It has been a long and often strange journey seeking true Christian fellowship in various houses of worship during my travels. It is not my intention to rebuke anyone but rather to reflect with a degree of sadness on the wasted potential that many of these encounters have held. While the Bible teaches that we have all sinned, the reality of experience is that many of our brothers and sisters are resistant to fellowship with those who have offended personal and societal sensibilities. The problem is that life is filled with such people. In truth, WE are such people. My sins and the sins of others deeply offend our God, who loved us so much that He sent His own Son to take our punishment. The sweetness of heaven sullied with the sins of all.
Knowing the costs of my forgiveness, I find myself grasping for understanding when I encounter church as a business. It seems so antithetical, so opposed to the message inherent in Jesus life. Within the American church, a spiritual organizational structure has arisen which precludes direct and meaningful engagement between church goers and those with whom they might relate. When a soul comes knocking on the church office door, it is a precious opportunity to listen and pray for guidance. In fact, that knock usually results in a critical look, a quick inquisition and a glance at the church rolls before assigning the visitor to some church staff member who may or may not be able to help them. It is a similar approach to the one taken by the cable company when you call for service. Ineffective and disheartening.
Most people who come seeking help are doing so as a last resource. They are in pain and are often wounded. They suffer from fear of rejection and a deep sense of shame, so when the receptionist asks them to summarize why they want to see the pastor, they feel vulnerable, exposed and confused. An encounter of this type is neither welcoming nor edifying. It is simply a re-creation of prior humiliations and judgmental encounters. At that moment the church ceases to function as a hospital for the spiritually wounded, and becomes another venue of social service efforts. The questions which follow are usually gilded with an unbashful condescending edge which further shatters the visitor’s confidence of finding someone who can really understand.
Desperation rises as the engagement deteriorates and one more time an opportunity is lost to demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ. Perhaps some token expression is offered in lieu of personal assistance and the sad affair ends with two people wondering exactly what happened. The visitor reflects on the sad reality of church business and the church staff member satisfies themselves with the conscious belief that they did all they could within policy. Sometimes the visitor has come with an idea or a potential gift for the church, but finds themselves being routed in the same fashion. The staff member is busy figuring out which box this person needs to fit within. And so an opportunity to actively engage is lost or rejected because the thought does not conveniently fit within the dominant church thought at that moment.
It would appear that many churches are consumed with the business of church and oftentimes members are willing to go along with the pretense of service. But activity for the sake of activity is meaningless. Every time that Jesus engaged someone He did so openly and directly. He never shied away from the potential consequences of public ministry. In fact that approach to engaging others ultimately cost Him, His life. At least for three days! Jesus poured Himself into the lives of others without exception. Can my own walk be any different? There will always be people who think they are getting over on me. There will always be those unfortunates, the lepers of society that make’s one’s skin crawl. There will always be takers. But there will also be the one who is desperate and truly seeking Christian fellowship, love and understanding. I can only reach that one, by remaining open to all of the others that I encounter. In this kind of outreach there is no place for the structure of church business, only the opportunity to be of service to others in need of God’s grace.
Do you have a formula in your head that you use to determine who is worthy of your help? Would Jesus on trial before Pilate, have met your criteria for help? Maybe you were created expressively for just this moment in time. To be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ to someone else.
I am blessed to have friends, Christian friends who have loving hearts to serve Jesus. They are creatures of wisdom and discernment, who are able to take my words and understand that this is not an attack on Christianity, but rather a critique on the unfortunate habits that can slip into our midst if we do not stay on guard. It is a blessing to share with brothers and sisters who have the desire to really know about one’s heart. It is also a joy to be reminded that many churches have very limited resources in terms of manpower and may easily become overwhelmed by the human onslaught of need which they encounter on a daily basis. This is a truth and faithful reflection of the need facing true followers of Jesus Christ.
As He reminded us, “The poor will always be with you” also noting that the harvest is ready, but the workers are few. The true follower after Jesus Christ has many challenges throughout the course of their lives and these challenges are not just restricted to the sinfulness of the world. Sometimes we are challenged in our complacency or even in our tiredness. I remember that even Jesus fell asleep, exhausted in back of the small boat, while a storm raged around Him. His followers were seized with panic and fear, finally turning their attention to the sleeping Savior. They woke Him in their anxiety and were comforted by His words rebuking the wind and the seas. In the midst of our fears, uncertainties and even moments of panic, let us remember our bond of Christian unity and turn to Jesus as our sufficiency. We must always be about the business of The Father, but we must never allow ourselves to slip into a pattern of seeing church as a business.