06 August 2005

A stranger in church

I'm guessing that most readers who are churchgoers will agree, if they're feeling honest, that the title of this blog describes something at least a little scary. (Perhaps non-churchgoers would agree even more.) I don't think I've ever entered a church for the first time and not felt at least a little bit of "Oh no, I wonder what this guy's agenda is" from at least some of the congregation. Yes, many churches go out of their way to welcome newcomers, and most are sincere about that, but one can't really blame folks for feeling just a tad apprehensive when somebody they don't know walks into their midst. Because the fact is that people generally do enter a church for the first time with a certain agenda, lots of preconceptions, and some degree of anxiety and stress. And if their expectations don't turn out to jibe with the reality of the congregation they've visited, it's not unlikely that some of that stress and anxiety will be shared more or less liberally with the good people of the host church.

(Of course, the stranger often has at least as much to fear from the unfamiliar church folk. I almost bought a book at the National Cathedral today called When Bad Christians Happen To Good People. Every single one of you knows what that book was talking about.)

But what can be even scarier than a stranger in church? How about a friend in your church who at length realizes that some of her cherished beliefs and expectations aren't shared by you, and that she isn't sure she can live with that? That can be really hard for both parties. Many of us want very much for church to be a place where our beliefs and expectations are completely safe and unchallenged. When a challenge is perceived within one's own church--perhaps even from the church's leadership--it can hurt very deeply. A person in this situation may be very deeply invested in defending his point of view, often employing the proverbial best defense. (You know, "a good offense.") Many religious folks are both very sensitive and very passionate, and these sorts of conflicts can become terribly painful, resulting in torn friendships, split congregations, and schism. Church can become, paradoxically, a hazardous place for the heart and soul.

What's the remedy for all this? Well, Jesus and his disciples taught that the person you don't know is not a stranger, but a neighbor. Your fellow Christian is not just a friend, but a brother or sister. Jesus taught that his disciples would be known by their love for one another, and he commanded us, above all else, to love one another (John 13:34-35). If we remember these things, and make them part of our way of life, we may do better. But we still may face two obstacles:

  1. There is always a temptation to say "I will love my brother in Christ, but as soon as he takes X position on subject Y, he is clearly no longer my brother in Christ." This tendency can be found even among the first disciples--see, for example, the first letter of John in the New Testament. There are undoubtedly times (such as, perhaps, the situation faced by the author of 1 John) where taking this stance is necessary. But I strongly believe that God wants us to love one another far more than God needs us to defend his truth against every error. God's truth is far less vulnerable to our human mistakes than we sometimes seem to think. Jesus said, "Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice." (Matthew 9:13) In my opinion, staunchly defending our beliefs (the ones that aren't central to the Gospel, anyway) is much more like the pious observance of ritual sacrifice than it is like the mercy that Jesus commanded of us.
  2. Of course, the other party may well see you as a stranger, even though you see her as a neighbor; or see you as a friend or acquaintance, even though you see him as a brother. In this case, conflict and hurt may happen despite your loving heart. This is one of the risks of discipleship, and the only remedy that I know of in this case is prayer and the fellowship of other sisters and brothers.

So, I suppose I was just reflecting on how churches are full of sensitive, passionate people with so much invested in their cherished beliefs and their desire that their church be a safe place for those beliefs. Under those circumstances, it's no wonder that they can be dangerous places for the heart, and especially for the hearts of leaders. I pray that we rank-and-file Christians will cultivate the love Jesus commanded of us, and put it ahead of our desire to defend our point of view from both strangers and friends. Amen.

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