense of creating a place for those who desperately need the Good News. It is the very mission of Christ to gather the sin-sick to himself and bring them healing and new life.
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” – Luke 5:31-32