I wish the church knew what it felt like to walk into a bar.
My husband of fifteen years is a mechanic. We live in a depressed semi-rural area chock full of have-nots and has-beens. His nickname growing up was “Poorboy.” Mine should have been “Poorgirl.” From an early age, we knew what it was like to be without. Without finer things that is – namely friends.
The Lord, with the help of our fathers, gave us both a good work ethic. We are among the few from our former coal-era county that have managed to climb out of the lower-middle class. Today, the poorboy owns a successful performance garage for high end vehicles and I am blessed to be able to stay at home teaching my 4 (soon to be 5) children every day.
Miraculously, we were married and saved by the time our teenage years came to an end. We were pretty straight-edge and avid church goers throughout our twenty’s, and now, thirty’s. We never just attended church. We always became heavily involved and served wherever we went.
Christ can take the kids out of need, but he doesn’t take the need out of the kids. Our need was, is, and always has been that of the majority of our unchurched peers – camaraderie, or, to use a churchy word, fellowship.
We have been a part of numerous churches over the years. Early on we explored doctrine and grew out of a few churches due to our progressive understanding of the scriptures. Later we endured two church splits, hierarchical corruption, and even wrongful excommunication.
The common denominator is clear within the troubled church situations we have experienced in our area. Across the board, there is a severe lack of willingness regarding honest communication from the top down. When church leaders are not wiling to deal authentically with people, whether it be a difference in doctrine, an accountability issue, a lack of initiating contact or keeping an open dialogue, or even a personal preference conflict, their congregations inevitably follow suit.
Unfortunately, our culture’s primary perceived need just so happens to be relational in nature. It is that of authentic friendship.
When I walk into church – even a good church who loves me and whom I love, it often feels very cold. My week, void of those same people’s presence on the phone, in text, and in person feels extremely lonely. Aside from a few half-hearted “Hi’s” and “How was your week’s,” I sit alone with my children and my thoughts wondering when and if the real dialogue will ever begin. After service is the same. A few huddled groups resume and I wonder once again how to break one of the unseen perimeters.
Even if I could, would we ever get to the place where we could clean out our basements together? Where we could make fun of each others’ bad hair days and admit we failed again to each other? Where we would veritably welcome waywards even less like the status quo here? Because I believe the exact same things as these people. My socioeconomic status is the same. I dress the same. I do the same the activities with my family and my children. I am the same race and ethnicity. If I, in all my sickening sameness, feel like an outsider, what do actual outsiders feel like when they show up here?
Because when I, on rare occasion, have walked into a bar in this same town, I have been overwhelmed by a flood of good ol’ boy and good ol’ girl charm and embrace. I have felt welcome, wanted, and wholly included. I was not the only one initiating contact the following day, week, month, and year. There was an understood dynamic that said, if I want to be friends, contact must work both ways.
If the former is real and the latter false, the nagging question in my mind is “Why?”
Why did I not feel awkward or an outcast or unapproachable? Granted, there were things done and people there that did make me feel a bit out of place, but it had nothing to do with how they were treating me but only to whom I belonged. “These are my people,” I thought, “because they understand where I came from.” The reason they understand is because they came from the same place. Sadly, most of us aren’t going to the same place. And they might never make it to where I am going if our church doesn’t start to feel more like their bars when a person walks in. They might never get there if no one ever contacts them outside of church even though they have been coming for months on end.
The church must never forget where we came from.
When we do not remember who we were, or worse, think we never were lost and without hope, we exclude those like our former selves and we cannot speak life to them. They end up feeling awkward, unwelcome, and uninvited even if we want to love them. These are the reasons my peer group is mostly missing from our mezzanines.
So, the solution. The solution seems quite simple. Be friendly, right? Invite people unlike yourself into your life; your home; your struggles; your celebrations. Practice hospitality in the day to day. At all costs, learn how to be hospitable. Put away pretense. Stop looking inward and begin to focus your energy outward. Visit. Pray. Serve. Love. And by golly, bring the kids along. Children love to reach. Stop using them as an excuse not to reach.
Simple does not always equal easy. No matter! Become a people who reach. Because we serve a God who reaches – a God who is ever reaching for us. Therefore, this is not an optional choice or a task relegated for only a few super-people person extroverts. Our very identity is wrapped up in reaching. This is, by (new) nature, who we are if we belong to Christ.
We are known as the bride of Christ. Maybe a good place to start is prepping for the wedding. Each day, reach for an old friend. Reach for a new one. Reach for a borrowed blessing and give it away as you reach for the one who is blue. Whatever it takes, reach. Because the bar will not give birth to believers. The church should be loving people much better than the bar. Believers must bring life, love, and friendship to all whom God places in our paths – not just those whom we prefer.