Archive for December, 2011

There’s an article in the news right now about a small church in Kentucky that has voted to ban interracial marriage in its midst.  The church is being widely condemned for its stance.

Based on the number of people who voted on this issue (fifteen, with many abstentions) it seems like the church has been excluding a lot more than interracial couples.

This led me to thinking: how often do Christian churches unintentionally exclude people from their midst?

Here’s a partial list of those we tend to exclude:

First, churches exclude non-Christians.  When I was 16, I invited two friends to my church after months of sharing Christ with them.  We had a missionary as a guest speaker, and the service went nearly two hours.  I could never get my friends to return to church after that.  The truth is that we weren’t ready for them at any service we had.

We assumed that unbelievers wouldn’t be interested in our church – so they weren’t.

Okay, you say, the church is for believers, not unbelievers.  By God’s grace, I led a friend to Christ when he was 17, but when I finally brought him to church, he did not feel included, and didn’t attend for years.

That’s why I’ve always loved the approaches of Willow Creek and Saddleback churches toward spiritually lost people.  Those churches make them feel welcome.

Second, churches exclude those from other denominations.  I grew up in Baptist churches for the first 14 years of my life.  I attended a non-denominational church for the next 7 years, and have served in Baptist churches ever since.

I’m drawn to Baptist emphases like biblical authority, personal conversion, and eternal security.

But I’m embarrassed by Baptist tendencies to be legalistic, contentious, and anti-intellectual.  (You guessed it – the Kentucky church that banned interracial marriage is Baptist.)

Jesus never commanded us to make Baptists – or Lutherans, Methodists, or Quakers, for that matter.  He commanded us to “make disciples of all nations.”

The more a church emphasizes its denomination, the fewer people it will reach for Jesus.  Let’s partner with Christ in making followers of Jesus, not members of any particular organization.

And if you can show me a New Testament verse that shows me I’m wrong, I’ll repent in writing.

Third, churches exclude those who are politically liberal.  While I’m against abortion and gay marriage on biblical grounds, I’m enthusiastically pro-gospel – but I don’t think we can preach both messages effectively at the same time.

I visited a church not long ago where the pastor twice condemned abortion during his message while attempting to convert unbelievers to Christ.  While I admired his courage, he may have needlessly turned off possible converts.

I spent nearly 30 years serving as a pastor in politically liberal communities, and I made two discoveries: (a) some political liberals are open to receiving Jesus, and (b) they are open to hearing sermons about what Scripture teaches about moral and social issues if they are well-thought out and presented – but not in the same message.

If we insist that people become conversatives before they become Christians, we’re replicating the error of the early church which insisted that Gentiles had to become Jews before they could become believers.

When a person receives Jesus, He transforms people’s hearts and ultimately aligns their values with Scripture.  There’s a time to be evangelistic and a time to be prophetic, but let’s not place unnecessary barriers in the way of lost people.  The crucial issue is, “What will you do with Jesus?”

Fourth, churches exclude singles.  I once served in a church that had an annual Sweetheart Banquet around Valentine’s Day.  For a price, couples could come to church and eat a meal, listen to a speaker, and enjoy entertainment.  That’s fine, although I’d rather be somewhere else with my wife on Valentine’s Day …

Anyway, every time we had a Sweetheart Banquet, the singles at church complained that the event automatically excluded them … and they were right.

So the next year, we’d try and have a Friendship Banquet for singles and couples … but it rarely worked.

I’m all for celebrating love and romance, but can’t churches offer something more for singles as well?  After all, Valentine’s Day is the single most painful day for them in the entire calendar.

Finally, churches exclude the poor.  When do we do that?

Ever heard announcements like these?

“We’re taking signups for summer camp right now.  The cost is $875 per kid.  Parents, we need your deposit of $350 by next Sunday to hold your spot.”

“Ladies, come out to our annual Mother-Daughter tea next Saturday.  The cost is only $50 per family.”

“Men, we’re getting ready for our annual men’s retreat this winter.  $200 will hold your spot and we’ll need another $300 one week before the retreat.  This year’s theme is “Touching the Poor for Jesus.”

Do you know how the poor react when they hear announcements like these?  They feel violated.  Their church has excluded them from activities and events on the basis of money.

Yes, they can always attend church services and small groups for free … but most of the time, they’re not going to tell anyone how hurt they feel about not being able to afford these gatherings.

I know … some churches offer scholarships, but you either have to know someone or ask for help … and that gets old after a while.

My wife and I had a policy for years that if our church did have a big event, we’d set aside 10% of the tickets for people who couldn’t afford to go … and we’d pro-actively invite certain people to come as guests.

Let me end this article by quoting from Eugene Peterson’s introduction to The Gospel of Luke in The Message:

“Most of us, most of the time, feel left out – misfits.  We don’t belong.  Others seem to be so confident, so sure of themselves, ‘insiders’ who know the ropes, old hands in a club from which we are excluded.

One of the ways we have of responding to this is to form our own club, or join one that will have us.  Here is at least one place where we are ‘in’ and the others ‘out’ … but the one thing they have in common is the principle of exclusion.  Identity or worth is achieved by excluding all but the chosen….

Nowhere is this price more terrible than when it is paid in the cause of religion.  But religion has a long history of doing just that, of reducing the huge mysteries of God to the respectability of club rules, of shrinking the vast human community to a ‘membership.’  But with God there are no outsiders.”

And then Peterson goes on to tell us how Luke’s Gospel includes outcasts like Gentiles, women, common laborers (like shepherds), the racially different (think Samaritans), and the poor.

Didn’t the angel tell the shepherds, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people?”

If our God includes everyone in His message of salvation, shouldn’t our churches work harder at removing barriers that exclude people?

My wife and I attend a church that includes everyone.  Maybe that’s why it’s grown so rapidly.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this matter.

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