I write a lot about the importance of Christian community. I too often hear from wounded churchgoers that have not found a room of grace where there is freedom to be honest. At the risk of riling the ever present spiritual hall monitors I want to suggest a reason so many people leave the institutional church in frustration and pain. My thoughts were triggered by a song titled “I Love This Bar” by Toby Keith. If you will hang with me to the end before launching the email barrage I think you will at least see my point. I understand that bars can be a dark place to anesthetize pain. But there is another dynamic of these gathering spots that we can learn from. In my oddly constructed brain I listened to this song and dreamed of what a community of seekers and followers of Jesus should look like.
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.
Toby Keith loves that bar because any type of person can show up and be welcomed without judgement. Philip Yancey had this provocative observation in his book “What’s So Amazing about Grace”.
“Having spent time around “sinners” and also around purported saints, I have a hunch why Jesus spent so much time with the former group: I think he preferred their company. Because the sinners were honest about themselves and had no pretense, Jesus could deal with them. In contrast, the saints put on airs, judged him, and sought to catch him in a moral trap. In the end it was the saints, not the sinners, who arrested Jesus.”
The early church was a mix of all types of people. The reason the faith spread against all odds is found in this description 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 suspect that body of believers resembled the motley crew that Keith outlines in his lyrics. We were created to be in this community. A safe place that accepts and embraces those different from us because of our bond in 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, judgemental and legalistic.
A lot of churches have grace in their name. I am praying for thousands of communities that have grace in their DNA. A safe place where everyone and I mean everyone feels welcomed and loved. In this sacred place we 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. A community of grace that 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 journey. In this place 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-indifferent God and all deeply needed in the body of Christ.
This community of grace would give freely out of profound gratitude to a God who somehow saw fit to give us an undeserved chance. All of us would practice the prodigal son ministry, running to welcome those returning from mistakes and bad decisions. We would take the risk to get involved in the messiness of one another’s lives.
In this room of grace we would welcome any spiritual travelers and make it a priority that no one ever feels alone. We would make each other feel valuable but, on occasion, a little uncomfortable. Being comfortable in church is not the primary goal. A community of grace would not back off the truth but would share with arms wrapped around our fellow sojourners.
In this sacred room we would worship with reverence because we have received the most amazing gift ever offered.
The sad 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. We want to maintain control and Jesus is asking us to do something radical. Grace is a white knuckle roller coaster ride of trust.
That is my dream of what church should look like. And that is why Toby Keith’s song resonates with me.
[Chorus:] 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 community put a big smile on your face? If not, what is wrong? Is your church come as you are or only come cleaned up and acceptable? 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 and grace. A walk-in clinic for messy believers and messy seekers. We haven’t been honest that everyone is messy. Some just clean up better for show and tell. I agree with another quote from Yancey.
“I rejected the church for a time because I found so little grace there. I returned because I found grace nowhere else.”
Jesus is always ready to franchise a new room of grace. Here is the promise to hang on the door.
Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
That is not a message of law. That is a message of grace.
No cover charge, come as you are Hmm, hmm, hmm I love this bar
That is another thing 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.