No Outsiders: Relating to Those Who "Don't Belong"

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Like it or not, there are those who don't feel welcome or comfortable within the Church, or among Christians, in spite of their own preferences; they'd like to participate in church-life, and associate with Christ-followers, but they can't because of choices that we've made. They're excluded. The truth is that we've made "outsiders" of many people over the years. We've made outsiders of other denominations, of those whose backgrounds differ from ours, and of those with differing political viewpoints, just to list a few.

To clarify: we're not talking about church membership as the delineator of who's "in" and who's "out." We're talking about those who don't even feel welcome within a church building on a Sunday morning. Those whom we've judged as being heretical, or morally reprehensible, or politically unpalatable, or even simply "too different" to be welcome.

Theoretically, the church wants to welcome ALL people. The theory doesn't often line up with the reality. Somewhere around 53 A.D. the church in Jerusalem had a crisis brought on by a former "Pharisee of pharisees," and a well-meaning but impetuous brother. Some early Jewish Christians, who were concerned about maintaining the practice of the Mosaic purity laws, prevailed upon the apostle Peter to stop eating with the Gentile believers. The gentiles were "unclean" and eating with them would make Peter unclean too. Peter, who'd received a vision from God, proclaiming the unclean animals descending from heaven "clean"—a metaphor for the cleansing of the gentiles—gave in to those Jewish believers and stopped eating with the gentiles.

Paul, upon hearing this, "opposed Cephas to his face, because he stood condemned" (Gal. 2:11, ESV).

That was only the beginning. From there the church went on to ostracise, at various times, everyone: from those who had recanted their faith under persecution, and who then repented, to our present-day exclusion of those who believe differently on debatable doctrinal matters.

Certainly, we need to acknowledge that something is driving people away from church. Many surveys show that North Americans are no less religious than they were in the past, Statistics Canada states that from 1985 to 2005, the number of Canadians attending regular religious services decreased by roughly 10%, while the number of us that never went to religious services at all increased by roughly 10%.

Could it be that part of the reason for that swing (which is not a new trend) has to do with people not feeling welcome at church or among Christians?

If so, how do we change that? How do we make ALL people welcome in the same way that Jesus welcomed all people? 

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Do people feel welcome in the church?   Probably we need to differentiate  between  sincere Christians who do not feel welcome, vs nominal or seekers who do not feel welcome.   This question needs to explain the phrase:  "God disciplines those whom He loves..."    If the gospel is not preached completely, or if sanctification is ignored or denied then sincere Christians will not feel part of a church.  If Romans 6 (shall we sin the more that grace may abound?  by no means...) is ignored, or if repentance (as in "Repent and Believe") is ignored, or if I john 1:9,10, or I John 3:6 is ignored then the church has lost its salt.  On the other hand, the message of grace and forgiveness and repentance means that sinners are permitted and encouraged to repent, and to experience God's grace and forgiveness.   That means that unbelievers should always be encouraged to hear the gospel, not to be excluded from that message.  The difficulty is whether a "seeker" is truly a seeker, or is only trying to find acceptance, rather than forgiveness for their sins.  While patience is a virtue,  and while God is long-suffering (patient), we also know that God disciplines those whom he loves.   Some of God's discipline was very severe, such as the death of 24,000 Israelites who practiced sexual immorality with people of Balaam, or the death of Annanias and Sapphira for merely lying.  We should not arrogantly assume superiority over God, in thinking that we are more merciful than God.   God judges more severly than us, and also provides a greater sacrifice than we do.  But He asks us to be holy as he is holy.   True love for one another means that we do not tolerate sin and idolatry. (I John 3: 6, Revelations 21:8).   Our attitude towards sin will also demonstrate to believers and unbelievers whether we really desire God's grace, or whether we merely desire human acceptance. 

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John,

Thanks for the comment. I'll try to take it piece by piece, if you don't mind and certainly others can feel free to chime in, should they desire.

The first question you ask is, "Do people feel welcome in the church?" The answer to that seems to be a pretty resounding "yes", but I hope to follow up on that with some more information and statistics and resources in later posts, so I won't get into that too deeply.

You next go on to says that we may need "to differentiate between sincere Christians who do not feel welcome, vs nominal or seekers who do not feel welcome." My question is "Why?" What does the status of one's faith have to do with whether or not a person should feel welcome to step into the doors of a church building on a Sunday morning? Certainly, people bring baggage with them (we all do that) and there's nothing we can do about a good deal of it, but from our end should it really matter whether the person who enters the door is a "sincere seeker" or a nominal Christian or whatever?

Then you raise the quote "God disciplines those whom he loves." This is an important quotation, but again, my question would be a) What part do we play in God's discipline of "those whom he loves"? And b) (and this is another question I hope to explore further in a later post), "How has the church related to "the world" in the past, how does that compare to how Jesus related to "the world" and, if there's a difference, why? and should it be that way? I hope many will join in the discussion to look at these questions...

Lastly you raise the question of patience, acceptance and judgment. The instances that you point to as examples are significant as they are all examples of God's discipline of people (even if the judgment was carried out by people at His behest). Also significant here is the fact that all of the people you list as being judged were those who already claimed to be followers of God. This post is primarily about those who may or may not "claim" to be God followers, but who definitely don't feel welcome darkening the door of a church building to join a worship service or even explore being part of the community. They're generally at a stage way before any formal "discipleship" we might like them to be involved in, and they're definitely, in my humble opinion, at a stage way before "church discipline" might be exercised too... they're not members... they can't even get in the door.

Daniel, I hope others respond to this also, because it is an important topic.  I think I am quite welcoming, but sometimes I have doubts about that, or I wonder if there are things I can do to open doors more.   Okay, you are concentrating on those who are nominal or seekers.   What I was getting at was that if the gospel is compromised in order to welcome some, then sincere Christians will not feel that the church is being true church.   But getting back to seekers, I remember an example of a woman who came to church once or twice, and then asked people in the foyer what they thought of divorce.   Well, the direct answer of course, is that scripture speaks against divorce.  And this was the answer given.  But I wondered later if there was not another way of answering that question.   We found out later she had divorced and then remarried.  She had also remarried to someone who was not a Christian.   She ended up with another church in town; a church that is definately more local mission minded and more local mission experienced, and I think she even led a choir and played piano there.  So on the one hand, was experienced in christian life.   God did give the people of God the responsibility to admonish one another and discipline, as the form for profession of faith acknowledges and the forms for installation of elders also mentions.  But sometimes people have the perception that there is more judgement going on than there really is, especially for those who are new or struggling....  and I agree that discipline is only valuable in the context of grace. 

I think that churches are finally starting to realise this as a major issue, that we make churches designed for Christians. Changing something as simple as a dress code to casual wear can be one step toward being relatable to the community and coming off as inviting to new people. I am hoping to write some more on the subject myself on my site that talks about church growth. Greath thoughts Daniel!

Finding acceptance in a local body can lead a person to Christ.  It may take a while, but everyone desires acceptance and what better place than a body of believers who truly love God.  Some people have never felt accepted whether inside or outside the church.  So, therefore, they have trouble feeling accepted anywhere.  Those that we don't like, love them anyway.  Those who are quiet and shy, shake their hand and say "Hi" everytime the church doors are open and you see them in the grocery store, etc, even if we think they are wierd.  This is where Godly discernment is needed.  Love is the greatest gift. 

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