September 29, 2013

Everyone’s Welcome

A few weeks ago I was listening to a preacher describe what he called his bad church experience.  This preacher had been raised in the church and is in fact the son of a preacher.  The church he was a part of was a traditional Southern Baptist Church.  It had pretty much been doing the same thing in the same way for as long as anyone could remember.  Well, one day this guy brought a friend with him to church.  His friend had never gone to church anywhere.  He didn’t have any real basis for what to expect.  As such he really was a blank slate.  He wasn’t anti-Christian or anti-God so much as just not interested.  Well, after working on his friend for a long time he finally agreed to come to church with him.  Now remember, this preacher had grown up in his church.  The things they did there were normal to him.  They were, at least, until his friend walked in the doors.  As soon as he walked in the room with his friend he immediately started to become aware of all the things in his church which seemed so normal to him, but which stood the chance of convincing his friend that the whole church and God thing was as pointless or irrelevant or out-of-touch as he had always thought.  He suddenly realized that everything from the music to the stand-up-sit-down routine to the kinds of words that were used to the message to the whole environment were crafted in a way that made people like his friend not want to come more than once.  It was a church, in other words, that was designed primarily with church people in mind.  It was a church that sent the message to unchurched folks like his friend that they really weren’t welcome.  Now, none of this was official on the church’s part.  If anything, it was a large and growing church with a big budget and a heavy involvement in a variety of missions projects around the community and the world.  But as far as this unchurched man was concerned, none of that mattered.  The whole experience felt uncomfortable and unfamiliar enough that he wasn’t really all that interested in coming back.  This preacher said in that moment a realization dawned to him that has never left him and in fact played a huge role in how he designed his own church: if the message of the church is for everyone, then the culture of the church can’t exclude anyone.

This morning we are in the third and final part of our fresh look at the mission and vision of Central Baptist Church.  A couple of weeks ago I set our vision before you once again.  We talked about the fact that Central is a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ.  I even did a little cheerleading for the church, but promised to never do it again lest I start scaring people away.  In any event, what we saw is that Central has been specifically designed to address some of the deepest needs that you feel.  It’s going to take every part of the body to make it happen, though, which is exactly what we talked about last week.  If you are a follower of Jesus, you have been given a gift and you need to put it to use.  If that’s here, great, but that’s not my chief concern.  My chief concern is that you are able to become fully who God designed you to be and that’s only going to happen when you take what He has given you and put it to work.

That all brings us to this morning.  This morning I actually want to take a step back from where we were last week with you and look at this idea of creating a place where people matter.  I want to look at two different aspects of this idea: how do we do it and what does it look like?  And I want to look at these questions with you through a lens with which you perhaps thought we were finished.  The lens is this: our freedom in Christ.  What does the idea of creating a place where people matter have to do with our freedom in Christ?  Perhaps the more immediate question you are asking, though, is: why talk about freedom again anyway?  What does freedom have to do with our vision?  I think it has much to do with it actually.  A couple of years ago at the BGAV’s annual meeting executive director John Upton gave a brief sermon in which he related a personal anecdote about a woman asking him to sum up the message of the Bible in a single word.  Upton’s answer?  Freedom.  He told her that the central message of Scripture is how people can live truly free.  Now, while there are perhaps a few other words that could potentially fit the bill the woman laid at Upton’s feet (Jesus, grace, faith, etc.), freedom is a pretty good choice.

Indeed, throughout our journey through Paul’s letter to the Galatian believers this summer I pounded over and over again on the fact that we were designed for freedom in Christ.  But, there is one question that we never got around to answering: what’s freedom for?  Why have we been given this incredible freedom in Christ?  Well, I think that we were given freedom to be able to enjoy our God more fully than we are without it.  But, if you think about it, if that’s it, that somehow doesn’t seem like it’s enough.  I mean okay, great, we get to enjoy God more.  There’s obviously nothing wrong and much right about that.  But it seems like that answer, if a stand-alone, kind of puts us at the center of things.  And the whole idea of being free in Christ is that we can’t be at the center of things.  There’s got to be something more here.  Indeed, I believe there is.  And if you’ll come with me back to Paul’s letter to the believers in the ancient city of Corinth, we’ll find it.

