Have you ever sat in worship, “up close and personal,” with people who are very different than you — at least in the obvious ways? Try it, and you’ll discover that it adds a totally different dynamic to being church.
My wife Jan (who writes a seriously inviting blog, by the way) is pastor of a small, inner city church that we helped to start several years ago. With several friends of similar mind, we set out to experiment with non-traditional ways of being a faith community, and expressed a common desire to live out the presence of Christ in downtown Raleigh.
For a couple of years we met regularly and talked a lot about our concern for the downtrodden, and our desire to welcome all who sought the love of Christ.
Our conversations, however inspired and intriguing to us, had little impact on the community.
This past summer, we decided to take a different approach. Along with two student interns, Jan started spending time down in Moore Square, a popular hangout for homeless people in Raleigh. They volunteered at a women’s shelter, a soup kitchen, and an organization that serves AIDS patients.
Before long, philosophy turned to faces, needs took on names, and our congregation began to change.
When we met last Sunday, our gathering included not just the white, well-educated, middle class folk we started with, but people who sleep in corners and carry their worldly goods in a sack. There were worshipers who suffer from AIDS and/or Hepatitis C. There were people of differing ethnic backgrounds and gender preferences, men who’ve spent time in gangs and in prison, some who can barely read.
Most of our new friends participate eagerly in our communal worship and study activities, adding a dynamic that rarely surfaces in traditional churches. For example, Jan recently led a study of John 5:1-18, the story of a crippled man who had spent 38 years by a healing pool without being healed.
In the story, Jesus bluntly asked the man, “Do you want to be made well?”
Jan asked the group to reflect on reasons why some people might not want to be healed. We expected sophisticated observations like “they might get less attention,” “they might lose an emotional crutch,” or “they might be afraid of change.”
But that’s not what we heard. A man showing the physical effects of Hep-C said “I just found a place to stay. If I go to the hospital, it might not be there when I get back.” In his case, “a place to stay” might be a covered alcove behind a building where no one else is sleeping, but he doesn’t want to lose it.
Another man, one who has endured the harsh drugs that fight HIV/AIDS for more than a decade, quietly observed “The side effects of some drugs are so painful that some people would rather die than endure them.”
Someone said, matter-of-factly, “If you get well, you might lose your disability check, and not have any income.”
A former drug addict mumbled an answer that no one understood. His pregnant girlfriend, happy to be in a safe place, slept soundly on the floor, responding to the question with loud snores.
It was not your typical set of responses, nor the typical crowd you’d expect to find in church.
I suspect, however, it is exactly the sort of crowd that Jesus would attract if he came walking through Raleigh.
Following him can be quite an adventure.