Most of us grew up thinking of the church as the building we went to every Sunday morning at exactly 11:00 a.m. (and Sunday nights and Wednesday nights for many of my friends…it was not mandatory in the McKinney household.) I was fortunate that when I went to our particular church building I was greeted by many wonderful people. Even as a child, they greeted me with smiles, they talked to me, laughed with me, encouraged me, and even reprimanded me when necessary. They taught me the truth of scripture, as they believed it. I can not tell you the words of any particular lesson or sermon (and truthfully sometimes they were a bit dull), but I can tell you the folks there loved me. Because of who they were and the example they set, and because of the way my parents led our family with consistency and truth (even sometimes acknowledging the truth of unbelief), I was able to learn to trust God without scars.I have many friends that were not that fortunate. They grew to hate the church. It was not the building they hated, of course (though a few grew to hate the building, too, as a symbol of their pain), but the people who they met at the building. The real church.
Recently the call to worship at the church I attended included the words “We do not go to church, we are the church going.” I love those words, because we so often make the church something very different than it is. Something very different than us. How easy is it to view the church as a building, or everyone going to those buildings, or as everyone other than us? How easy is it to point our fingers outward in accusation? Building or not, no matter our measure of faith, those of us who believe are the church.
One of my friends, as a young child, walked up upon a couple of women in the church talking negatively about her. A precious little girl. They didn’t notice her there. Her immediate family were not regular church attenders, but she had attended Sunday School with a relative. But their words crushed her. For well into adulthood. Possibly for life. That was the last time she attended church. She became hostile to churches and the people who frequent them.
Others I know were given impossible standards to live up to – reams of requirements that all “good Christians” must do and be. If you weren’t their idea of a “good Christian”, doing all things the exact same way the others were doing it, you weren’t worthy of acceptance and set apart from the rest of the body. Shunned. Or ridiculed.
It has been implied to many that you must be a believer to walk in the doors of a church building….and not just be a believer, but see all things and believe all things as the rest of that particular group of people. To question or doubt…that in itself can be seen as sin. And should sin enter a church building? Some evidently say no. I say “what better place?” How often do we alienate or exclude or even fail people by rejecting them because they don’t fit in a certain package?
And then there are the churches filled with passionless unbelievers, who try to put lipstick on a pig and make you think that’s what Christianity is all about. Somehow they manage to convince people or confuse people….those who are not thinking for themselves or those who feel that anyone speaking with confidence knows what they are talking about.
But Jesus…..loves the church. Loves the people who enter those buildings joyfully, loves those who fight an internal battle whenever they enter, loves those who can’t bring themselves to cross that threshold because of the pain and fear that courses through their bodies. Jesus even loves those who are the biggest hypocrites and effectively “ruin it” for the dear hearts that need to be there and need to be loved.
Scripture calls the church “the bride of Christ”, and I love that image. A bride who is joined with the groom, united in a bond not visible to the eye but one that connects souls. Together they greet all of the wedding guests who gather to share the ceremony, drink wine with them and toast their union, eat cake to sweeten the celebration, and spend the day joyously making memories.
I once attended the wedding of a close friend (the groom). His bride ignored “his” wedding guests who had come long distances to celebrate with him and resented his attempts to spend time with us. It put a different kind of spin on the wedding. The wedding and reception were beautiful and “perfect” (well, except when the minister bungled the name of the groom…an accident?)….but we didn’t feel very welcome. Afterward we really didn’t care if we ever saw the bride again. The sad part was that the wedding was also the last time I saw the groom, this guy who had been a dear friend. The bride effectively separated us from him.
If you believe in God, you are the church, even if your faith is small. If the church is the bride, which bride are you? Are you the one who dearly loves and celebrates your bridegroom, who loves “his” people, and welcomes them into your world? Or are you the bride of my former friend…who ignores, discourages, excludes, depresses, forms cliques, and cuts the bridegroom off from those he loves?
My introvert side often comes out in church buildings. Often I sprint for the door as soon as the service is over. I’m working on this, but it is a slow process. One step forward, ten steps back, over and over again. Thankfully I serve a loving and patient God. Still, I know I often do a disservice to others who may be aching for someone to notice them. I have responsibilities to the others around me.
Those of you who feel hurt or alienated from the rest of the church, take a step towards us. Maybe walk in a door to a church building if it has been a while. If you are not greeted warmly, or noticed, know that the issue is not with you, but with them. But that doesn’t give you an excuse to cop out and run away. Remember you are the the church, too. You have a responsibility to show them the way you think the church should be. Love the people in their building. Penetrate through their walls. Often church buildings are inhabited by some of the least welcoming folks you’ll ever find. But that should not be the case. The buildings should be a refuge to anyone who wants or needs to gain faith or share it with others. It should be the place that God lives, and his bride (the church) should be the welcoming hostess. But the church should not only reside inside those walls. We should be everywhere in the world, loving our bridegroom openly and delighting in all that is his…and ours. We should not just go to church….we should be the church going. Active, alive, and loving God’s creations.