|Book: Creating a Secure Church: BOOK TWO|
Part 1 : Objectives & Obstacles
Part 2 : Secure in Relationships
Part 3 : Secure in Ministry
Part 4 : When Things go Wrong
Part 5 : Concluding Thoughts
Chapter 3: Strange People!
“ God does not judge by external appearances”
As we move toward the practical aspects of creating a secure church, in this and the following chapters, we will consider the whole matter of how we relate to one another in the church.
As has often been said, ‘Church would be great if it wasn't for people'. It's the fact that there are lots of other people in the church and, for some reason, they're not like me and they're not all nice people!
3.1 Church is all about relationships
We'll see in a later chapter that the New Testament is continually exhorting us in respect of our relationships with one another. The writers take for granted this fact: that when we come to Christ, we come into a new family where we have to start learning to relate to others in a new way. It may sound a mundane starting point, but the truth is that a secure church is one where there are relationships and those relationships work!
Relating through small groups
The bigger the church, the bigger the potential difficulty though: how do you know and get on with people when you are just one among thousands? Many churches have sought to overcome that by creating cells or house groups. These are simply small groups that meet midweek. They are an acknowledgement that Christians need other people, need to relate to other people. Around the world different churches approach the problem in different ways. Some don't have small groups but seek to provide larger midweek meetings where people can get to know one another.
In churches that do have small groups, whether they call them cells, house groups or friendship groups, they will specifically provide for people to get to know each other and relate together. How we do that is a question that produces many and varied answers. Some set up groups where people who are like minded, coming from similar life situations, are all in a small group together. So one group in a large church may have all accountants in it, another group may have all teachers in it, a third group has manual workers, and a fourth group has young people in it.
Another school of thought says your small group should be a complete mix of social groupings so that we learn to relate to all peoples, not merely those of our own social grouping. Yet further, in some places cells have become intergenerational so the entire family meets together each week in the cell. Whatever the form or structure adopted, we are mostly agreed in these approaches that the central focus of the Christian faith is not about rules, regulations, dogma or doctrine, it's all about relationships.
Reconciled to Relationship
The New Testament talks about us being “reconciled” to God (e.g. Rom 5:10 / 2 Cor 5:18, Col 1:19-22). This is relationship language. It says that because of our Sin we were separated from God but because of the Cross of Christ we have been brought back into a place of relationship with Him. We are now children of God (Jn 1:12 / 1 Jn 3:1,2), indeed sons of God (Gal 4:4-7 / Heb 12:5-8).
So, first of all we have a relationship with God through Jesus. In the New Testament we are taught that the way we are to relate to and treat one another, is to be on the basis of the way God has treated us. We come back again and again in matters of behaviour, to take our lead from the way God has dealt with us.
Conclusion : If we are to create a secure church we must major on relationships.
3.2 But Church is made up of such strange people!
The only problem with relationships is that it is easy to talk about them, but the reality is often more difficult. There are various, and possibly obvious reasons why it is often difficult working at relationships in church:
people are different from us – sometimes weird from our point of view, and
people are always far from perfect!
Now if that wasn't bad enough, it is complicated in the church but the fact that:
we expect people who are Christians to be nice, and
we expect them to change to become nice,
and where they aren't, or when the rate of change is slower than we expect, it is then that we struggle to maintain good attitudes towards those people.
In this chapter we're going to look at the matter of people being different from us, and then in the next one we'll consider the problem of their imperfection!
3.3 Different Behaviour
People show their differences by the way they act, their behaviour. Sometimes the behaviour in question isn't in itself particularly bad, but the context for it makes us defensive and makes us think badly about the person before us. Let me explain.
Illustration: Questioning the Sermon
I had an interesting experience in a small church I once visited. At the end of the service one of the leading ladies came up to me and said, “I've really had to repent during this meeting while you were speaking because I am so judgmental”. Now I hadn't been speaking on judgementalism or criticism or anything like that, so I wondered what prompted this response.
As I had been preaching, a young man on the back row of this small gathering started making comments and then asking questions. I had simply paused up and answered his questions as I carried on, and the ‘sermon' developed into a dialogue. While this delighted a number there, this particular lady found it thoroughly irritated her.
She found herself judging this young man, and she wanted to say to him, “Be quiet; let the preacher get on with his message.” However, as she watched how I simply responded to each of his queries, she realised that the young man's needs were being met and the congregation were being given a lesson: people matter more than sermons (some also found the questions and answers helpful!).
As we discussed this afterwards, I asked her why she felt like she did. We concluded it was probably because of embarrassment, feeling that here was a situation out of hand, a situation that perhaps didn't show the church in a very favourable light in the eyes of a visiting speaker (as she saw it), and this defensive feeling made her critical of the young man.
