We have a dilemma: We may not who the church is for! Who gets to participate in church? Is it for members only? What should the requirements be to join? How “good” do you really have to be? Is the church for “church” people? If so, what exactly does that mean? If not?
Then, WHO IS THE CHURCH FOR? IF, you grew up in church the assumption is that “church” is for “church people!” The message to the outside world was- “Once you start believing and behaving like us, you are welcome to join!”
I grew up in a church where it seemed like the idea was to be “against” everything unchurched people were “for” especially if it meant you had to miss church for it- like Little League!
While we’re tempted to be very critical of previous generations of “church folk” today we are still forced to wrestle at some level with the questions: “Who gets in, how do they get in, WHO IS THE CHURCH FOR?
The old hymn “Just as I Am” that’s been sung at every Bill Graham Crusade may enlighten us, especially if we take note of the 3rd and 4th verses:
Just as I am, though tossed about. With many a conflict, many a doubt. Fightings and fears within, without. O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
Just as I am, poor, wretched, and blind; Sight, riches, healing of the mind. Yea, all I need in thee to find. O Lamb of God, I come, I come!
Does that describe WHO the Church is for?? I mean, if you have all that kind of stuff going on, we’d almost rather you keep that to yourself! WHY? Because it’s messy!!
I remember doing Youth ministry… (Youth group almost grew larger than the church, kids from the High School, unchurched… Eventually the “church” ran them right out of the church because they were simply “too messy” to deal with!)
There’s real tension around WHO the church for… The 1st Century Church wrestled with it… but there is a lot to learn from how they managed this tension…
And that’s exactly the point! This is something to manage, not a problem to solve!
When we choose to engage with the culture at the level the Apostle Paul was forced to engage, it gets real messy. It’s the “messy middle ground” that’s uncomfortable.
Churches can tend to paint the world “black and white!” We don’t like the messy middle, the gray! Yet that’s where most people live!
So, to fix this the Church has always came up with “the list!” The “this-is-sin” list! My church had “the list!” But it keeps changing because the list never seems to coincide with any of the lists mentioned in the Bible. For example, greed or gossip is never on “the list!” In fact, “the list” can very much be a cover up because those who are actually “tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt, fighting and fears within, without…” are never free to talk about their conflicts, doubts, fightings, and fears!!
We could say then that “the Church is for church people and hypocrites- we can’t line up with the list or things get left off the list… Transparency and honesty are dangerous in a church created for church people. Grace is never employed because it’s hard to extend grace to people who don’t seem to need it; and it’s hard to admit you need grace when you aren’t sure you’ll get it!
On the other end we could declare that the church is for everyone no matter what they believe or how they behave! Sometimes we call these “liberal” churches. But the problem on this end of the spectrum is there’s no room for “truth!” Because truth has an absolute tone about it! The next you know, “sin” has to go…
So, if the church isn’t for church people and its not simply for everyone no matter what, then WHO IS THE CHURCH FOR? I would propose to you that the CHURCH is FOR all those people who are living in the messy middle of what is really right and what is really wrong and struggle with the ongoing tension of which side of the “current issue” do I land on!
Thankfully, Jesus shows us the way to navigate through this tension and messiness of the middle where the masses live their lives! JOHN 1:14, 17 (NIV) 14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth… 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
Do you see that? Jesus is “full of grace and truth!” Jesus didn’t come to strike a balance between grace and truth but to be the FULL measure of both! You see it in how he approached the woman caught in adultery… “Yes you sinned. What you did was wrong, But I don’t condemn you. I’m not going to give you what you deserve, but what you don’t deserve- grace!” Jesus didn’t water down the law but neither did he place a condition of grace- he gave her a full dose of both! My speeding ticket!!
We tend to misapply truth and misunderstand grace and as a result, people only feel more tension in their lives! JESUS- Grace doesn’t dumb down sin and truth doesn’t isolate people from God. Yes, we must ALWAYS acknowledge sin but NEVER condemn sinners! That’s how truth and grace function as Jesus sees it! But it’s messy!
That’s why most churches opt for either an “all-truth” model or an “all-grace” model– both are very black and white! “The church is for you IF you believe and behave accordingly!” OR “The church is for you no matter what!” “We like to keep it clean and tidy that way!”
Jesus modeled a different approach! In his “model” at his gatherings, it was always messy BECAUSE everyone received a full dose of truth and grace! JESUS SAID THE CHURCH IS FOR PEOPLE WHO NEED BOTH TRUTH AND GRACE!
Jesus embraced people with messy lives and embraced the mess created by truth and grace! Which in turn drove the religious people crazy because consistency and fairness didn’t seem to exist in Jesus’ model. Read the Gospels! Jesus chose 12 guys from hundreds of followers. He preferred 3 guys more than the other 9 guys. He didn’t heal everyone. He didn’t feed every crowd. He tells a rich young ruler he must sell everything to gain eternal life then a few months later whispers to the criminal being crucified beside him that on that very day they’d be together in paradise!
Somewhere in the middle of Jesus’ seeming lack of fairness and consistency is a clue for who the local church is meant to operate! If we try to always be fair we end up not engaging at all. If we try to be consistent across the board we end up making excuses for not helping anyone! You know, “If we do it for one we have to do it for everyone!” And Jesus says, “No you don’t! I didn’t!”
If we’re not careful we end up doing for NONE because we can’t do for EVERYONE!
