I had an interesting conversation last summer with a man at a church picnic. Because I had never met him, at first glance I thought he was going through chemotherapy. He wore a knit cap in ninety-degree weather, had no hair on his arms, legs or face, and had penciled in his eyebrows. Only after I sat across from him at lunch did I understand the situation.
After his grandmother introduced me to him, he said, “If you were the pastor of a church, how would you deal with people involved in alternate lifestyles?”
Not wanting to seem presumptuous about where he was heading, I said, “What do you mean?”
He said, “You know, people involved in same sex relationships. You’re from California, so you know what I’m talking about.” A few people at the picnic started to lean in to hear my answer.
I smiled at that and said, “Well, I cannot support a lifestyle that I believe the Bible condemns. However, people involved in alternate lifestyles are always welcome in ‘my’ church. But, by choosing to live in a way that disobeys Scripture, I cannot allow them to be involved in a leadership position. The same would be true for a man who chooses to gamble away his paycheck and then borrows money from his friends for food. My concern is always for the ultimate good of the individual, regardless of their actions.”
Then I said something that seemed to please him. “But I must tell you, I do have one major requirement for a person to come to my church, and if they don’t have this they can’t come. He looked at me as if to say, Here it comes. The other shoe is about to drop.
“In order to come to ‘my’ church,” I said, “a person must be a sinner. Therefore, everyone is welcome.”
The man smiled and said, “Thanks. That’s a good answer. I like that.”
As we were getting in the car to leave, another man came up to me and shook my hand. He said he had a brother who was gay, and every time he came to church, the pastor would preach and condemn him. He was glad to know there was a minister who would welcome all sinners into the church.
All sinners. I’ve heard some Christian-only-on-Sunday people say they don’t want “that type” in their church. What type? The type of people Jesus died for? The type of people who need to know God loves them and is not angry at them, but wants them to know His love and the free gift of forgiveness He paid for with His life? Hebrews says Jesus “was in all points tempted like as we are” (4:15). Tempted like this man at the picnic? Yes. Tempted like me, too? Yes. We all need to know Jesus can understand our problems and loved us enough to die for our place in His Kingdom. Even the Christian-only-on-Sunday people. Even me.
As I look back on that conversation, I see there wasn’t a great deal of “common ground” between me and the man at the picnic. The only thing we both seemed interested in was our place in the church, and this common ground became a meeting place for a conversation about God and Church. I don’t think he was trying to be controversial, but was searching for a Christian leader who looked below the surface and accepted him for who he is. I guess I did just that, because he was pleased with my response.
Titus 2:10 says our behavior towards others is an avenue that “will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive in every way” (NLT). As a Christian, I want people to be attracted to Jesus, because He is the only One who can save them from the penalty of their sin. What challenges me is this: the only way they will see and understand Jesus is if they see Jesus in me. Therefore, part of the “attraction” of the Gospel is the attractive lives of those who are followers of Jesus of Nazareth. In other words, it is impossible to attract people to Jesus if they are not attracted to me.
It makes me wonder how many people have rejected Jesus because they couldn’t see Jesus in me. On the bright side, it is good to know that at least one fellow sinner seemed comfortable enough in my presence to want to attend “my” church. And now that I am a pastor again, he will always be welcome.