A few weeks ago after moving into our new house I had to make one last visit to our apartment office to turn in our keys. I walked in but before I could do anything I was approached by an older man who was visibly distressed. The rent payment system had just been transitioned to online-only and in an act of desperation he asked if I would help him log-in and pay his apartment bill.
I couldn’t say no, so I agreed to help him. A few minutes later his apartment bill was paid and we began a short conversation. As he talked about his life I detected a strong sense loneliness in his voice.
I contemplated inviting him to church and eventually came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t be able to sleep that night if I didn’t. I gathered some courage and told him that since I helped him pay his bill then he had to come join me one weekend at church.
What he said next, though, caught me off-guard.
Instead of accepting or rejecting my invitation, he locked eyes with me and simply said, “I did a lot of drugs when I was younger.”
The shame and guilt in his voice was palpable.
I tried my best to reassure him that the church I was inviting him to welcomes everyone and would be glad to have him. I even tried to convey to him the idea of Jesus’ grace, but he was having none of it.
In his mind, church was a place where the super spiritual go to put their moral goodness on display – his messiness and his mistakes just simply wouldn’t fit in.
I told him the address of our church and went on my way, but I don’t think I will ever forget the regret and sadness in his voice.
It was a reminder to me that not everyone has positive associations with the Church. In fact, some people have nothing but bad associations. For some, when they see a church, they see a wall instead of a bridge. A platform for the polished and put together, instead of a meeting place for messed up and misunderstood.
Instead of feeling welcomed when they walk in the church, they feel like a walking contradiction.
It pains me when I hear about someone who feels this way because I can so closely relate to it. I grew up in the belt buckle of the Bible Belt and spent years getting acquainted with the wooden pews, the fellowship halls, and the Sunday School classes.
And although I grew up in church, and I knew right from wrong, and I usually followed the rules — I somehow felt like I didn’t belong. I looked clean on the outside, but what people couldn’t see and what people didn’t know is I really felt like a failure.
I knew what the Bible said, but I also knew how often I didn’t live up to it.
And when I looked at everyone else, they seemed so put together. I didn’t want to admit my problems because I didn’t want to make the church messy.
Then, one day I finally realized that church is supposed to be messy.
When Jesus walked the earth and saw “messes” – He didn’t push away from them; He pursued them. He associated with sinners and even dined with them. Sometimes at the expense of being ridiculed by the religious rulers of the day. (Luke 7:31-35)
In one particular instance, though, He responds to them and declares the purpose of the Church by saying, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Luke 5:31)
It’s this idea that I think many of us forget as we build our churches, do our ministry, and live our lives. At least I know I do. It’s not intentional, it’s just our natural inclination. We crave comfort and avoid confrontation. Even the kind of confrontation where God’s grace meets someone stuck in their sin. We avoid it because that’s where it gets messy. That’s where grace becomes more than just a word on a page or an idea on a shelf.
The church was made to be messy. It isn’t a spiritual social club; it’s a shelter. A refuge for the misused and misunderstood. A lighthouse for the lost, not a spotlight for the spiritual.
A place where we can look up from the messes we’ve made and discover that we’re not the only one who makes them.
It’s where a boy who grew up without a father, can find the embrace of a heavenly Father.
It’s where a girl who grew up hating herself can discover that she bears the image of a loving, holy, perfect God.
It’s where the spiritually dead can be made spiritually alive.
Where hopelessness can be erased, sickness can be healed, and fear can be overcome.
I don’t know what your view of the Church is today, but I do know what it shouldn’t be. If you see a wall, instead of a bridge, please just know that you’ve looked in the wrong place.
No church is perfect and no church should be, but every church should have its doors open.
Unfortunately, it’s a reality that people do have bad church experiences — I’ve had some myself — but please don’t go to your grave thinking that you’re too messy to walk inside of one.