From a sermon a few years ago.
We are in the middle of a sermon series on the many objections people have to going to church, why they leave the church, and why some return. The series is based on a little booklet that lists ten of these reasons, reasons discovered in a survey of many people. Today I will say a few things about three of the ten reasons. So my theme for this morning can be summarized like this: “How can we respond to people who say they don’t go to church because the church is full of cliques, church people are hypocritical and judgmental, and besides, they are always asking for money?”
Wow! Is that what we are like here? Well, yes, as a matter of fact I would venture to say that we probably are like that, at least to a certain extent. I’ve been in this church long enough to understand all those reasons why some people don’t like us. I don’t even need a survey. I have heard it all and seen it with my own eyes.
More needs to be said, and I will get around to that. But let’s begin where we begin our worship service, with confession. Every congregation and every individual has, time and again, failed to be good witnesses to the faith we have in our Lord Jesus Christ. Whether or not that is an adequate excuse for other people to stay away from church is another question. But let’s begin with what we know. We know ourselves best, and we all know we could do a much better job of living out our faith.
I did struggle with how I would approach this topic. My first reaction was to get defensive, and make objections to the objections. I will do a little of that. But let’s begin by at least trying to understand what leads people to say such negative things about us.
I read an interesting story the other day. It was in a bookstore, and I didn’t buy the book, and I can’t even remember the title. But here’s the story. It took place at the private showing of a movie that was soon to be released. Many Hollywood insiders were in attendance. All the bad characters in the movie were narrow-minded, mean, hypocritical, judgmental, small town, church going people– you know, people like us. And the wonderful hero was a brave young man who took a stand against all that bigotry to do the right thing. As you know, that hasn’t been the only movie to take that approach. That is the portrayal of Christians that we have come to expect from Hollywood.
After the movie ended the producer stood up and made some remarks. He concluded by saying he expected loud disapproval from the evangelical Christian community. “But,” he said, “I am ready for that fight.” Most people in the crowd nodded approvingly. Then he asked for comments.
The first man who spoke said, “I am an evangelical Christian, and I just want apologize for me and my people for whatever we have done to hurt any of you, to give you that kind of impression of us that is in this movie. I am truly sorry.” And he sat down.
The rest of the people there were dumbfounded. They did not know what to say. When they finally did start to speak, the conversation went off in an entirely different direction than anyone was expecting. Rather than praising the movie’s bold and honest look at terrible evangelical Christians, there was a positive response to that one Christian’s heartfelt and honest confession. The story in the book did not say this, but I think many of those people might have realized that they were never hurt at all by any evangelical Christians. What I have read tells me that the majority of people in Hollywood live such insulated lives that many of them don’t even know anyone who goes to church. All they know about us is what they have seen in movies.
But that little story made me rethink the approach I would take to this sermon. I decided I would try to be a little less defensive. Instead, I would be more intentional about how congregations can be more understanding and welcoming.
Let’s look at the first objection: the church is full of cliques. Have you ever heard (or even said!) that one?
I looked up ‘cliques’ in the dictionary and the first definition given was “a group of friends.” Well, what is wrong with that? That is what we want the church to be, isn’t it? And of course, we all can’t be best friends with everyone, and so it isn’t surprising that there are smaller groups of friends within the larger community of a congregation. So far, so good. But the dictionary gives a second definition. It also defines clique more specifically as a “small, exclusive group of people.” Exclusive. There is the problem. Exclusive means we who are already here and know each other are included, and someone else, just in off the street, is going to feel excluded. That is what we need to work on. As a congregation, we want to be a ‘close’ community, but we don’t want to be a ‘closed’ community.
Many times after church I have been asked by some good church member, “Who were those new people in church today?” I usually reply politely by telling them the little bit I found out while shaking hands as they head straight out the door. But sometimes when someone has asked about a visitor I have said, “Don’t always ask me, ask them. Can’t you see I’m busy after worship? You can talk to them. Just ask them what their name is and what brought them to our church this morning and invite them to stay and have a cup of coffee with you.”
Cliff Eggen never had to ask me about the new people in church, but I knew I could always ask him. Cliff was a member of my first congregation in Lignite, North Dakota. We didn’t get too many strangers visiting in that remote little village. But when someone did visit, Cliff noticed them, and they did not get out the door without a twenty minute visit with this pleasant, kind-hearted old man; and that made them want to come back. Every congregation needs a few Cliff Eggens.
I am not preaching every Sunday like I did for 30 years, so my wife and I get a chance to visit other congregations once in a while. We have found that some are very good at this, and some are not. We can do better. Let’s be like Cliff.
Let’s take the objection concerning money next. Here is where I might get a little defensive. Even Phil Robertson one time made a little jab at preachers about this one. Phil Robertson is the bearded patriarch of the Duck Dynasty clan. He is a good Christian man, and I once heard him say he even does a little speaking in churches. But he was quick to add, “I am not a preacher; preachers are those guys that are always asking for money, and that’s not what I do in church.”
Well, I like Phil Robertson. He is a funny guy and he is a good witness to his faith. But he is in the business of selling duck calls, and I have seen his displays at Fleet Farm, and guess what. He is always asking for money for those duck calls. Always. He has to, of course. He has people hired, bills to pay, materials to buy, and a building to keep up. And so does the church.
Except the church isn’t always asking for money. We always take an offering, but in every church I have ever been in, you can let that offering basket go right on by without putting anything in it, and the ushers don’t say a word, and you are allowed to stay sitting right where you are, and nobody even gives you a dirty look. Once in a while, the pastor or someone from the council has to remind church members of their responsibilities, or inform them of particular needs. And granted, there are ministers that do talk too much about money. But even those ministers aren’t always doing that.
What most churches are always doing is being very generous, because that is what Jesus wants us to do with our resources. So we aren’t always asking for money, but we are always giving it away.
Look at what we do here. We host the local Food Shelf and four days a week we hand out free food. Once a week we have the fellowship hall full of donated clothing, and people can take what they want for free. Once a month we make several hundred sandwiches for the homeless, and, we are the main source of support for an orphanage and school in Haiti. We are very generous in allowing the use of our space for weddings and funerals; even for people who have never given us a dime. Of course we have to have some guidelines and some nominal fees for that, or else we would be swamped and have to quit doing everything else.
We are always giving something away. That’s what Christians do. Most churches are always very generous in many ways, even though they sometimes do have to ask for money. (continued…)