By Jud Wilhite
“What do you do in Vegas?” the waitress in Virginia asked me.
“I’m a pastor at a church,” I said.
“No you aren’t,” she fired back.
“Yes, I am,” I replied.
“No, you aren’t,” she said matter-of-factly. “There are no churches in Las Vegas.”
Her certainty was absolute. After five minutes I gave up trying to convince her that churches can and do exist in unlikely places and minister to unlikely people. Her perception of the church just could not make room for Vegas.
When you hear the word church, what comes to your mind? Do you think of stained glass and steeples or a remodeled warehouse? Do you hear organ music or rock ’n’ roll?
Do you see Maude Flanders from The Simpsons or the church lady from Saturday Night Live? Many different pictures come to mind for each of us. However, in a fallen world such as ours, God’s picture isn’t always the picture we see.
The Bible is the story of God’s dream for community coming to fruition. He starts with Adam and Eve and later calls together a people, Israel, and unites them as his own to enjoy each other and his fellowship. They are to shine the light of his love and goodness to the world.
Then Jesus comes and begins a new community through his death, resurrection, and ascension to Heaven. The community of the church is born, a fellowship of diverse people with a common Lord and goal.
I believe with all my heart that the church is the world’s hope. Government can’t change the heart. Education, as important as it is, can’t change the heart. Health care and Social Security reform won’t change the heart. Only God can do that.
And he uses people—the church—to reach out and impact others. Many people are cynical and skeptical about the church. And who can deny all the scandals and hypocrisy that occur in the name of God? It is truly awful. Yet, for every scandal there are thousands and thousands of churches making a real difference and doing their best to help others.
Critiques and cynicism without solutions don’t help anyone. I get weary of idealistic visions of a church community so perfect and pompous that the person describing this church wouldn’t even fit in—he’d have too many issues! My mother always said, “The church would be a perfect place if there weren’t any people in it.” People—people like you and me—are the problem.
Some think the answer is in the size of a church—from a house church to a midsize church to a megachurch. Others think the secret is in the style of ministry, from traditional to emerging. No matter how you view it, every church community will be messy because it is filled with imperfect people, imperfectly following Jesus.
These people may be the problem—but they can also be the solution. Yes, life is messy. Church is messy. Faith is messy. But let’s get over it, and get on with helping people experience God’s grace.
Paul describes the all-encompassing, radical counterculture of the church of God, the called-out ones who place their faith in Jesus, like this: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,’’ he says, “for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). In the church, there is no place for prejudice between rich and poor, black and white, educated and uneducated, clean and dirty, male and female, even Dallas Cowboys football fans and Pittsburgh Steelers fans—we are all united in Christ!
The church is a place where the social stigmas that divide us in our culture fade. It is a place where hope and healing are experienced, where grace flows freely and new life is found. And there are no requirements to get in the door. This is God’s idea, the new community called out to serve Christ and impact the world.
So why do we tend to create gated communities in the church? I’ve known churches where people snub their nose at the guy who steps outside to smoke after the morning service. One guy told me that after several judgmental looks and a few snide remarks, he took it as confirmation that he wasn’t good enough for church or for God—and he left. He was driven away from God by the very people who were supposed to represent him.
One friend of mine had his marriage shattered by adultery. When he reached out to the church for help, he was told he would be welcomed back to the church after he confronted what happened and made it right. How does one go about doing that in isolation? Their family was in crisis, and they needed help to reconcile the situation.
Another lady said she was leaving the church because she didn’t like the type of people who were showing up and she did not approve of how they dressed. As she put it, “I’m scared to even sit in my seat at church because you never know what you might get from those people.” I tend to think her comment was much more offensive to Jesus than the things those people were doing.
A PLACE TO BELONG
Many churches, in an attempt to deal with this messiness head-on, have come to value a sense of belonging as primary. Some churches have taught that first you believe, then you behave, and finally you belong.1 For these churches, belief in Christ is the first step in being part of a church, but you do not really belong until you behave. But many churches are more or less reversing this order out of a love for people far from God. Their philosophy is first you belong, then you believe, and finally you behave.
Sometimes a person belongs for months or even years before he believes. On any given weekend at Central, where I serve, there are hundreds of people who would not define themselves as Christians if you asked them. I have friends who attend every weekend who are Jewish and do not yet place faith in Jesus. Or they are agnostic, but like the music. They may be a mix of many religions, but they sense the place is real. They are searching. They belong first, and my prayer is one day they will believe.
We are honest and straightforward about sin and salvation through the person of Jesus. We do not water down the Bible or the teachings of Christ, but we do accommodate in every other way possible. We love people no matter where they are. Out of that love, life change will eventually occur.
Jesus’ number one emotional response mentioned in the Gospels is compassion. This is astounding when we consider that Jesus was sinless, but constantly surrounded by sin and sinful people. Sin violently opposed his character. Everywhere he turned he saw the effects of injustice and hate. It would have been easy for Jesus to blast people for their mistakes.
He had more right than anyone to take a political and moral stand, to picket on the street, form protests, and publicly attack individuals. Yet we read that when Jesus “saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). Jesus saw people as sheep that have been bruised, beaten, and thrown to and fro. Rather than being filled with disdain, he was filled with love.
As the most spiritually mature person to ever live, Jesus stands as the model for what a spiritual life looks like. He remained approachable to outsiders and the hurting. His life reveals that the more spiritually mature I am, the more approachable I am to people who feel far from God. As spiritual maturity increases, approachability increases.2
It is a sad indictment that many outside the faith don’t feel they can approach Christians. In Jesus’ day, some of the least approachable people were the religious leaders. They reeked of self-righteousness and judgment.
Yet Jesus’ life should give us pause:
Am I truly approachable to all kinds of people?
Is the church I belong to open to all kinds of people?
Do I have the compassion of Jesus for those who are hurting or disillusioned?
Does the church I serve have compassion?
Is our compassion evident to others?
These questions, and others like them, are ones I’m asking more and more lately. The church I serve is far from perfect and we have plenty of room to improve in this area. I pray as we reflect on these questions we’ll move toward being more part of the solution as we share God’s uncensored grace in an uncompromising way.
We’ll create cultures of belonging where people can experience the life-changing message of Jesus.
1Dawn Haglund, quoted in Robert Webber, The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 48. Dawn states the older paradigm was behave, believe, and then belong. I alter this order, as belief has been more primary than behaving in my experience of 20th-century evangelicalism.
2Thanks to John Ortberg for this insight.
Jud Wilhite lives in the Las Vegas area with his family where he serves as senior pastor of Central Christian Church. He’s the author of several books including Deadly Viper Character Assassins, That Crazy Little Thing Called Love, and Stripped: Uncensored Grace on the Streets of Vegas.