By T.R. Robertson
Not everyone needs to look just like me. In fact, not everyone should.
Gary grew up in the church but has rarely been inside a church building for the past decade. I asked him why he and many of his millennial friends are reluctant to give church another try.
“We’re fairly sure if we show up at church, we won’t fit in,” he told me. “We aren’t ‘church-people’ anymore. They’d make a big fuss if I showed up, but if I stayed, they’d be uncomfortable around me because I’m not like them. And I’d be uncomfortable around them, for the same reason.”
This issue of “fitting in” is huge for young adults who have wandered from the church. They view the church as a homogeneous community, into which they don’t fit.
In a 2013 Barna survey, 44 percent of millennials agreed with this statement: “The church seems too much like an exclusive club.”1
They’re not entirely wrong. The irony is, exclusivity is the opposite of what Jesus intended for his church.
The Department Store Mirror
Christians are like any tribe. We tend to attract and be attracted to people just like us.
The regulars at the corner bar likely all come from the same socioeconomic background. Their sameness drives the things they talk about and the interests they share, making it difficult for an outsider to fit in.
Even the millennials who view the church as an exclusive club tend to hang out with people much like themselves. Hipster millennials congregate with their fellow hipsters. Blue-collar millennials associate with their fellow laborers—when they have time between their multiple jobs.
The Pharisees were another exclusive tribe. They spent much of their time together, debating important issues, such as the minutiae of the Torah. When they did intermix with people outside their own group, it was with condescension and pointed fingers.
They didn’t get along with Jesus because, even though he obviously was a rabbi like them, he was an oddball. He didn’t think like they thought or treat people like they did.
Growing up in a Restoration Movement church in the 1960s, I picked up the notion that we were the “good people.” Those outside our church weren’t part of the “good people,” even if they were in some other “denominational” church. To my young mind, it was clear that what defined our exclusive club wasn’t just doctrine but our shared race, politics, and general approach to life.
I don’t think the leaders of that congregation intentionally taught us to think that way. Most of them were probably unaware of the attitude of exclusivity they were passing along to their children. Nor did they realize that if newcomers to the church felt like they didn’t fit in, it wasn’t entirely based on our religious ideals.
There are Restoration Movement churches today in which I don’t feel entirely comfortable. With some it’s because they are targeting a specific audience. At others it’s the political leanings that permeate the air.
If we don’t guard against the trend toward sameness, we risk becoming like a young lady in a department store who is trying on the latest fashions. For every new outfit she puts on, she stands in front of a triple set of fitting-room mirrors. She turns this way and that. The way the mirrors are set up, she sees herself not only from three different angles, but also the mirrors’ images reflecting off each other—a virtually endless array of reflections of the girl in that one outfit.
A newcomer entering the church doesn’t fit into the continuously repeated image; he can feel like the boyfriend who sits for a couple of hours watching the fashion show. He’s curious about the girl, but he feels out of place in the setting.
The Fun House Mirror
Jesus’ original plan for his church was entirely different.
On his last night, Jesus knew he would soon ascend to Heaven and would no longer be a walking and talking reflection of the righteousness of God for his disciples, so he promised to send the Holy Spirit to inhabit the church (John 16:10).
The genius of this approach is in allowing the character of Christ to be reflected though a wide variety of people, each of whom can more easily connect with non-Christians who are like them. The church is made up of people from all sorts of backgrounds, each able to demonstrate how Jesus would live among their tribe.
The book of Acts is the story of the Holy Spirit working behind the scenes to diversify the church. The Spirit sent his hosts to share the good news with kings and peasants, men and women, prisoners and soldiers. People rich and poor, free and slave, black and white were added into the mix.
Cornelius, the centurion, was able to represent Jesus to people who would have ignored an antigovernment agitator like Simon the Zealot. The eunuch from Ethiopia and the jailer from Philippi enjoyed access to entirely different groups of people.
The church isn’t like the fitting-room mirrors, showing an identical reflection of God multiplied many times over. You and I are uniquely formed reflections of the righteous character of God, blended with our individual personalities.
The assembly of the saints is more like a carnival’s fun house of mirrors, which skew your image to be taller, shorter, or fatter. The church is filled with eccentric personalities and vastly different reflections of God’s image in the flesh.
That’s a good thing. That’s how it’s supposed to be.
My friend Tim hangs out with organic farmers and libertarians, a group of people who would seldom interact with my friend Roger, who spends his days with his fellow executives.
The ladies I’ve seen come to Christ in the prison chapel go on to be effective reflections of the righteousness of God among the larger prison population, people I’ll never have the chance to meet.
The congregation of my youth was even more diverse than I realized. Yes, there were plenty of doctors and lawyers and professors, but the leadership of that congregation also included a plumber, a barber, and a janitor. Some were movers and shakers, but others were the sorts of iconoclasts you find in every college town.
That congregation would fail 21st-century American standards of diversity. Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit was able to use that collection of mismatched people to reach a wide variety of our city with the good news.
A Welcoming Church
I frequently tell the women in the prison chapel that one of their top priorities when they’re freed is to find a good church. I define a “good church” as one where they can tell the leadership who they are and where they’ve been and still be welcomed warmly rather than being met only with hesitation and exclusion. This is vital, because they need the circle of support a good church can offer.
A congregation that has embraced the intentional diversity Jesus designed into his church will be eager to welcome yet another square peg into the mix.
I also tell the prisoners the church needs them just as much as they need the church. Every congregation needs committed newcomers who bring something different, something a little out of the ordinary to the personality of the church. Just imagine the people a former prisoner will be able to attract to Jesus; they are likely to be the kinds of seekers who might not feel comfortable in a middle-class congregation.
The church was designed to be a widely diverse collection of oddballs, nonconformists, straight arrows, and free spirits. What better way to be equipped to serve as a reflection of righteousness to a world filled with oddballs, nonconformists, straight arrows, and free spirits?
¹“What Millennials Want When They Visit Church,” Barna Group, March 4, 2015; accessed at www.barna.com/research/what-millennials-want-when-they-visit-church/.
T.R. Robertson is a freelance writer from Columbia, Missouri.