Unchurched – Unwelcome?

Unchurched. That’s a fun word, don’t you think? Until I returned to the church recently, I don’t believe I’d ever heard the word. If I heard it, I’d ignored it – seeing how I was one of the unchurched. Here’s how Kathleen Norris describes the word in Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith1:

“There is a dread code word that church people, particularly Professional Church People, use for those who are, well, unchurched. For sheer stupidity it ranks with ‘deplane,’ as in ‘in an emergency, you will deplane from the door or window nearest you that is marked as an exit.’ My favorite days are those in which I am a thoroughly ‘deplaned’ person.

“The best commentary on the word ‘unchurched’ that I know of came from a grocer in a small town in Iowa, apparently one of the suspect heathen. One day the pastor of the Lutheran church approached him about providing food for a district meeting of church evangelization committees. These are the people, the pastor explained, who have a special ministry – here he paused, significantly – a special outreach to the ‘unchurched.’ The grocer took the order for cold cuts, sliced cheeses, rolls, cookies, and fruit. When the pastor unveiled the large deli platter in the church basement, he was startled to find that the centerpiece was a cross constructed out of slices of bologna.”

Why would people want to come to a church that appears to have an attitude that says the unchurched are a herd in need of corralling? When unchurched appears to be a synonym for ‘unwashed’? What happens when it becomes all about the numbers – numbers of dollars, number of “saved.” To many churches, this seems to be priority one. On the one hand, it’s important to bring them to Christ, right? But is that what’s really happening? Too often it appears to be a lot more about bringing in the money – about growing a congregation in order to build another new building, acquire a bigger, tax-exempt campus. Look at the mega-churches. I have to wonder why anyone would want to belong to a church where it’s impossible for the pastor to know even a tiny fraction of the congregants (a fancy word for a member of a congregation). One of the joys of my life these days is being a member of a congregation where I know most of the people – at least by sight. Since I’m not exactly a wallflower, most of the members know me by name – or at least, “Oh, yeah, that guy.”

Norris’ book is one of my favorites. When I returned to church, there were a lot of “religious” words that made me extremely uncomfortable. Frankly, unchurched wasn’t one of them. I just considered it a stupid word once I found out it existed. Others, however, were words that had been used to beat me down in the past. While not in the book, “Jesus” was a word I wanted nothing to do with. Jesus took the bad rap for every negative thing I’d taken away from the church. When I read The Shack,2 the only times I tensed up were when Jesus entered the story. I tensed up a lot. The book, however, provided a turning point in my life and in my view of a lot of those troublesome words.

Here are a few of my favorite (?) scary words from Norris’ book: evangelism, conversion, righteous (reminds of self-righteous), chosen (as in chosen people), sinner, salvation, repentance, “organized” religion, and Christian. No, really, that’s only a fraction of the words in her book. Each of the words, however, had a negative reaction attached to them. Actually, I credit the book with beginning the process of redeeming some of these words for me – along with the members of my Sunday School class. Norris stepped back to explain what the words originally meant. More importantly, though, she showed me once again what the words should mean in a loving, Christian context.

On returning to church, I found myself in an adult Sunday School class (now called Adult Education in some corners). To my amazement, these people used some of those frightening words in a way I’d never heard them before. I began to think I just might have been mistaken about those words, about Christians even. This was quite unsettling. I still wasn’t entirely prepared to see Christians as kind, loving people. There was my mother, of course, but otherwise I hadn’t come in close contact with Christians in a long time who impressed me as caring people. Judgmental, yes. Caring, not so much. But here I was in a room of people who knew how to laugh, how to ask questions, how to acknowledge they didn’t have all the answers, and how to be serious about their faith – no matter how strong they felt it was on any given day. Honesty. Yes, I think that’s what I saw.

And I saw missions. My first year back at church allowed me to see people who cared as they gave of themselves with no desire for anything in return. There wasn’t a condition attached to the things they did. You didn’t have to listen to a sermon if you came to the food bank for help. Instead, you saw people being Christ to people in need. The volunteers going to help with building a Habitat for Humanity house didn’t make it a precondition that they be able to try to convert any “unchurched” they might find at the building site. The mission efforts had a singular purpose – to help people in need. That’s it. Nothing else. Nada. Zippo.

So, how do you build a church just doing that? I mean, there’s a light bill to pay, right? Where’s the money for those tracts warning the unchurched about hell supposed to come from? I believe the way you do that is the same way Jesus did it. You extend an invitation instead of a list of requirements. You extend grace instead of judgment. In essence, you say “welcome home.”

