As best as I’ve tried to shake it these (nearly) forty years, church is in my blood. I grew up in a every-Wednesday-night-and-twice-on-Sunday kinda family. My dad was deacon for many years and my mom helped wherever her gender was allowed, which in those days was usually cooking and decorating for Christmas. I was raised to trust Jesus implicitly, no matter the circumstances, a lesson I, thankfully, took into my deepest heart.
It never occurred to me that Jesus was separate from church. I went to college and threw myself into student ministry, Bible studies and my first round (of more to come) of reckoning with the woundedness of my own heart. Growing in my faith was a constant journey of surrendering old frameworks for God in exchange for a Jesus who looked each time more and more like all-encompassing love. As my heart grew, so my hope that the church could look more and more like this love as well. I knew to my toes how being welcomed by God into His family had transformed my heart, it became my conviction that church should look and feel the same.
I spent my graduate school years at one of the most recognized churches in America, learning the “seeker” style, practicing the tools for helping people unfamiliar with God and church to feel welcome and wanted in our insider’s club. I loved being in that club. I was supposed to be concentrating on my seminary work, but my hours were mostly filled with teaching classes, planning small group programs for thousands, and directing visual and musical arts teams for massive services.
After seminary, like many before me, I became convinced that the serious path was in church planting. With a beautiful and complex crew of folks we spent two years trying our hand at building a deeply relational, theologically inquisitive and certifiably outside-the-box church. It ended with a lot of pain, both caused by me and felt by me, and in ways I couldn’t even fathom at the time, my dreams for church spun out of lane like rear-wheel-drive car on ice.
The pain I felt at what I had lost—both in reality and in illusions of my own destiny—carried me for years. I was, in a word, shattered. The straight line of my life that seemed to lead directly into church with all the success, numbers, and braggadocios grandeur I had learned from my past was now broken, destined to face a life of not so straight lines which I felt ill-equipped to manage.
Church from the Outside
For over ten years, my wife and I experienced church life as so many others do, from the outside. We attended many churches. Participated in small groups. “Volunteered” for jobs that were needed to be filled. We tore down the sound equipment at church startups, brought food to pregnant moms, ran the name badge maker for children’s ministry check-in. I’ve been to more than a handful of “new membership” classes, social potlucks, and small group leader trainings.
Being on the receiving end of so many of the programs and tools I’d learned not so may years before, helped me realize that they didn’t always feel so great. Let’s be honest, one of the most awkward experiences is to attend a church for the first time. “Church shopping” is like going to a store with no dressing rooms which you know doesn’t carry your size and then trying on all the clothes anyway.
Showing up to church, if you are genuine about it, stirs up all our hopes and insecurities. Will it be different this time? Will people be kind? Will I feel like a stranger in the one place where I want to feel at home? Will I see a sliver of God, His generosity, His grace, His all-inclusive love, in the way I am treated, seen and engaged?
No one would own up to these hopes because they feel so insane to imagine possible, but they rumble beneath, nonetheless. What we are met with is something else entirely, all too often. In search of welcome, we stay, we volunteer, we go to small groups, we DO ALL THE THINGS. We drive away wondering why we were the ones it seemed, once again, that this grand system of joining church doesn’t seem to work for. For ten years, I lived church as an outsider, and saw this over and over. Churches where:
you can’t find the meeting room and people stare at you while you search.
I’ve sat through services are filled with unfamiliar inside jokes and everyone but you is laughing. (When everyone else is laughing and you’re not, it’s easy to believe you must be the butt of the joke.)
communion is used to remind people of who is on the outside and who is on the inside.
marriage-how-to sermons given to a room half-full of single people.
church elders lead with all the things they disagree with me on, just in case I wanted to know.
a nationally-recognized pastor being asked about his sermon, told me he was looking for “soldiers, not opinions.”
another well-known pastor, after hearing my story about being a church planter, told me I was probably too damaged to be able to volunteer at his church.
where the Christmas service—often a room filled with heavy-hearted lonely people—is about how not having enough joy was a sign you don’t really believe in Jesus
fellowship lunches leave people like me eating alone while the regulars who have greeted you at the door for weeks walk right by.
My guess is that you identify with at least one of these stories, or more. And to be honest, my experiences are mild. I have an advantage, I look the part. I have enough money to buy the right clothes, I know the words to all the songs, I’ve tried every form of communion imaginable, I’m not gay. My small experiences matter because I can only imagine how much worse they are for those who are truly unfamiliar with this Sunday morning thing we do.
Welcome is a Question
After a decade of trying to make a go of it, Wendy and I took a two-year break. This is the point where (if not already) some of my dear readers will ready their wagging finger about how we cannot give up on meeting together and going to church is about more than feeling good. I know that sermon, I used to preach it. Our break was not passive, but intentional. I engaged a spiritual director who had full freedom to shed light on my brokenness and help me toward healing. We made sure our kids would still have access to people of faith who weren’t us. And we opened our home to anyone who wanted to study the Bible on Sunday nights. We made clear our group wasn’t intended to be “church” but simply an unaffiliated Jesus outpost. If you loved Jesus or wanted to love Jesus and were willing to roll up your sleeves and study the Bible together for two hours a week, this was the place for you.