What we have to do is enter into “The GLORIOUS MESS!” That’s where the full dose of truth and the full dose of grace meet in one person’s life, one person’s situation or issue, one conversation at a time! Will we get it right every time? Nope! Will we seem to be inconsistent and unfair at times? Yep! That’s the ministry in the messiness!
In my church the altar call fixed everything…. or did it?? Hey, I believe in the concept, even the sacredness of making “an altar to the Lord” but then we get up and have to still deal with the reality of our mess! Transformation is a process and a tense one at that most of the time!
Because the application of truth and grace will always create tension- tension we need not try and resolve; but MANAGE! WHY? Because we purposefully proclaim that GCC is for people who need truth and grace and we embrace the messiness that causes!
GCC is FOR letting people serve in as many roles as possible ever if they don’t yet believe, even if they haven’t got the behave thing all figured out! BUT, we’re not going to let them serve everywhere!
GCC is FOR allowing people to serve as ushers that we won’t allow to serve in children’s ministries… or allowing musicians to play on the platform we wouldn’t allow to lead worship… or allowing people to serve in leadership roles too early, on purpose… or allowing people to engage in short-term mission’s projects before they believe…
GCC is FOR calling sin, sin and confronting it as necessary, and requiring someone to take a break or step down from a ministry! But, we are also FOR loving and caring for them through the challenge and consequence a mistake usually results in!
GCC is FOR letting people give the percentage of their income they feel comfortable with as they get started… But GCC is also FOR the principle of tithing!
GCC is FOR a families with preschoolers parking area… But we are NOT FOR reserved staff or pastor’s parking spots!
The bottom line is it may not always seem like we’re consistent and fair; but I promise you we always extend “grace” while also never compromising “truth!” After all, the church is MOST APPEALING when the message of grace is MOST APPARENT!
THE CHURCH IS FOR THOSE WHO were a mess, are a mess, or are one bad decision away from becoming a mess! You see when you or me were the messiest version of ourselves we weren’t looking for a policy, or a list… We needed somebody to take us just as we were! And that’s exactly what Jesus did and what we should do too!
CLOSE with reminding you just how messy the NT Church was in it’s beginnings and most productive time. They were a church that embraced both grace and truth and were willing to wrestle with the tension– and there’s lots of tension in the NT!
Acts 15 at is called the “Jerusalem Council” they were wrestling with the reality of not just Jews, but now Gentiles coming to Christ! And these Gentiles, although abandoning their pagan beliefs, did not abandon their pagan behaviors! They brought their customs, habits, and values with them into the church and it was majorly offensive to the Jewish believers. It was messy!
So, first… they decided that Gentile believers should become Jewish! So, they came up with a list, which included, for the MEN, “you need to be circumcised… or you cannot be saved!” (Acts 15:1). “Ok, I’m not saved!”
They also needed to keep the entire Law of Moses- even the Jews couldn’t do that! And as more and more Gentiles came to Christ the mess and the tension got more and more significant! The “Law” crowd just couldn’t give up the fight!!
At the council meeting…. Peter addressed the crowd (of Jewish and Gentile church leaders), talked about his own experience with the Gentiles, and then basically said this: “My Jewish friends, who are you kidding?? We don’t even keep the law that well. Why burden the Gentiles with it?? We believe that it is through the GRACE of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are!” (Acts 15:7-11)
James then stood up… “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should NOT MAKE IT DIFFICULT for the Gentiles who are turning to God!” (Acts 15:19)
WHAAAAA?? Churches should not make it difficult for people who are turning to God! That’s what James said, and that’s what we should say and do too!! And it didn’t end there!! Here’s the statement the Jerusalem Council sent to the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia:
Acts 15:23-29 24 “We understand that some men from here have troubled you and upset you with their teaching, but we did not send them! 25 So we decided, having come to complete agreement, to send you official representatives, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We are sending Judas and Silas to confirm what we have decided concerning your question. 28 “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay no greater burden on you than these few requirements: 29 You must abstain from eating food offered to idols, from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality. If you do this, you will do well. Farewell.”
Did you get that?? The Jerusalem Council effectively reduced church participation down to two things: Be careful what you eat around your Jewish brothers and don’t be immoral! That’s it!! Talk about a short membership class!
Regrettably things didn’t stay that way… Andy Stanley writes, “You know there has always been what amounts to an invisible force, something akin to a gravitational pull, drawing the church back in the direction of graceless religion and legalism. It shows up in every generation with a variety of labels, styles, and faces. It has disguised itself as orthodoxy, holiness, morality, and conservatism, among others. But when all is said and done, the message is the same: the church is for church people. The church is for those who will sign on to a brand and abide by a custom set of rules…
So, again, WHO WILL WE SAY THE CHURCH- GCC IS FOR?? I believe it is my and your responsibility to see to it that GCC will continue to function as a gathering of people in “process”; a place where the curious, the unconvinced, the skeptical, the used-to-believe, and the broken, as well as the committed, informed, and sold out come together in our weekly gatherings, in our Life Groups, in our service efforts, and do so based on the fact that it is “only through the GRACE of our Lord that we are ALL saved!”
Can we say? That we will under no circumstance do anything to make it difficult for those who are turning to God! And yes, it will be messy, but it will be a glorious mess!
But as the Gungor song, “Beautiful Things” says, “All around hope is springing up from this old ground. Out of chaos life is being found in You. You make beautiful things out of the dust. You make beautiful things… out of us!”
Today, the church is for you. The church is for the unchurched, the unconnected. The church is for the messiest among us!
1 (with adaptation from Andy Stanley’s book, “Deep and Wide”)