Out of Context Behaviour
As I've talked this sort of situation through with other Christians, they all acknowledged the same sort of feeling - of not coping with behaviour that we don't normally encounter, and then, before we know where we are, we are struggling with feelings of defensive hostility.
The problem about this, and this is crucial in the secure church discussion, is that quite often the behaviour that puts us on edge is simply behaviour from another culture or social group. We wouldn't dream of doing “this” in our culture, but this person or these people ARE doing it here, in front of us! (I will speak more about this in a chapter later on about being a light to the world.)
I remember reading many years ago evangelist David Wilkerson testifying how, when he was a young teenager, some of his school peers said they were going to come to his church the next Sunday. Now his 'church' was a small Pentecostal Gospel Chapel and he knew that, in their exuberance, some of the people got a bit carried away in their worship. He tried to put his friends off coming but they insisted. On the day, he nearly died of embarrassment at the things happening. The funny thing was that his friends thought it was wonderful!
But it's things like this that put some of us off other people – the bizarre things they do, things that thoroughly embarrass us. If only they could be more like me!
Perhaps you don't have people like that in your church – perhaps it is because such behaviour would be frowned upon that you don't have those sort of people – they wouldn't feel they could be themselves in your church!
Church is serious!
As an Englishman, I know only too well that one of the characteristics that our nation has applauded, has been the ‘stiff upper lip' – that ability to remain totally unmoved despite whatever may be happening. It may be that your church frowns on emotions being expressed – which is a shame because God gave us emotions and His word if full of examples of how we are to use those emotions in worship.
Perhaps for you, the ‘service' or the ‘worship' is serious stuff. Well sometimes when God turns up it can be, but at other times when he turns up, it's far from that. Those of us who experienced the so-called ‘Toronto Blessing', at the end of the twentieth century, found that God was reconnecting us with our emotions - both tears and laughter.
In our defensiveness we perhaps write people off as “frothy Christians”, meaning they are shallow and noisy and there's not much in them. It's easy to do, but then the Pharisees of Jesus' day called him names as well. It should not be so, and if we characterise people like this, by using names, we are pushing them away from us in our thinking.
We can do that within our local church and we can do it as we think about other churches, but if we want to build relationships as Jesus wants us to, then we have to put aside name calling, and learn to tolerate other people's differences of behaviour and realise God loves them just as much as He does me.
3.4 Different Appearances!
But look at them!
But it may not be behaviour, it may be appearance. For example, a more elderly traditional person, being confronted by a young man or woman with cropped hair and ear rings and studs all over their face and tattoos all over their body, may possibly find the 'natural' response may be one of fear, of not knowing what is likely to come from this figure before us. (Have you noticed that we expect the worst!)
In our fear we may then start judging them for their 'awful' appearance. But what is the reality? Why is he or she like this? Well quite possibly they are saying, “Will somebody please take notice of me? Will somebody please love me?” and that person could be you! Possibly there's nothing wrong with them at all, they're just blending in with their culture and, somehow, have wandered into ours!
As I talked this scenario with a group of fairly elderly people recently they all acknowledged this truth, that they would have been swayed by the appearance of such a young person, an appearance that was quite alien to their own experience. What does it take to be Jesus to these young people? The ability to look past their outward appearance to see their inner needs.
But perhaps we do need to be honest and face why we feel negative about such people – for some of us, it is that we have had bad experiences with young people dressed like this. Yes, that is true and we don't want to get burnt twice. But, hey, we're talking about life in church here, so if these young people turn up, it says either they're Christians, or they're seeking. If we reject them, we may be rejecting Jesus.
I've taken the examples of young people and older people, because in recent decades there have grown up great culture gaps and we may see the other group (and it works both ways) as aliens from another planet.
Damaged & Needy People
If you are an older person, can I make a comment or two that may help you? I believe that our younger generation is arguably one of the most damaged and hurting generations that has ever existed on this planet. Yes, I am aware that there has always been Sin and family life has always been imperfect, but the breakdown of family life that we have been experiencing in the West over the last twenty or thirty years, has resulted in young people who are lost, lonely and hurting in ways that defy the imagination of those of us in the older generation.
So, yes, they may look different, even threatening, but why not try to get to know some of them and you'll find, apart from what I've just said, they're the same as young people from any part of history.