The beautiful story of what came to be known as “TRIBE” is too long to recount here. Every person who was a part of that community—whether for a couple months or for the whole two years—is dear to me. My heart, rubbed raw by the sandpaper of industrialized church, had the space to find Jesus in the face of those people again. We were 75 and 25, male and female, married, divorced and single. We had nearly nothing by way of affinity to bind us, but for the mad hunt for Jesus.
I wouldn’t hold up TRIBE as a model for church. By many standards, it wasn’t a church at all. We didn’t serve the marginalized. We didn’t take communion. We were not interested in evangelism. But we did eat a meal together every week. We did cry and laugh together. We did, in our own way, reach the lost. We reached out to each other, each one of us lost in our own way. We dug deep into the bone marrow of Scripture. We held each other up to Jesus’ loving care.
The backbone of our meetings was an inductive study of Scripture. Taking Scripture seriously has a way of making everyone feel stupid. It is a multi-century old document, full of apparent inconsistencies, translated to us through multiple languages and cultures. Most of the church-going world knows little about the Bible save for a few Bible verses. When you open the text and refuse to skip parts, there’s a lot there which one shudders to see. But once we all agree that it is the job of the Bible to explain us, not our job to explain the Bible, we can all rest easy.
Our process involved three questions of the text every week:
1. What does the text say? (Observation)
2. What does the text mean? (Interpretation)
3. What does the text change is us? (Application)
We learned to welcome the Bible as a stranger (because that is exactly what it is) and love it with willful curiosity. What came from that, above and beyond applications from over 100 texts we studied together, was this: welcoming the stranger is the deepest of spiritual practices. Welcoming the text began to teach us how to welcome each other, in our weekly gatherings, over coffee, and toward people who came through the door for the first time. Welcoming the strange story of God, turns out is a game not unlike welcoming the strange and wonderful story another person: The welcome of the first question, “How was your week?” (Discovery) and the next question, “What does that mean to you?” (Interpretation) and the question after that, “What are you hoping happens next?” (Application).
Today, Wendy, our boys, and I—in a different state in a different life—are back at church. Attending services, feeling like the crazy stranger, quaking with loneliness, hoping someone will ask us to lunch or coffee or just simply ask us a question. Thankfully, the lessons of TRIBE and the years which preceded us still run through our veins:
When it comes to loneliness, we are never alone.
Even for the most social among us, loneliness is the shared experience of our lives. All those people you want to ask you to coffee or to wonder about your week, are wanting the same thing of you. At one of the nearby churches we met a leader who was very kind and invited Wendy to coffee. Early in the conversation, Wendy’s earnestness made its usual lovely appearance and told the leader that this coffee was not about attending or volunteering at her church, just a coffee because you never know when you’ll meet a friend.
The woman’s reply was equally stunning in its sincerity, “That’s great,” she sighed, “I’m so rarely invited to coffee just cause I’m fun to be around.”
Her story is all our stories. Nearly everyone walks into church feeling like the outsider. It’s one of the reasons church feels so damn lonely. But if we wait until we feel strong enough to welcome, there will be no welcomes to be had. Our feelings are suck fickle things, but the choice to welcome the stranger is remarkably secure.
Loneliness is the latent cancer in every human cell. It waits to be fed by isolation, shame, judgmentalism, and fear. It is terrifying in the speed of its spread, it can take over a life, a community, a church, a nation, in the snap of a finger, if we let it. The good news is that its antidote is readily available. Welcome. When we are welcomed, genuinely; when people take a real interest in our lives, it is like a shot of side-effect-free chemotherapy, setting us free from the grip of loneliness, even if only for a moment. In the sum of those moments, hearts are healed.
So dear church, you with your well-meaning sermons, songs, and smoke machines, we must shift our priorities. I see your earnest attempts to make a big splash, a big difference, a big sound in the noise of the world. You want to badly to be important, to be heard, to have your actions count in the accounting of heaven. But the job of the church has more to do with hearing than being heard.
None of our churchy activities matter if we don’t get welcome right. If warmth and generosity, inclusion and openness, a willful curiosity with “the other” in all its manifestations aren’t the thing that gets us out of bed, it all adds up to nothing. Too many churches believe that as long as we’re having services, collecting a tithe, serving communion, hearing a sermon and singing some songs we’re at least still doing church. It just simply isn’t so. You may do all that and get nothing more than the hollow of a gong.
The church’s sole reason for existence is to train us all up in the all-inclusive love revealed in Jesus. If we cannot see the image of Jesus in all the “others,” (for if we are honest, each of us feels like an other ourselves) then there is no church to be had. If we cannot welcome the stranger and engage them in willful curiosity, it really is all just machinations of one more members-only society.
I am not always strong on the practical in these essays, but today I will try (if you promise to try with me.) Start with the three welcoming questions. Try them with your spouse, your friend, first. Work the kinks out. Then, if a church like Jesus is really what we’re after, try them with someone new. They will need to be reworded to meet each unique situation, but the spirit of them remains the same.
How was your week? (Discovery)
What did that mean to you? (Interpretation)
What do you want to have happen next? (Application)
“You’re welcome” is at least the words we say, but never just that. It is the questions we ask, the curiosity we show, and the willful interest in the strange life of another. This, dear church, is where we start. And it may well be where we finish. Paul did say, after all, that only three things remain from our days, our lives, our churches: faith, hope and love, the greatest being love. We cannot love what we don’t seek to know, understand, and at the very least, welcome.