In the rural south, church signs still mean something. They remind people to get right or get left. They sometimes make political statements. Sometimes, their attempts at humor end up being really funny for all of the wrong reasons. Of all the messages I’ve seen on church signs, there’s one common theme:
All are welcome here.
We love to tell ourselves that everyone is welcome in our church. All races are welcome. Bikers are welcome. Sinners are welcome. The unchurched are welcome. Come one, come all.
As the pastor of one of those rural churches, I can tell you that we’re lying. Everyone isn’t welcome. This became obvious to me one day standing at the door of the church that I lead. But the really sad part is that the unwelcoming didn’t come from a few of our church members.
It came from me.
A man was doing some work on our building and I was showing him around. It was the first time that we had ever met. On his way outside he told me that he was interested in visiting our church. I was like a proud father. He was probably impressed by our loving people. Or perhaps he had heard about my last sermon. That pride quickly went away when he told me the reason why he wanted to give our church a try.
“Yeah, there’s just too many black people coming to the church we’re at now.”
I froze. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. As I processed our conversation over the days that followed I waxed eloquent about all of the things I wished that I had said. Basically, the eloquent sermon that I was preaching in my heart to that man had one major point.
You are not welcome here.
I was proud of myself. In my mind I was Martin Luther King Jr. A lot of other pastors would have laughed this man’s comment off or maybe even agreed with him, happily accepting his membership and money. But not me. Oh, no sir. I was having none of this man’s sin. He’s not welcome where I pastor.
And then I thought about Jesus.
Jesus frequently engaged those who were not welcomed by the religious elites of their day. Sometimes he sat with them (John 4:1-45) and sometimes he ate with them (Mark 2:13-17). When I read these accounts I see myself. I am Levi. I am the woman at the well. In my more delusional moments, I am Jesus.
In reality, though, I am a Pharisee asking, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” I’m sure that they felt really good about themselves when they asked that question. I should know.
Here’s the thing about the outsiders that Jesus moved toward: they weren’t outsiders because they had tattoos or listened to the wrong music. They were outsiders because they were hated. Levi was a thief and a traitor. The woman at the well was an adulteress. And here’s something important to remember about Jesus as he engaged these outsiders. By eating with them or talking to them, he wasn’t condoning their sin, as some today would have us to believe. He was confronting it. Jesus’ confrontations were often done face to face. The Pharisees’ condemnations were often pronounced from afar. So if all of this were happening today, Jesus would have a conversation with the sinner over a meal. The Pharisees would come up with a hashtag like #whyisJesuseating. Proximity is just one of the differences you’ll see between genuine love and self-righteousness.
As exemplified by the above workman, race is a big issue in our country today. It’s really big in the rural south. There is no amount of government activity or social media activism that will change the problems. What’s needed is changed hearts.
But this goes much deeper than people simply going to church, most of whom claim their hearts have been changed. Sadly, some of those same people are not immune to the sin of racism. For too long, pastors and other church leaders have laughed it off, condoned it, or even participated in it. What is required is church leaders who will boldly confront this sin while at the same time reaching out in love to those who are guilty of it. Like Jesus did.
I still regularly see that guy who wanted to visit the church that I pastor. He still hasn’t visited us. I hope that he does.
And when he does I hope that he is surprised.
I hope that he is surprised to see that the gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t just for one race of people.
And I hope that he is surprised by the grace of God that is greater than even the sin of racism.
But most of all, I hope that one day, through faith and repentance, this man will join with members of every tribe, tongue, nation, and skin tone in hearing God the Father say, “You are welcome.”