I’ve been reflecting on a movement that Gateway Church in Austin,Texas has started. The pastor of the church, John Burke (Books: No Perfect People Allowed and Mud and the Masterpiece), is seeking to ignite a movement in North America to build a “Come as you Are” mentality. The come as you are website (www.asur.org) describes the movement this way, “The ‘As You Are Initiative’ is mobilizing thousands of willing Christ-followers just like you to start, growing and multiplying ‘come as you are’ leaders to lead ‘come as you are churches,’ molded from messy people rising up out of the culture to become the Body of Christ.”
I had the opportunity to be part of a small group of church leaders in Austin at the beginning of March as this initiative was launched at the Generate Summit. Listening to John speak and hearing from members of his congregation who “came as they were” led me to wonder how open our churches are to letting people “come as they are”? What limits do we place on “come as you are”? And even if we proclaim “come as you are,” will those who walk in experience a “cringe factor” from people who profess they will allow anyone into the church. The “cringe factor” I’m thinking about is when people of the congregation act in a way that makes it clear that they are not comfortable with the person who has just walked in. I recall one story from Gateway told by a woman who showed up with the woman she was living with, they came in holding hands and fully expected a strong reaction from people, but no one cringed, instead they were welcomed warmly. It was the first step to her coming to Christ. Would a woman like this receive a warm welcome in our churches or would there be a strong “cringe factor”?
This “cringe factor” is something that Jesus must have faced. In John 3 we hear the words that are so familiar, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:15–16 ESV) In John 4 and 5 we see this verse played out in terms of God loving the world. In John 4 we are introduced to a Samaritan women who has had multiple husbands and is now living with another man. Jesus doesn’t cringe—over her living with someone, her multiple husbands nor over her being a despised Samaritan and a woman besides—but speaks to her of living water. Next in John 4 we find Jesus interacting with a father who longs for his son to be healed. The only problem is that this father is also an official in Herod’s court. The Herod who kills John the Baptist, who is a man of great injustice, and who is a threat to Jesus. But again, there is no cringe factor instead there is healing. Then in John 5 we find a man who needs healing, but is a bit grumpy about his situation. Jesus doesn’t rebuke him for his attitude, instead he heals the man. In this story, there is also an amazing subtext. Bethesda has not always been a healing pool for the people of Israel. In days gone by it was a healing place for the Gentiles who worshipped the healing god, Asclepius. N.T. Wright in his commentary on John says, “The original site has been excavated by archeologists, and if you go to Jerusalem you can see it for yourself. But it wasn’t just a Jewish healing place. The evidence suggests that pagans, too, regarded it as a sacred site. At one stage it was dedicated to the healing god Asclepius. …Jesus seems to be fulfilling the hopes and half-formed beliefs of the pagan world as well [when he heals this man]. Part of the point of the gospel is that, if ‘salvation is of the Jews’, and if Jesus is now bringing that salvation, it must spread out from the Jews to embrace the wider world. The pagan shrine points dimly to the healing that Jesus was bringing.” We can imagine that as Jesus reaches out to a sinful Samaritan, provides healing for one of Herod’s officials, heals a grumpy man and gives hints of outreach to the gentiles, that more than a few people cringed at both Jesus and those he cared about.
Which leaves me wondering: are we ready for a “come as you are” way of living as God’s people? When you think of your congregation, where would the cringe factor set in? Where would your congregation be tempted to move very quickly from the “come as you are” (maybe even skip over it) and get right to “but don’t stay as you are”?