Many years ago I was sitting with two ministers just shooting the breeze. They began to talk about a family that was moving to our town. The man was going to be a professor at our local Christian university. They talked longingly about what this man and his family could bring to their church. There was some brainstorming about who could connect with him the best, and a debate over whether having some church members just “show up” to help the family move in would be too much. They made plans for how to nab him before another church could.
I thought of that this week because I ran into the man. The one so eagerly desired. Haven’t seen him in years, and I don’t really know him. Seems like a good guy, nice family. And he attends the church that wanted him so badly. They got him.
I have seen this scenario, or something close to it, repeated time and time again. A new family comes to town. They are educated. Important. Have great kids. Whatever. And everybody wants them. We know they would make a great addition to whatever church we attend. They are gifted in worship or ministry. They have a lot to offer.
But are these the kind of people we should be drooling over? Jesus seemed to seek out (and attract) the poor, the lonely, and the outcast. The church is to be an extension of that attitude. So why aren’t we getting all excited about the new guy working the late shift at the corner convenience store? Why do we fawn over the new professor, but not the new janitor?
But let’s be honest. If we continually run after the gifted, the talented, the educated and the successful, we will have a great church. And we will have a church that attracts more of those kinds of people. Wonderful friendships, amazing Bible classes, artful worship. These are the by-products of collecting those who are eagerly desired. If you want to have a great church, you should go after great people.
On the other hand, a church full of the lonely, poor and outcast is difficult. It is messy. Not only is Bible class not amazing, often it is hard just to find someone willing to do it. Worship is less than you hoped for because many don’t know the songs or are too unsure of themselves to actually sing. Budgets are tight if not in the red. Attendance fluctuates horribly as members constantly change low wage jobs that generally are not Monday through Friday and 9 to 5. There is a roughness and a feeling of uncertainty. There is too much pain and drama and not enough time or energy to handle it all.
Now, the very human side of me wants to think that a church full of the highly desirable could be a place for those on the fringe to come into. After all, there are so many great people there that would truly attempt to welcome anyone. But just for a moment imagine my family of eight walking into a quiet, darkly lit bistro on a Saturday evening. It would be immediately obvious that this isn’t the place for us. No words need be said. That is how the church of the great and educated feels to many people. And when week after week you hear people with doctorates give the communion thoughts, it makes it hard to imagine yourself up there.
It seems to me that much of the talking we do about helping the hurting and bringing justice to the poor could be transformed by asking a simple question: Who is sitting next to us at church? You see, the church we attend isn’t just shaped by theology and worship style, but perhaps most significantly it is shaped by who is actually there. We want to love the poor, but we also want church to be a certain way, to have a certain feel, to work for us and our children. But often, those two things are mutually exclusive.
For too long we have defined church by what happens “up there” at the front: who is involved and what they are doing. Perhaps it is time to define our churches by who is down here, in the pews or the seats.
We have a choice. It is a choice about the kind of church we wish to attend. Do we want a church where everything works, worship is an ensemble of artistic greatness, and budgets always get met? If we do, then we know who to invite, who to seek out. Or do we want a church where the hurting, disenfranchised, and lost feel that they belong? In other words, who are you saving that seat for?