By Jessie Clemence
“Messy” is the only choice for a ministry that opens the door for God’s power to change lives. Here’s a frank look at our situation today, with a challenge to demonstrate attitudes and actions worthy of Christ.
What would you do if you walked into church on Sunday and found a new couple sitting in your usual pew, holding hands and envisioning how lovely their wedding ceremony would look in the room? What if they were both men, or both women?
How would you feel if a transgender person handed you the Communion tray or a bulletin? If the couple behind you leaned forward and told you—honestly and truly—about their fight last night, explaining how drunk they became, and what happened when the police showed up, what would you say?
I’m guessing you’re having a hard time coming up with a good answer. Don’t worry; I’m also struggling to find the right response to ministry challenges of this current culture. It’s messy. It’s hard. But it’s something we need to address.
As Christians, we say we long to reach the unchurched, the lost, and the dying. But let’s be honest. If the unchurched really wandered into our doors this Sunday, we’d be surrounded by marriages in shambles, individuals in the middle of a gender change, gay couples who want our minister to officiate their wedding, and families filled with alcoholism, domestic abuse, and poverty.
These are exactly the people Jesus came to reach. We may be squirming with discomfort when we don’t know how to respond well, but I don’t think Jesus did. When he told us to go into all the world and preach the good news, I’m quite sure he knew that one day our contemporary culture would get very messy, causing our ministry to get very messy at the same time.
Things used to be so much tidier when society at least shared some basic beliefs with us. When I was a child in the 1980s, our community was relatively homogeneous. What the church taught was what everyone believed—at least in public. Couples might have lived together before marriage, but at least they felt a little embarrassed about it. And they certainly tried to hide it from their grandmothers. Most members of the community saw unwed parenthood as a problem, and it was basically impossible to find a person in the middle of a gender crisis.
Now these things are common. Celebrated, even. Church teachings have faded into the background, which means individuals from the community will come to our churches with absolutely no idea of what we believe or why it’s important.
They’ve never been told that sex outside of marriage is a sin—they hardly even understand the concept of sin. But when their modern life choices don’t bring them the freedom or peace they need, they will start seeking joy that goes beyond temporary happiness. Let’s not be shocked when they arrive.
We’ll have to start at the very beginning, gently teaching them biblical basics. Does a kindergarten teacher expect her students to begin the school year with a firm grasp of calculus? Of course not! She doesn’t even expect them to have a firm grasp of the alphabet. We’d do well to learn from those teachers and find reasonable expectations for our new attendees.
Is there anything more exciting to us than a new believer coming out of the darkness and into Christ’s beautiful light? But we tend to focus on the future and charge right past where these individuals are in this moment. They’re in darkness, and that darkness is tangled and deeply layered.
That new couple in the back row might not be married because of their legal troubles. Perhaps she’s about to be sentenced to prison and is facing tens of thousands of dollars of restitution. Perhaps he knows his ex-wife will make sure he never sees his children again if she learns he’s marrying a felon.
That’s not a made-up example, by the way. These are people I know and love. They sat, unmarried, in a pew for a year of Sundays while they waited for her sentencing and imprisonment. They had to move carefully through the ex-wife trouble. It would have been far more comfortable for the church if they’d quickly married, honestly. But these two were terrified. They were facing the very real loss of their careers, children, financial stability, and freedom.
Fortunately for this couple, the church began with the language of love. They didn’t push. They didn’t demand. They supported them through her imprisonment and parole. The church met needs and gave these two the space they needed to gradually come to an awareness of their own sin and need for repentance.
Like this couple, families damaged by our culture’s values are going to have needs. Are we ready to meet them? This may mean we have a baby shower for the single mother. It may also mean we take in the transgender teen who has been thrown out of his house. That love and care will open doors and help build relationships that will allow us to share the truth in love.
We need to speak the truth clearly, of course. The Word still stands, and we don’t change what we believe for the convenience of culture. But we do need to accept that what we believe is light years away from what the modern mind understands. Kindness and patience are our best allies here, giving us credibility to those we hope to reach.
The Holy Spirit isn’t shocked at the darkness of the world. His methods haven’t changed. With all of us, he gently speaks truth into our hearts as we open our lives to his presence. We must remember the Bible challenges us with some pointed questions.
“When you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:3, 4).
God’s kindness has always led us to repentance. Always. He worked that way with his children as they fled from Egypt, as Christ died on the cross, and even now as we wait for the kingdom to be established. He is so gracious to us; we must be patient and gracious with a lost and dying world entangled in sin.
I know this is true, but may I be completely honest? I’m a little afraid of what comes next. I don’t like messy ministry; I like it tidy and simple and fast. But I take comfort in this fact—we’re called to love God, love others, and share the good news. We’re not called to drag others to the cross, ensuring repentance and right standing with God by the end of the service. We serve a patient and gracious God, so we can choose to follow his example.
If God meets us where we are and loves us gently until we change, we can extend that same grace to the world that wanders through our doors this week. In fact, I think we should be excited when we face these challenges, because we serve a mighty God who can untangle the messiest of human conditions. We’re given a small role to play in his work in those lives.
That couple I mentioned—the man and woman with the legal and ex-wife trouble—are slowly rebuilding their lives. Their pastor never gave up, gently leading them to a public profession of faith, a baptism, and then a wedding. They’re now serving in their congregation in a way that never would have happened if they’d met a wall of judgment and anger. Change happened slowly, but it happened.
I hope this gives you hope if you walk into your church this week and find a ministry challenge you never expected. There is hope, I promise you. But it most likely comes as relationships are built with kindness and gentleness. A broken, hurting world needs the truth of Christ. We must be ready to show them love where they are, not where we’d like them to be.
Jessie Clemence serves as administrative assistant with Oakland Drive Christian Church, Portage, Michigan.