As I said a couple of weeks ago, Paul’s first letter to the believers in Corinth was largely about how they could successfully be about the mission God gave them to accomplish.  Standing in the way of this mission, however, was a whole buffet of problems for Paul to work through with them.  Right near the center of the book, however, is this lengthy section of argument that has puzzled interpreters for centuries.  Well, perhaps “puzzled” isn’t the right word.  It’s pretty clear what Paul means.  The question is: how is it relevant to people beyond Paul’s original audience? Beginning in chapter 8 Paul starts talking about whether or not it is morally acceptable for believers to eat meat that had been previously sacrificed to an idol.  You see, in the Corinthian churches were believers of both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds.  The Gentile background folks had grown up eating this meat.  For some of them, the ones who paid homage to the gods because it was socially acceptable but who didn’t really believe in them, this was about the only way to get affordable meat.  They didn’t attach anything particularly significant to whether someone ate it or not.  There were others though, who had really believed in the gods and goddesses.  Eating this kind of meat put them in a place where they were tempted to get back into the idolatrous practices of their past.  Thus, it was wrong.  The Jewish background believers held about the same opinion but for different reasons.  For them, the very word “idol” meant that whatever it was must be immoral.  Of course you didn’t eat “idol meat.”  Its very existence was an offense to God.

Guess which group Paul sided with?  The first.  It didn’t make any difference whether someone ate the idol meat or not.  Idols were nothing and so meat sacrificed to them was still the same meat it had been before it was offered.   Furthermore, our freedom in Christ means that we really can do whatever we want as long as it’s done to God’s glory.  A couple of chapters later, Paul offers a slightly more nuanced picture of things.  Yes, it is okay for Christians to eat idol meat, but, idolatry is still a serious matter which Christians should avoid at all costs.  If avoiding idol meat helps us to avoid idol worship then we should probably go ahead and avoid meat.

Again, this whole discussion seems very much focused on the Corinthian church and utterly irrelevant to us.  Or it would at least, were it not for chapter 9.  Here, at the heart of Paul’s argument and really at the heart of the whole letter, Paul offers some clarifying thoughts on all of this.  We may have freedom in Christ to do whatever we want, but our freedom should not be used as a tool for getting whatever we want at the expense of someone else.  Holding himself out as an example, Paul declares that he willingly forsakes the things his freedom in Christ would allow all the time even when receiving them would be to his benefit.  Why is this?  Because there is something more important than merely having freedom in Christ, namely, its end.  What is freedom in Christ for?  Here we are back to our original question.  What is freedom in Christ for?  Paul answers this question in a few verses near the end of chapter 9.  If you don’t already have your Bible or Bible app open to 1 Corinthians, find your way there now and let’s take a look at these words together starting at 9:19.

Paul begins by stating something that seems oxymoronic: “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all…”  Think about that for a minute.  When we talked about the locus of real freedom a few weeks ago I said that freedom is found in loving service.  Intentionally committing ourselves to helping the people around us become fully who God designed us to be is what real freedom looks like.  But, we never spelled out in much detail the reason for this.  Well, look at what comes next: “…that I might win more of them.”  Huh?  What’s Paul getting at here?  Win who?  The lost.  Up to this point in the chapter Paul has been talking about his mission to present the Gospel message of the resurrected Christ to people who had never heard it before.  They were, in other words, lost in the fog of slavery to sin.  Presenting this message in such a way that more people might be won over to the truth of the Gospel was more important to Paul than any exercise of freedom.  It is, in fact, the ultimate exercise of freedom.  Freedom freely restricted for the purpose of advancing the Gospel message is the freest freedom.  This is what freedom is for.  Putting it all together then: “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.”  Really?  Paul did this for everyone?  Keep reading with me as he elaborates.

