Recently, someone passed on a bit of gossip to me.
This person said, according to reliable sources, a certain person at a certain local church did something that, while doesn’t technically violate the letter of any of the Ten Commandments, is unseemly for, as this person put it, “church people.”
That same week my pastor said someone came to him and informed him that a certain person who was attending the pastor’s class with the intent of joining the church was, indeed, not a very nice person, maybe even a despicable one.
“I don’t want people like that in my church,” the person told the pastor.
That said, here’s the question: Just who are “church people” — who should they be?
I think there’s a huge misconception about “church people,” and it stems from the messages either preached from the pulpits or messages endemic to the church culture itself.
If you believe that to be a member of a church you need to practice a certain moral code, follow a set of do’s and don’ts, then you believe that being a Christian means being a good person. Your church attendance is evidence of your goodness. Really good Christians are in church every time the doors are open, as some believe.
Some believe that church is a place to learn the rules and a sermon is the pastor’s tool to whip the people into shape, get them to stop sinning and act “Christianly.”
In some churches, if you don’t leave a Sunday service feeling simultaneously guilty and resolved to do better throughout the coming week so you can feel like you deserve your spot at the next Sunday’s service, then the pastor didn’t do his job.
In churches where the emphasis is on morality and behavior, people don’t feel free to share their personal sin struggles with one another or with their pastor. Churches like that breed insecure, guilty, judgmental people who take notes on others.
Non-church people know this and don’t want any part of it, and who can blame them? Who wants to be part of a group with standards no one can meet and maintain, where its members constantly feel guilty and discouraged?
But there’s another kind of church, a church where not very nice, even despicable, people are welcome. This is the church that believes being a Christian and being a member means a person wholeheartedly embraces his or her identity as a sinner and who knows that his or her standing with God is based solely on Christ’s sacrificial atoning death on the Cross.
The cry of this church is: “Sola fide! Sola Gratia! Solo Christo!” and “Sola Deo Gloria!” (Faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone and glory to God alone; the remaining “sola,” Sola scriptura, is the Word of God alone.)
In churches where the emphasis is on the grace of God, people are free to be who they are — sinners in process. Church becomes a place of safety and hope, where the message from the pulpit is not “Here’s the standard, here are the rules — follow them to keep yourself in God’s grace,” but “Here’s the standard, here are the rules — you can’t keep them, but Jesus did and he gives you the credit for it. Because of that, rest in that.”
When that’s the message, an amazing thing happens. Church people start changing. They’re not afraid to bring their sin to church with them because they don’t have a “good” reputation to live up to and maintain.
It’s not that we glory in our sin, but in the God whose grace covers it all, past, present and future.
So, as the people surrounding you in the pews readily admit that they are just as sin-flawed as you, together you remind each other that God’s grace will help you all get better — and you do get better, because you feel safe and secure.
It’s as we often sing, “For God the just is satisfied, to look on him (Jesus) and pardon me.”
It’s the pardon that compels us toward change and not guilt or the threat of punishment.
Dear friends, church was never intended to be a showcase for good people, but a place of refuge for those who know they’re not.
Welcome, sinner — come on in!
Nancy Kennedy is the author of “Move Over, Victoria - I Know the Real Secret,” “Girl on a Swing,” and her latest book, “Lipstick Grace.” She can be reached at 352-564-2927, Monday through Thursday, or via email at email@example.com.