In college, I was a part of a small group that often went out into the streets of downtown to witness to others about God. Our goal was to tell people about Jesus, how he died for their sins, and to provide an opportunity for them to pray “the Lord’s Prayer” and accept Jesus into their heart.
As you can imagine, starting conversations with strangers on a street corner on a Friday night surrounded by dance clubs, bars, and movie theatres isn’t exactly easy. To help with the awkwardness and nervousness of it all, we started these conversations by handing out tracts.
I’m sure most of you know what a tract is, but for those of you who are drawing a blank, it’s a folded piece of paper, many times with cartoon pictures depicting people realizing they are sinful and going to Hell and showing Jesus at the gates of Heaven inviting them in. We had what I thought at the time was the coolest tract ever! It was a tract that looked like money – cold, hard cash! Who doesn’t want free money? It was super easy to hand out and our intentions were always good; we truly wanted people to find God. But as I look back, I’ve begun to wonder more about those experiences. How were we really the Church? What were we doing to show those people Christ? And what if they had something of God and Church to offer us? Could we mutually give to one another as a way of finding Christ in deeper ways? The God in me could meet the God in you.
Now many years later, as a therapist, I hear stories every day about people’s experience of Church and those who make up the Church. I hear stories about the members of the Church who call themselves Christians and those who don’t. The Church’s job is to offer Christ’s hope, healing and peace to the world.
This might sound heretical, but what I’ve learned since those days in college is that it doesn’t mean you have to be a Christian to offer these things of God to the world. As I sit with my patients, I get the honor of hearing so many stories of hope and pain. I count it a gift when someone is willing to share the stories of their lives, especially if they are stories they’ve not yet shared with anyone. How lucky am I that I get to be the story keeper? These stories of people who don’t call themselves Christians and yet offer a place of belonging to someone who is alone, insecure and dejected humble and move me. I think to be the receiver of stories of pain, confusion and trauma is scary for those in the Church — scary because we don’t know what to say, or do with someone who is so “other” than us. So much of the time the receiver gives simple antidotes in order to “fix” the problems of the dejected one or, if pressed, will say something like, “you just need to trust God with it.” This leaves the person feeling bad because of their supposed lack of trust in God, and causes further isolation as they come to feel that even God requires something of them in order to get help. It feels cheap, like our fake money tracts. But don’t we really just want people to be with us in our grief and trauma? We want to have someone strong enough not to break when they hear about our painful places.
As someone who is a part of the LGBTQ community, many times I and those of us a part of the LGBTQ community have to look outside of the Church for Christ. I don’t mean to make an argument for “us” and “them”, but I do wonder what the Church is doing if we have to find Christ somewhere else? What’s the point of it all then? We need to remember that one of the major complaints of Jesus’s opponents was that he spent too much time with those he shouldn’t have; the “others”- sinners and outcasts. This was against the strict Judeo-Roman society and it continues even today when we deviate too far from our safe “Church” events.
I fear as the Christian Church we have aligned ourselves with a strict exclusivity rather than a radical inclusivity. I wonder, could the Church be a place where Christians and non-Christians give to one another in order to be mutually built up? Wouldn’t that exchange be a place where we both experienced Christ? And if we both experience Christ, isn’t that the very definition of Church the Bible gives us?
This takes me back to the tracts we handed out on those downtown street corners hoping people would find Christ. Matthew’s account of Jesus feeding the thousands with loaves and fish highlights where we as young college students missed the boat. Jesus did not pick and choose who ate, nor did he send the people away to find their own physical nourishment. He did not shame, did not say their physical needs were bad, but met and exceeded their needs, they ate until they were full. Jesus shows us all are welcome.
Something the Bible doesn’t talk about is what it was like for Jesus and the disciples to help feed those people. I have a feeling they were ministered to; in other words, Jesus and the disciples received Gods love from those who were receiving the food. They were normal people who Jesus himself might have been given to by, a place where both the giver and receiver experience something of Gods love. As a young person handing out a tract, I wonder how we might have met the real needs of those people and in that experience open ourselves up to receiving Gods love from the “other”?
My final question to you is, who are you blocking yourself from experiencing Church with because they are different and less Christian than you? Perhaps in opening yourself up, you will get a deeper experience of God and Christ Jesus. At least that would be my greatest desire for you – that you would find Christ’s body, his healing and hope, both within the walls of what we call the Church and outside of it as well.