Look starting at v. 20: “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win the Jews.  To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.  To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.  To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak.”  Okay, so what’s Paul saying here?  It sounds like he was almost two-, or rather four-faced in his attempts to advance the Gospel.  Well, yeah.  He was.  Regardless of who he happened to be trying to reach with the Gospel message, he took on all the trappings of their culture so he fit in and was more likely to be received.  If that meant living by a bunch of laws or rules that really didn’t apply to him, so be it.  If it meant living in such a way that blew back the hair of some of his stuffier brothers and sisters in Christ, so long as it didn’t lead him to sin, it was worth it (and they needed to grow up).  Whatever he had to do to get a receptive audience for his message he was willing to do it.

Think about why for a minute.  The Gospel message is offensive to people by itself.  I mean, the basic idea of the Gospel is that you are not good enough or capable enough on your own.  No one likes to be told that, particularly if they aren’t so laid low by life they still hold on to the delusion they are capable.  So if the message itself is geared to offend our most basic sensibilities, why present it in such a way that anything else about it is offensive?  People are going to struggle to accept the basic message.  Why make it any harder than that?  Paul couldn’t think of a good reason either and so he didn’t.  And if that meant voluntarily restricting his freedom in Christ, missing out on things that were otherwise rightly available to him, who cares?  It was a small price to pay.  The irony is that his freedom in Christ allowed him to restrict his personal freedom while at the same time not becoming any less free.

But again, why do this and what does this have to do with our creating a place where people matter?  Isn’t that what we’re really talking about this morning?  Well, let’s look at the next couple of verses and I think the answer to both of those questions will begin to become clear.  Pick back up with me in the second half of v. 22: “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.  I do it all for the sake of the Gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”  Clearer?  Paul voluntarily limits his freedom, becoming “all things to all people,”—including those people who have much more restricted lives than he has to live—in hopes of saving some, in hopes of convincing them that they have greater worth than the rule systems under which they happen to be living afford them and that this worth is only going to be fully realized when they embrace and receive the freedom found in the Gospel of Christ.  But, he’s only going to convince them if they trust him.  And who are they much more likely to trust?  An outsider who comes in with a totally different set of expectations and rules, or an outsider who looks and acts and talks pretty much like they do, albeit a bit more sanitized?  Who would you be more likely to listen to?  Some big city preacher coming down from on high to tell you how to live your life, or somebody who moved in to the neighborhood from the big city a couple of years ago whom you’ve come to know and trust?  Why do you think politicians wear suits when they’re in the city and jeans when they’re in the country?  We’re more likely to listen to and trust people who look like us.  Paul understood this principle well and so he liberally incorporated it into his attempts to advance the Gospel message.  He was willing to do whatever it took to gain a hearing.  This is a principle that all successful missionaries employ.  And to state the principle a bit more directly: Our freedom in Christ is a tool to bring others to Christ.

But, and here’s the switch…are you ready?…why would we not use this same principle in our attempts to create a place where people matter here?  Think about it.  Where are you the most comfortable, the most likely to be receptive to a message that might otherwise be a bit on the offensive side: a friend’s back porch or a sterile office building that was obviously not designed with you in mind?  Retail companies spend millions upon millions of dollars to design their stores such that when you walk in, you feel totally comfortable; so that you feel like they had you in mind when they built the place.  Car companies do the same thing.  They want you to slide in behind the wheel of a new car and think, “They designed this just for me.”  Well, our freedom in Christ allows us to apply the same principle to our efforts to advance the Gospel message in our community.  We certainly need to have this principle in play when we are away from here doing Gospel work, but wouldn’t it make sense for us to have it fully in play when we are doing work around here?  Come on, what would it look like if we really took Paul’s words to heart here and put them into practice?  What would it look like if we used our freedom in Christ as a tool to bring others to Christ?

Paul talks here about using his freedom to become all things to all people that by all means he might save some.  What if, in our attempts to create a place where people matter and they know it, we used Paul’s declaration here as our guide?  Think about it this way.  Have you ever been somewhere where you didn’t know what to do?  And what more, you were one of the only ones there who didn’t know what to do.  What did that feel like?  Was it uncomfortable at all?  Did it make you want to go back?  I remember going to Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque for the first time.  Now, Bryant’s is a Kansas City landmark.  Whenever famous people come to Kansas City they go to Bryant’s and the pictures all over the wall—including a shot of their famous sauce sitting on the South Pole—prove it.  But here’s the thing about Bryant’s, it’s a dive in a bad part of town with a bunch of grumpy old pit masters working the place.  When you get to the front of the line, particularly when it’s busy, you’d better know what you want or else you’re going to get fussed at.  Well, when I was waiting in line that first time I was a nervous wreck.  I was convinced that I was going to get up there and do or say the wrong thing at the wrong time and get fussed at by both the staff and the other customers all of whom were regulars.  I was prepared for—and expecting—the worst.

