It is with great hesitation that I reveal that today's song is "I Love This Bar" by Toby Keith. There is a reason why "I Love This Song". If you will hang with me to the end before launching the email barrage I think you will at least see my point. In my oddly constructed brain I listen to this song and dream of what church should be while realizing what it too often is not.
We got winners, we got losers
Chain smokers and boozers
And we got yuppies, we got bikers
We got thirsty hitchhikers
And the girls next door dress up like movie stars
Hmm, hmm, hmm I love this bar
We got cowboys, we got truckers
Broken-hearted fools and suckers
And we got hustlers, we got fighters
Early birds and all-nighters
And the veterans talk about their battle scars
Hmm, hmm, hmm I love this bar
When I listen to the dynamic of that song I can't help but think of the description of the early church in Acts.
And all the believers met together constantly and shared everything they had. They sold their possessions and shared the proceeds with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord's Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity-- all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their group those who were being saved. (Acts 2, NLT)
I envision that body of believers resembling the rather motley crew that Keith outlines in his lyrics. We were created to be in community. A community of believers that accept and embrace those different from us because of Christ. That is what makes church dynamic to a person who experiences grace and acceptance for the first time. And that is why church can be devastating when the congregation becomes selective, judgmental and legalistic. When we become "professional Christians" something seems to happen. We lose touch with our former brokenness and sinfulness. I wrote about my dream of the Sinner Sensitive Church to replace the seeker sensitive approach in When Bad Christians Happen to Good People. Here is an excerpt from that book.
The sinner-sensitive church (SSC) is my proposal for a new church movement toward making everyone feel welcomed and loved. The SSC would model nonjudgmental attitudes. Issues like having tattoos, body piercings, weird hair, or ugly shoes would not necessarily denote demon possession. The SSC would pledge not to gossip because we would realize that it is only by the grace of God that we are not the current targets. The sinner-sensitive church would value every spiritual, physical, and financial gift, no matter how big or small. This church would appreciate but not elevate the person who built the new wing with the large financial endowment. The SSC would make it a practice to reach out, touch, and care for one another sacrificially because we know that we all fall down in life and in our Christian walk. At the SSC we would have executives holding hands in prayer with laborers and not thinking twice about it. Blacks and whites and Hispanics and others would break bread together because we are all sinners in the eyes of a color-blind God.
The sinner-sensitive church would give freely out of profound gratitude to a God who somehow saw fit to give us an undeserved chance. The sinner-sensitive church would practice the prodigal son ministry, running to welcome those returning from mistakes and bad decisions and sin. Our members would get involved in other people's lives. We would hold our brothers and sisters accountable to godly standards. Marriage would be cherished. Families would have a community of support during problems and trials. The congregation of the SSC would not be so self-centered that we would demand the undivided attention of the pastor at every little crisis. Other believers would help meet many of those needs that we now prefer to leave to the "professional Christians" on staff. The people of this church would come with hearts ready to be fed but also realizing that God has provided resources beyond any available in history to meet our spiritual hunger. And should we walk out the church doors still needy, we would know we can draw from the marvelous resources of Christian books, music, radio, video, tapes, Internet, and studies to meet our needs. Any one of us could be filled to overflowing if that were our desire.
The sinner-sensitive church would also delight in the company of other spiritual travelers and make it a priority that no one ever felt alone. We would make each other feel valuable but, on occasion, a little uncomfortable. Being comfortable in church is not the primary goal. I am not always comfortable at the dentist's office. I often arrive in pain because I have neglected to do what I should have done. The staff always makes me feel welcome and even cared for. Then the dentist confronts me with the truth: "You have let this go too long, and I must hurt you (a little) in order to heal you. You will have to pay a financial price and spend time recovering before you are completely well." Those are the facts of my dental hygiene sin. The sinner-sensitive church would not back off the truth either. Decay in the enamel or soul must be addressed. We will tell one another the truth and explain that the process might be a little painful. We would participate in ongoing preventative maintenance and help one another deal with problems as soon as possible, before they become even more painful and expensive to fix.
The SSC would worship with enthusiasm, whether singing hymns or praise choruses, because God is worthy of that praise. The sinner-sensitive fellowship would have a sense of profound reverence because we have received God's grace, the most amazing gift ever offered. The sinner-sensitive church would be so excited about this grace that the incredible news of the gospel would be as much a part of who we are as our jobs and our families.
Sinner sensitive was the ministry style of our Lord. He was always available to people who realized their need. Merely being a seeker did not necessarily merit His time. The wealthy young man came to Jesus seeking what he lacked to receive eternal life (Matthew 19:16-22). However, the jarring truth of Christ's answer to sell his possessions and give to the poor revealed to him that he was not ready to follow Christ. But when sinners came with a humble confession of need and a willingness obey God, Jesus never turned them away. The church of Acts was sinner-sensitive and functioned much in the way I have described above. (I'm not sure about the praise choruses, though.)
Frankly, sometimes we try a little too hard to "attract" the
unchurched. A church that functioned like the one described above would
be such a societal miracle that you couldn't keep people away if you
barred the doors. And while the majority of my idealism has been beaten
out of me, I still believe that such a church will be possible when we
finally reach the point of actually wanting it. That will not come
until we decide we are willing to pay the price for such a church. The
harsh reality is that most of us are afraid to commit to this radical
type of fellowship because we aren't sure what it would require of us.
My own natural reaction is "Praise the Lord but keep the Lexus!" I'll
hazard a guess that you are the same.
That is my dream of what church should look like. And that is why Toby Keith's song resonates with me.
I love this bar
It's my kind of place
Just walkin' through the front door
Puts a big smile on my face
It ain't too far, come as you are
Hmm, hmm, hmm I love this bar
Does walking through the front door of your church put a big smile on your face? If not, what is wrong? Is your church come as you are or come cleaned up and acceptable? Why was the TV show Cheers such a big hit? Because all of us want a place where "everybody knows your name and they're always glad you came". That is the appeal of the local bar or the local overpriced coffee house. We are made for community. The church needs to realize that it is not only a place of teaching and reproach but also a place of refuge. A walk-in clinic for messy Christians and messy seekers.
No cover charge, come as you are
Hmm, hmm, hmm I love this bar
That is another message that we have communicated poorly. There is no cover charge to join the body of Christ. Admission has been paid by the Lord Jesus. Come as you are. Really.
With the amazing availability of teaching materials, books, podcasts and other resources the American Christian doesn't lack for instruction. What we seem to be missing is the fellowship in a place of grace that Toby Keith describes. A place where you can put a big smile on your face and proclaim that I love this church. And especially a place where you can come as you are. That was the dynamic of the early church. Even though a large portion of my idealism has been beaten out of me by life and experiences…I still believe that is possible. If we are willing to make the radical commitment to grace that allows such an assembly to work.