I returned to church because a body of people extended an invitation to me. Not in so many words, mind you, but by their actions. No one tried to huddle with me to draw out a list of sins I might be in need of confessing. No request for references. No credit check required. No questions about whether I’d shown up with my checkbook. They said hello. They said how glad they were to see me. I was in church, mind you. This was not the reaction I was expecting – at least without some ulterior motive. At the time, a friend of mine joked with me about being careful the whole place didn’t burst into flames as soon as I set foot in a church. The joke, however, had a very serious undercurrent for me. I hadn’t allowed myself to even consider being welcome in a church for many years. At first, I questioned the sanity of these people. Didn’t they know who they were welcoming?

Turns out, apparently they did know. No, they didn’t know anything in particular about the particulars of me. That didn’t seem to matter. That, of course, made me pretty suspicious. What were these people up to? What was their hidden agenda? Could they really mean it when they invited me to come join them with my questions? Could they really be honest enough to share with me that they didn’t have all the answers?

Anne Lamott wrote a wonderful book called Grace (Eventually).3 The only thing eventual about the grace I found at my new church came from my own head. Have you noticed? Grace doesn’t seem like grace until and unless you’re willing to accept it. I’d not allowed myself to consider the existence of grace for almost a lifetime. It’s no wonder it was difficult for me to recognize. And it was difficult for me to accept once I recognized it.

Words. They’re important. They can hurt or heal. They can welcome or push away. Sadly, many Christian churches have become exclusive country clubs with stringent rules and, they think, the Keys to the Kingdom. And not all the rules are unspoken. They’re right there in their “mission statement.” Sinners need not apply. No grace given here without proof you deserve grace – which, it turns out, isn’t grace at all. Many places you probably still won’t want to show up if you happen to be Black, homosexual (any color), unmarried with children, divorced (with or without children, or if we even suspect you might be in the country illegally (in other words, too often, Hispanics need not apply). The message is: get good before coming or keep on moving. We’ve got a reputation to uphold. We believe in a punishing God who is too weak to operate without our being watchdogs for morality. Perhaps these churches need to go back and read the Sermon on the Mount. Perhaps they should stop acting like the disciples who wanted to send the children away. Perhaps they’ve forgotten the reprimand the disciples received from Jesus for that attitude: “But Jesus said, ‘Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’ “ [Matthew 19:14]

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. You might be tempted to believe this nursery rhyme if you’ve never been hurt by the thoughtless (sometimes thought-filled) words of another. I don’t think that would leave a lot of people, though. It’s just that our response long ago may have been to try to believe this, then to respond in kind. Jesus said we should turn the other cheek. What? Is he crazy? Doesn’t Jesus know hurts can’t go unpunished? I mean, after all, they started it first! I’m not sure, but I think Jesus didn’t mean we had to become childish in order to enter the kingdom of God – just child-like. To me that means returning to that sense of wonder we had as children, to that sense that we were protected and loved. Admittedly, many don’t recall feeling protected or loved as children. I think, though, that most feel children should be protected – should be loved. It’s sad that in order to survive in this world, we feel we have to put away some of our wonder and begin to watch our backs. After all, no one else is going to do it for us, right?

I don’t recall feeling unchurched during the time I was unchurched. I do remember feeling that I was seen as a commodity by some church communities as in need of saving, becoming just another check mark in the “saved another one” column. Problem is, being saved to many means huddling together in order to protect themselves from the big, bad world out there. They’ve forgotten, or never knew, what it means to live in God’s grace. There are rules to follow, after all, and all those unchurched out there are messing it up for the rest of us. But, wait, didn’t Jesus fight with the authorities of the day over the importance of people over rules instead of the other way around?

The church I found myself in a few years ago didn’t appear to see me as unchurched. They seemed to see a hurting person in need of understanding, in need of welcome. They didn’t see me as I saw myself – unworthy. Perhaps that’s why I stayed. Perhaps that’s why I continue to stay.

Words. Why not use them to welcome someone today?

Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, by Kathleen Norris (Riverhead Books)
2 The Shack, by William P. Young (Windblown Media)
3 Grace (Eventually), by Anne Lamott (Riverhead Books)

2 thoughts on “Unchurched – Unwelcome?

  1. When is YOUR book coming out, Ben? The 3 books you reference and their authors are among my favorites, having done much to keep directing me on the path to God, but you rank right in there with them. (You and Fr. Rohr, that is). Of course, writing a book doesn’t mean you are to stop blogging, cuz then I wouldn’t get to read your profound thoughts as often. 🙂

    • Sandy, I’d say your words make me blush, but that would be lying (something I’m trying to give up – perhaps for Lent?). No, your words simply make me smile. And for that, I thank you.

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