Folks, the same thing is true when someone walks into a church for the first time.  Even if they’ve been to church somewhere else before, each church is different from any other.  Each one has its own unique culture and ways of doing things.  They have their own norms and expectations for proper interactions.  And if you’re coming in new, you don’t know any of those.  When you combine that with the broad cultural assumption that church people are judgmental, you have the makings of a potential social disaster.  People come into churches afraid.  And so as a church, if we’re not doing everything we can to make the culture shock that’s going to happen as light as possible, we will very easily find ourselves in the same place as the church I told you about at the beginning of the message: a great church doing a lot of good things…for church people, not unchurched people.  To the unchurched folks we will subliminally be sending the message: “We don’t really want you here.  We’re glad you came, but go out and make yourself into a church person before you come back next and then we’ll be glad for you to stay.”  Our freedom in Christ allows us to structure this experience in pretty much any way we want, but when this kind of thing is happening we’re using our freedom to make things really comfortable for us.  But this is not what we were given freedom for.  Our freedom in Christ was intended to be a tool to bring others to Christ.  Our freedom in Christ is a tool to bring others to Christ.

But, and here’s the tricky thing about all this, most churches don’t even realize any of this is happening.  We design our services based on what makes us comfortable, based on what we like.  That’s totally natural.  Everybody does that.  Some of you have custom-built homes.  Who did you have in mind when building that?  You.  You built your house to have a comfortable place for you to live.  Of course you designed it primarily with yourself in mind.  But the church wasn’t built to give us a comfortable place to worship God.  The church was built to serve as the primary medium in this world through which unchurched people are connected to God.  Jesus followers were given incredible freedom in the designing process, but this freedom was intended to be used as a tool to bring to Christ all those who did not know Him which at its inception was everybody.  And indeed, every time the early church found itself in a place where it had to choose between comfort and openness…they chose openness.  Our freedom in Christ was intended to be a tool to bring others to Christ.  Look, when it comes to your own house, you don’t have to design it such that anybody but your family feels like they matter.  You don’t have to impress guests.  You don’t even have to let them in.  Again, your house wasn’t built for them it was built for you.  But that’s simply not the case with the church.  Creating a place where people matter and know it is integral to the church’s identity.  We exist for other people, not ourselves.  We exist to connect other people to Christ.  If we do things primarily with ourselves and our comfort in mind, then, we fail.  Our freedom in Christ is a tool to bring others to Christ.


Look at one powerful implication of this with me and then we’re out of here.  We need to learn to look at the church through a fresh set of eyes.  Everything we do needs to be done with someone else in mind.  Specifically, we need to shape and structure our ministry here with the goal in mind of creating a place where parents in their twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties with kids in tow know they matter; where they can walk in and feel so comfortable that they feel like it the whole experience was tailor-made for them (because it was).  Our own comfort should be among the last and least important of our considerations.  And our freedom in Christ allows us great flexibility in doing this.  In creating this place anything short of sin is on the table.  We need to seek to be all things to all people so that by all means we might save some.  Our freedom in Christ is a tool to bring others to Christ.  This is what creating a place where people matter looks like.  Look, we can operate with ourselves primarily in mind, a lot of churches do that.  A lot of churches exist primarily to minister to church people.  Some of those are big, apparently thriving churches.  But if our real goal is connecting people to Christ, then they are going about achieving it in a manner that is keeping them from reaching their fullest potential.  They are running the risk of becoming a Christian club, not the church.  Our freedom in Christ is a tool to bring others to Christ.  Let us use this tool liberally here and create a place where people—all people, but especially unchurched people—know that they matter so that they can be empowered to engage their world for Christ.  Then we’ll be truly free, living as our God-designed selves.