But it's not only young people is it who are a problem? Here are the Joneses, a mid-thirties couple who seem to be taken up with earning more, spending more and playing more – and they're Christians! From 'my' standpoint they may appear as rich middle class kids with shallow ideals, but perhaps 'my' standpoint doesn't allow me to know them, doesn't allow me to know the struggles they're having with life, the fears they're coping with. They just look different from 'me' and so I (wrongly) think they are different. They're not, they're still people who desperately need to feel loved.
We could extend this to provide examples from all walks of life, examples of people who appear different from 'me', but probably it would be better if you thought into your own life experience and identified the people, the groups, the ages, that you think are 'different' and then remind yourself that 'thinking' someone is different is a major hindrance to you establishing a relationship with them.
Check it out
Perhaps, it would be worth doing a little mental check at this point. Think about your own church on a Sunday morning. Are important issues, things like where people sit or what clothes people wear? You'll know you are going to have relational difficulties when the clothes of a visitor scandalises you!
I remember my family and I attending a large and very respectable church in Wales once when we were on holiday. We were all wearing jeans (tidy and neat otherwise) but clearly stood out, so much so that we all had a distinct sense that the preacher was aiming the Gospel in our direction!
If we are this sort of church, we are really going to have major problems reaching out to large parts of our Society! More than that, it puts us more into the category of the Pharisees than of Jesus' disciples.
Our own church has a very relaxed dress code but I realised how middle class we were in dress when a man came in one morning with a coat of many colours (literally) and a Mohican hair cut. The hair didn't do anything for me, I confess, but I did find myself thinking, “Wow, I wish more of us had more creative clothes, how bright the church could be!” He's still with us - and a blessing!
But be careful, it is a two-way street! If you are a 'jeans worshipper', do you have a problem with George who only feels comfortable wearing a suit in worship? Are you put off by his formality? If you are you still have a relational problem, you are still assessing people by their outward appearance.
Isn't it sad that clothes (or rather, the wrong sort, in our opinion) become important in church life! As I said, check it out, you may have a problem that needs looking at.
3.5 My Sense of Inadequacy
“But I'm useless with people!” This is a cry that comes up in one form or another so often when we get into this sort of discussion. In this same elderly group I referred to earlier, I heard it in several forms.
From one elderly man with a heart of gold, it came as a denial that he was ever any good with children, and so this (in his eyes at least) wrote him off as any good with people. I had to remind him how he had the ability to take so many of our teenagers at face value, how he talked naturally with them and prayed for them. Because he found noisy children in the service a nuisance, he wrote off his ability with people in general.
Then there was a lady who declared how useless she was, especially when she thought of situations like encountering our tattooed young man. Yet this lady is especially good with elderly people, she isn't hopeless with all people!
Check your 'comfortable people' group
Most of us feel comfortable with at least one people group. It may be those of our own age, it may be with a different age group. Very few of us have a problem with all people. So why not start with the group with whom you feel most comfortable and seek to be a blessing to them? Then ask the Lord to enlarge the sphere of people for whom you do not have a fear.
They may look different, they may be different, but they still have the same needs - to be loved and accepted, and you could be good at that.
Reminder what it's all about
In seeking to create a secure church, building relationships is vital, and not merely with the people who are most like us! What is the purpose of building these relationships that we've been talking about? Twofold! First, simply to be obedient to Jesus' instructions, which we'll look out more fully later, and second, to become a channel of love and blessing and healing to others, first in the church and then outside it.
As we said earlier, it's easy to talk this stuff, but when it comes down to the practical reality of people, there in church alongside me, that's different! Why? If we are to create a secure church, a church where everyone feels secure, loved and accepted, it means we have to take them where they are and what they're like! That's what we've been saying throughout this chapter.
This is probably the second critical stage for creating a secure church. The first was ensuring that we ourselves are secure in God, warts and all! The second is accepting others around us for what they are, as they are.
3.6 Help from the Past
Where have they come from?
There are various ways that we can adjust our thinking to be more accepting of others. One of them is to bear in mind the background of this person in our church, this person we find so difficult. When we understand where they come from, it will help us understand why they are who they are today.
One of the reasons I get so excited about the blend of the pastoral and the prophetic is that through it the Lord allows you to find out things about people that they would otherwise keep to themselves. In Book One I portrayed a pastor who suddenly saw the state of each of the congregation sitting before him. If we were each able to see inside one another we might feel very differently about one another. When we see where they've come from, we can be very much more compassionate.
The story is told by one writer, of a man who came onto the subway train with two young children and sat there almost taking no notice of their noisy behaviour. Because their behaviour was so disruptive the writer eventually asked the man to control them. The man was apologetic and explained that they had just come from the hospital where their mother had died about an hour ago. Suddenly the children weren't a problem!
Similarly when we find where people have come from, we too may be transformed in our thinking. So, let's consider some examples of the people we encounter in church, all imaginary of course.
