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The church is not a place to hide from sinners. It's time we cast aside our judgment and make everyone feel welcome. 

Author Flannery O'Connor once noted that "sometimes you have to suffer as much from the church as you do for it." This has certainly been my experience--and that of many others I know. That's because the church tends to judge those who don't live up to its standards.

Take the church I grew up in, for example. I was raised in a very strict church in which rules and regulations smothered the concept of grace by their sheer weight. No jewelry for women. No mixed bathing (swimming). No musical instruments in the church other than a piano or organ.

No long hair for men. No short hair and no pants for women. No shorts. No cussing. No makeup. No card playing. No movies. No dancing. No smoking. No drinking.

The list of nos went on and on. The sad thing was, some of the things allowed in this church were actually more repulsive than the things banned. Things such as racism and bigotry.

There was not a stated policy, but you never would have seen a "colored" (our loving and enlightened term for African Americans) in our church. It was just understood. They had "their" churches, and I guess we thought it was OK for "them" to worship "our" God if "they" had the decency to be discreet about it.

Members of our church also railed against Jews. I heard statements from the pulpit that the Jews were ruining our country, while the fact that the Savior happened to be one was ignored. And don't even begin to mention "queers" or "sodomites," as we so colorfully called the gay population.

The Pharisees of Jesus' time received severe rebukes from the Lord for this type of hypocrisy. These religious leaders were dogmatic about performing religious rituals--and quick to condemn those who didn't participate. But they were sorely lacking in qualities Jesus considered even more important.

The church today is no different. We condemn those who drink and smoke and live immoral lives while we churchgoers engage in gluttony and gossip and selfishness and bigotry.

No wonder so many people feel so alienated from the church. I often feel alienated--and I'm a member of this club!

But Jesus' church is not a highbrow Christian country club. The church should exclude no one. The church should welcome those unwelcome anywhere else. Anyone can attend.

And yet most churches are not a place where people feel comfortable if they are living a life that is not moral. In fact, the church is often a place where most people don't feel comfortable if they're just living life!

In my hometown of Chillicothe, Ohio, an acquaintance finally decided it was time to get his family into a local church. He loaded up the crew and visited one nearby. The church immediately showed a tremendous and heartfelt concern for his...grooming issues.

You see, Roy had the audacity to show up in God's house with a full beard, not unlike Jesus' in the picture hanging in the foyer. A church leader met Roy on the way out.

"So are you going to start worshiping with us?" he asked.

"Why yes," Roy replied. "We want to start coming to church."

The church leader looked at him and said, "Well, I hope you will have shaved by next Sunday." That was more than 20 years ago. Roy still has not found a regular church home.

Apart from God's grace and the maturity to see each human being as His creation, we are prone to reject those who are different from us. Have you ever wished that certain people wouldn't speak or be so prominent in your congregation? You would be more comfortable bringing unchurched friends if those slightly embarrassing brothers and sisters weren't there, or at least were invisible.

My family reunion would look much better (trust me) if it were by invitation only. But when you include the entire family, you get a few embarrassments. And your family is no doubt the same.

So it is with my church family. That is a simple fact, given what we have to work with: sinners.

We need to trust God with those who are a little embarrassing to those of us who are not. (How amazing that our prideful minds can even think like that!) We might even take the bold step of befriending them.

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