Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Unintentional "Not Welcome" Sign

It's everywhere. You can't escape it. Human nature is what human nature is. It is sinful, and it is selfish. It wants what it wants. There is no denying it. But we try. Oh, we try. And we cover it up by saying, "that's just how we do things here. I'm sorry if you don't like it."

The church worldwide always seems to be in a crisis of some sort, and now she is embroiled in several (dozen?). One of those crises is the ever-present alienation which seekers and those who decry the church feel when they see Christians at worship. Of all things, worship!  Should that not be the most inviting and attractive aspect of the church? What's going on?

Part of what's going on is the posting of invisible and yet insidious "NOT WELCOME" signs around the church building and around the church's practices. You might say, "Hey, I love having new people come to Sunday service," or "I invite my friends all the time!" How then can it be said they aren't welcome?

For starters, does the church body worship in an exclusive fashion? Do the members each have their own opinions about what worship is? Do they sing in unison, or do some sing while the others wait for their style of music? Do the hands raised in praise always sit in the same pew? Do some pray in tongues while others sit in silence? One of the most insidious NOT WELCOME signs is a body that is not unified. A church where everything goes. "Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand" (Matthew 12:25), nor will it be attractive to visitors. This is absolutely not to infer that each person's experience of God is not personal, but it is also not exclusive to them. Would someone coming to church for the first time see a reason to believe in and honour God, or would they see a bunch of people having personal experiences that they themselves can't have because they don't know God so well?

How about quality of music? Music is not the whole practice of worship, but it definitely plays its part and deserves some mention. If musical instruments and vocalists are part of the church's worship services, do they reflect the kind of diligence in planning and quality that say, "We give all honour and praise to God our Father in heaven for all he is and for all he has done?" Would someone coming to church for the first time see that God is being honoured? Is it evident that care and practice went into the making of the music? We must be sensitive to the perceptions of people who don't know why we do what we do.

Another example is one of the biggest ones: church jargon. Inside the walls of our church buildings and small groups, we use words like "propitiation, exalted, sanctified," and one which brooks a lot of clarification, "glory." When a person who doesn't know God hears us talk about "the glory of God," what picture does it bring to mind?

For some, it might mean a bright light, and if that's what the glory of God is, then a phrase like, "I do what I do for his glory," might seem like we want to do as much good as we can so that Jesus can be shinier. If that's the case, he shines pretty brightly, so my little contribution won't amount to much. Another interpretation might be God's reputation. "For the glory of God," to them might mean we spread good news about God so that his ego is stroked or that people think good things about him. If that were the case, we can't make God look good. He is perfect. We are flawed. He is righteous. We are not. All we can do is obey him, because he is the source of all goodness and the "glory" is his anyway. Well, the glory of God is in fact partially these things, his light, his beauty, his majesty, his character, his nature, but that is not all.

The glory of God is also God himself using us, the church, to reveal himself by his Spirit in the world to a generation of lost and lonely people, but also to a blind and self-fulfilling people, so that they might see that he is good, that he is love, that he is kind, that he is righteous judgment, that he is holy and perfect, and that he is the only truth that makes any kind of difference as regards eternity. What does that mean? It means that "the world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever" (1 John 2:17). It means that "the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23). Free. It's still free, but it needs to be received. It cannot be received by someone who doesn't see what it is they are receiving.

Take the time. Take the care. Let the church arise once more. Let her invite, but not persuade. Let her love, but not judge. Let her reveal God, not sell him. And let her obey him zealously, but not blindly. The world is watching. God is working. There is no time like the present to put out the "WELCOME" sign and mean it. God already has, on the cross. Let's not stand in front of the sign, but let's faithfully stand behind it.

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