‘A' is a lady who is outward going, almost too outward going for some people. She's a lovely lady. Yet when you find out her background and find out what she's been through you can excuse her over exuberance that she uses to compensate and cover up her inner anguishes. Instead you want to weep at the experiences she's had, anguish with her in the pain she's suffered, and rejoice at what an amazing trophy of grace she is.
‘B' is a miserable looking man. People have exhorted him to 'cheer up', 'get your act together' and much more, yet when you find out what he's been through and the load he's carrying, you're suddenly not surprised why he's like this. Yes, he's got a lot of stuff to work through with Jesus; yes, there are things that he needs to do to help himself, but when you remember where he's come from, you're not so surprised. Life has dealt him some tough cards.
Our tendency may be to start quoting victory verses at this point, so can I just remind us that I'm just asking for our love for these people? I'm not asking us to solve their problems at this moment (Jesus and his church can do that), I'm just asking that we love and accept them, despite all the bits we find difficult in them. There are so many people around who are less than perfect!
Watch out! Here comes ‘C'. She's got the answer to everybody else's problems - except her own. She's got good advice for each person. Virtually every person in the church is fed up with being on the receiving end of her good advice, and in fact one or two have told her what to do with it (not a secure church yet!). What most of them don't know, though, is her childhood background. If you knew her parents and what she went through in childhood, you'd understand her.
Oh no! Here comes ‘D'! Nobody wants her in their group because she constantly talks. In fact she talks so much that she dominates whatever is going on. Yet as I ministered to her at the end of a meeting she broke down in tears and confessed, “I'm just so lonely I don't know what to do with myself!” Her church doesn't understand her and so they reject her. It's easier that way. But nobody has found out why she's like that yet. She desperately needs love and acceptance, so that she can feel secure enough to be able to open up and face her past and then let Jesus minister to it.
We live in an incredibly damaged society and probably every one of us carry the scars of life in the twentieth and twenty first centuries. Can we ask God to open our eyes to help us see where people have come from?
Listen to Testimonies
Just recently, in our church, we've started again the practice of getting people to share their testimonies. The story of each Christian's encounter with God is incredibly powerful, but what it also does is help you realise what a trophy of grace we're listening to. I was recently listening to one lady sharing, a lady who I considered had had more than her fair share of difficulties, a lady I didn't always understand.
As she shared for a quarter of an hour where she had come from, how Jesus had been dealing with her, and where she felt she was going with him, I was almost in tears. I wished I had known some of these things years before. But there's the rub! We're called to love and accept one another without knowing all the details of where they've come from. When someone is not being the perfect person you expect them to be, assume the worst about their background, and let God move your heart with that. Yes, they are imperfect, but if you knew where they come from…..
When we find out where people have come from in life, it helps us understand more fully why they are like they are, and why they need our love.
3.7 Help from Scripture
David draws people
To conclude this chapter, perhaps a reference from Old & New testaments might help us. First of all, do you remember that time in David's history when he was on the run from Saul and he ends up at the Cave of Adullam (1 Sam 22). There we read (v.2) the following:
All those who were in distress or in debt or discontented gathered around him, and he became their leader.
What a bunch – distressed, in debt, or discontented! Why did they go to David? Partly because they didn't like life under Saul, but partly because they knew that David would take them in. And what did David do? Turn them into a mighty army! Have you every realized why so many in the church 'have problems'? It's because all the nice people in the world are self-sufficient and think they can get along without God! The people with problems know they can't.
Of course, as we come to understand the Gospel we realize that actually EVERYBODY has problems, everyone needs Jesus to save them, but “nice” people think they're all right.
Jesus Draws People
Let's look into the New Testament for something similar.
Lk 15:1,2 Now the tax collectors and "sinners" were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them."
How do you know a tax collector or sinner? They just look like it! You know these characters are crooks! Just look at them, it's obvious! So speaks the Pharisee. But Jesus didn't have a problem with them. To the contrary, he knew that he had come for them, so delighted in them when they came looking for him.
Whatever else we do, we must not write off people because of their social class or their appearance. Jesus loves all of us!
3.8 And so?
We'll continue considering relationships in the next chapter but for now let's pick up on the things we've considered in this one.
Have I wrongly assessed and shied away from people in my church because:
they looked strange and I didn't know how to handle my feelings about
they have behaviour that is different from mine and I don't know how to
respond to it?
What can I do, what strategy can I adopt, to love and accept these people and to show my love and friendship?
These are very real questions about the basics of relationships in our church which, if we are to progress and create a genuinely secure church, we need to honestly work through.