“In most churches I don’t really feel welcome.” It was an incredibly sad, if not uncommon, statement. Bill (not his real name) is a sincerely nice guy; he was also a recovering addict with a prison record. His tattoos all had stories. “This one is a reminder of my mom’s death.” “This rose is for my daughter . . . I don’t get to see her anymore.” “This one is from the best rock album ever!” Admittedly they weren’t all good stories, but they were part of his life. Yet because of his story he felt unwelcome in most churches in our area.
At one church someone offered to buy him a suit, because he “had to have one for church.” It was a sincere gesture, but it made Bill feel like he didn’t belong. Another congregation simply ignored him. He came in alone, sat alone, and left alone. People seemed to notice his presence but seemed less interested to meet him. At his parents’ church his story was well known, and because of the pain and sorrow he had caused his parents he often felt judged, criticized, and condemned when he attended. One lady in particular always made some back-handed compliment: “It has been awhile since you’ve been in jail. You must be doing well.”
Tamed and Domesticated
In much of modern evangelicalism we have tamed the gospel, domesticated it. But the gospel says that we were rebels, traitors, insurgents against the almighty and holy God of the universe. The wrath of God, the fury of hell, and the rage of our blackened hearts are not safe, not domesticated topics. At the heart of the gospel is the bloody, horrific, murder of the innocent Son of God. We have domesticated the cross, wearing it on our t-shirts and around our necks. But we must see it clearly as the torture of an innocent man, the death of the Son of God, and the ruthless means of our salvation. The cross is not family-friendly, but it is the heart of our gospel.
If this is our story, then why do so many churches seem to suggest that some people are simply not sanitary enough to be welcomed within the fold? Whether intentional or not, some churches acknowledge certain sins as more respectable than others.
Take confession of sin for example. One friend publicly confessed, through tears and brokenness, that he was addicted to porn. But no one followed up. Not a single member of his small group, nor a single member of the elder board, asked him how he was doing. The confession was received with such awkwardness that most preferred simply to pretend like it never happened.
Or think about the types of illustrations pastors and teachers can use. We can communicate that real sins come from a certain list or fit a certain type. They include things like homosexual activity, abortion, and drug abuse. With these as our default examples, people will begin to distinguish between themselves and those “really bad” people.
Jesus, in his earthly life, loved messy sinners. In fact he was often challenged by the religious leaders for being a “friend of sinners.” Jesus knew and loved prostitutes, political traitors, lepers, and social pariahs. Tim Keller has powerfully highlighted the distinction between Jesus and many modern evangelical churches. He writes in Prodigal God:
In every case where Jesus meets a religious person and a sexual outcast (as in Luke 7) or a religious person and a racial outcast (as in John 3-4) or a religious person and a political outcast (as in Luke 19), the outcast is the one who connects with Jesus and the elder-brother type does not. Jesus says to the respectable religious leaders “the tax collectors and the prostitutes enter the kingdom before you” (Matthew 21:31) . . .
If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did.
Jesus was a friend to sinners. We must evaluate ourselves and our churches and ask if the same thing would be said of us. I wonder if the list of sins from which the Corinthians were recovering would be found among our churches. Paul writes:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)
If such stories are not found among our congregations we ought to pause and wonder why.
I was so proud of the church when I heard Marian’s story. She had been a full-time stripper and full-time miserable. Eventually she decided she needed to attend a church, and even though she hadn’t yet abandoned her job, she was welcomed with open arms. She would sometimes show up to corporate worship still in her “work clothes.” Her pastor greeted her at the door with a coat. When she decided to join the church they began to press harder on her to leave her job, explaining gently yet firmly how she was actually sinning when she went to work.
Their help and love didn’t stop there, though. Without marketable skills and with little education Marian didn’t have many options for employment. Her church began to surround her, support her, and help her get the training she needed to move forward. The church welcomed her as she was but loved her enough not to leave her where they found her. Marian’s church was truly a recovery-culture church.
A recovery-culture church harbors no respectable sins. All sins are sick and disgusting and worthy of hell. Honest about that reality, a recovery-culture church therefore welcomes all sinners’ stories. The guy with an addiction to meth and the woman with an addiction to anger both need help. Both are welcome. Both are loved. This process can be messy and complicated, no doubt, but so is our gospel.
Recovery-culture churches are not always family-friendly, but they are always gospel-friendly.