Is everyone truly welcome at church?
Published 9:11 am Friday, September 24, 2010
Across the Pastor’s Desk
By the Rev. Dan Baker, First Lutheran Church
We hear a lot about churches trying to be more welcoming nowadays. After all, don’t we want people to come to church? This is even more pointed as attendance and memberships are declining for many churches. The Bible also tells us that we are supposed to reach out with the good news of Jesus, often called evangelism, so that others can know Jesus’ forgiveness and live forever in heaven. So naturally we want to be effective in welcoming people into our churches.
Sadly the Christian church in every age has failed to be perfect in welcoming people. The Church has often been criticized for excluding people for reasons of race, color and ethnicity. The Church has also been criticized for rejecting people because of divorce, adultery, homosexual behavior, theft, murder, rape, incest or drunkenness. The list could go on and on. Shouldn’t we welcome them?
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I am reminded of verses in the Bible where it says “Jesus took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.’” (Mark 9:36-38)
Jesus goes even further when he includes those whom the church had excluded in his day. We read: “Now the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (Luke 15:1-2)
Jesus wasn’t always popular with the religious leaders in his day because of the company he kept, and that is one example out of many! Rather than following the cultural and religious prejudices of the day, he stood in opposition to them and instead showed love and compassion for all people, equally! His care extended to women, children and foreigners, who were often seen as lowly, second class people. His compassion went out to the social outcasts due to diseases, birth defects and moral failures like adultery and murder. Jesus healed, he lifted people up and he forgave them. Jesus welcomed sinners, all. And so should we!
So why is this picture so different than what we often see or feel in the Christian church today? The reason is that the church and world is made up of sinners and forgiven sinners, all of whom continue to struggle with temptations every day. The prejudices, those sinful desires and attitudes are still at war within us, whether we are Christian or not. We are to welcome people in church, whether they believe or not, with the hope that all might come to faith and be saved.
What difference does it make for us to be “saved?” It means that the transforming power of the Holy Spirit can work within us to help us turn away from evil, and toward what is good and right. It also means we can have a close, personal relationship with God in ways that can bring us comfort and joy. The Spirit can also open our eyes to what sin is and convict us of the things we should not do, including excluding people that God does not! But we will continue to struggle with the temptations of sin.
Jesus appeared to err on the side of welcoming people in ways that led them to faith in him. That is our challenge today, even in the midst of much polarization on subjects like homosexuality. Jesus gave us an example to follow as he loved the people first and then dealt with the sin. As this debate rages in our culture and churches, we must ask ourselves how we can continue to welcome all people even when we disagree about what is sin and what is not. I am committed to that even more as I struggle with this issue in our day, and challenge you to do the same. I trust that God is working in everyone’s heart to create a saving faith that leads to eternal life in heaven, just as He does in mine each and every day.