My husband attended a party that got busted by the police this week. Yep, you read that right. Dave was at a party out in the country with several young adults who were drinking, and the cops showed up because they’d heard a report that things had gotten out of hand. There was my husband, in his forties, hanging with people around half his age, being introduced as the pastor of the young man whose birthday was being celebrated, when suddenly a wave of flashing lights and sirens pulled up on the scene. To me this is a hilarious picture, and one I wish I could have witnessed first-hand. Dave is extremely gifted at handling tough situations with grace, and he was no different in this case. He confidently introduced himself to the policemen and had a good chuckle with them.
Some of you may read the above story and be offended or off-put by the fact that my husband would allow himself to be in such a position or might accuse him of enabling “bad behavior.” I understand. It is definitely odd, and believe me when I say that Dave certainly felt like an oddball at the time; however, I can assure you that he knew he was exactly where he needed to be that evening. The young man whose birthday was being celebrated has gradually become friends with Dave. He shows up at our house in a randomly regular sort of way. He feels free to come to us for help, and he often joins us for our Sunday evening gatherings. It was important to him that Dave come to his party, and it was important to Dave to show up for him, and I think that evening was a beautiful display of what real, gritty, messy ministry ought to look like most of the time rather than being the exception to the rule.
What’s funny is that not once have Dave and I officially introduced ourselves as pastors since our move to Iola. We consider ourselves missionaries more than anything and prefer to just introduce ourselves as we are, no titles. However, several of our young adults see us as their pastor in a refreshing way, because it does not come from a position of authority we hold given to us by an organization, but rather is used more as a term of endearment. In a variety of ways, shapes, and forms, God has given us opportunities to offer love and acceptance through genuine friendship, and, as a result, our home has become a place of refuge for weary souls. It is a wonderful privilege and is exactly what the term pastor is meant to convey!
So, how did this happen? When we first arrived on the scene in Iola, we struggled with finding the right wording for the answer to why we would move our family further away from my husband’s place of employment. I, especially, would stutter and manage to pathetically fumble out a few broken phrases about church planting, until one day while we were visiting a family, Dave found the perfect response. Now when anyone asks us why we moved, our go-to has been, “We came for people, to love people.” From the first day we began living here in August, we have purposefully sought to go out of our way to find opportunities to show love through generosity and kindness to those who need it in uncommon ways, and this has opened the door for us to develop meaningful connections with a variety of young adults who have struggled to find their place in the world, let alone the church.
Hear me in this, I’m not writing our story in an effort to shine a spotlight on us or receive applause or praise or recognition for what we have been commanded by God to do. We deserve none of the credit, and I very much believe it is important to remember Jesus’ words to “not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,” (Matthew 6:3). The goal here is not to broadcast our “good deeds,” so people think we are great. We wouldn’t be where we are today or able to share how God has blessed us if it weren’t for God’s unlimited, unconditional, lavish love for us. All that we have is from God and belongs to God. He has just so graciously allowed us to join Him in His work to change the world through real, genuine love that goes beyond prayers and well-wishes. We are imperfect at it, but we trust God to move through our simple acts of obedience to His will.
So why share? I’m writing because I believe there is an important message in this story for the church today. For far too long, church has been a place where people feel the need to look, dress, act, talk, and think a certain way before they can truly fit in, particularly within the inner-circles of church life. There’s an unspoken expectation that anyone who comes into the four walls of the church building must at least eventually conform to the particular brand of holiness and right living or image that particular church espouses, before a person can find belonging, their place and fit amongst that church’s culture. Even in churches that try to go out of their way to be loving and accepting of everyone who walks through their doors, this phenomenon still exists. Don’t believe me? Look around at your church’s population; better yet, look around at the ones who fit the best, the ones who are deeply involved. I will bet you that nine out of every ten of those people are very similar to one another. I will bet you that there isn’t as much diversity as there could or should be.
Before you get upset with me and think I’m attacking the church, listen to me first. I don’t believe this lack of diversity occurs purposefully with bad intentions. Most churches start with the desire to reach people and love everyone. However, over time, the need to preserve the new kingdom community that has been created takes over, and churches often overreach when seeking to maintain their image and reputation in their community. The natural reflex is to become protective of what has been built, and in an effort to preserve unity, pastors and church leadership tend to hire and bring into their circle, people with whom they easily get along who will conform to their philosophy of ministry. Very rarely will you find a church that readily embraces anyone who challenges the way things are. What once began as a mission to impact a community, over time turns into an institution whose purpose is to preserve, protect, and uphold its existence at all costs, even at the expense of the mission. The church gradually becomes less and less diverse. People who don’t fit the mold, who are divergent thinkers, are gradually moved further to the margins, and the church becomes a holy huddle of like-minded people who do love and support one another, but have a very small reach into the lost corners of their community.
My friends, if we are going to remain on mission and live out the Great Commission Jesus commanded us to fulfill, we are going to have strive very hard against this natural bent to preserve our cocoons of safety. We have to face our fears and get outside the box that is the church. In saying this I do not mean to “give up the habit of meeting together” and encouraging one another as a body of believers (Hebrews 10:25). However, the purpose of our meeting is “to stir up one another to love and good works,” (Hebrews 10:24), meaning we are to challenge one another when we meet together to go into our communities and show love and compassion to those who need it. Doing this requires we do more than just invite people to come to a church service.
There are people all around us who need us to go to them, people who will never feel comfortable enough to walk into a church. Jesus said He “came to seek and save the lost,” (Luke 19:10). That word Jesus used for seek means to deliberately strive after in order to do all one can do to find what has been lost. When the Pharisees criticized Jesus for eating with sinners, He told them the parable of the shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep to find the one who was lost (Luke 15:1-7). Jesus regularly challenged the Pharisees for prizing religious practice over showing real love and concern for their fellow man (Matthew 23). Church! This is something with which we really need to wrestle, because simply meeting together to discuss and hear from God’s Word is not all that is necessary for us to look more like the WORD who became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14), touching, dining, and spending meaningful time with “sinners.”
This is why I find the story of my husband hanging out at a party with young men that ended in a confrontation with the police to be a wonderful picture of where truly following Jesus will lead us if we’re unafraid to go to the places outside our comfort zone. If you don’t regularly spend time with people who are still searching for the meaning of faith, if your circle of friendship is made up mostly of people who attend your church, if you’ve never gone anywhere that makes you feel a bit out of place, if your walk with God doesn’t lead you in a direction to make decisions of faith that scare you, then let me encourage you to try something new. Stop living a stagnant faith wrapped up in neat packaging. Let me challenge you to look outside your sphere and relentlessly chase Jesus to the ends of the earth. The command to go make disciples of all nations is for every believer, not just a select few with proper training. It’s easier than you think. People will always be drawn to Jesus when they can see Him in real, observable ways through His followers, and that means doing what He did, loving people as He did. It means going, thinking, loving, and living outside the box.
“And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest,'” (Matthew 9:35-38).