Dr. Terrell Carter invited me to be a guest on his weekly radio program which is broadcast in St. Louis. We recorded the program last Friday and it was scheduled to be broadcast on Saturday. This is not something I usually do, but I enjoyed the dialogue that emerged between the two of us.
As Terrell asked me about some of the challenges that face the 21stcentury church, I said, “One of the biggest challenges that we face is accepting people where they are rather than where we would like for them to be.” I don’t think that I had actually used that terminology previously. Whether we intend it or not, we think in terms of the “ideal new member” for our congregation, expecting the person to come up to certain standards. Unconsciously we are thinking, “This way we avoid the hard work of acceptance.”
Of course, we should ask ourselves, “When I first became part of a faith community, was I such a great ‘catch’?” The answer is probably, “No.” Each of us was a long way from being the type of disciple that is ready to make a significant contribution to the Kingdom of God through a local church.
My friend Mark Tidsworth points out that the process by which people choose to affiliate with the church has changed. At one point, especially in the free church tradition, the idea was that a person would profess their faith (believe), begin to grow in their faith (become), and then seek to be received into a congregation (belong). In the 21stcentury, the process often plays out this way: a person experiences relationship with believers (experience), belongs to a group that is largely comprised of loving and active disciples (belong), grows in her or his understanding of the Christian faith (become), and finally understands what it means to be a follower of Christ (believe).
We must learn to meet people where they are and not impose burdens on them for which they are not ready. This means accepting casual dress in worship services, unexpected language in fellowship sessions, and naïve questions in a study group. In other words, we love them and accept them where they are, inviting them to join us on the journey. This requires more patience than most of us have, so we depend upon the Spirit of God to give it to us.
And there are other challenges as well, but those can wait for another post.