If you’ve been following my blog lately you know that my church just sold its building and is now worshiping in rented space. We’ve been seeking God’s guidance on how he wants us to reach out. As a church, we tend to want to reach out in churchy ways that translate to “get ’em in the door on Sunday.” But in this post-Christian culture, I don’t think that works anymore. What attracts people to God is when they see the love he offers, and begin to recognize how that is what they’ve really wanted all along. Here’s a story I wrote two years ago about how that worked in me.
I once heard a recovered alcoholic tell his story. He was living in a shed, drinking every dollar he scrounged, and life did not look to be getting any better. He showed up at an AA clubhouse one day. “I’m not an alcoholic,” he told the man behind the counter. “I just want to sit and rest.” The man said, “You are entirely welcome to do that, and stay as long as you want. Would you like some coffee?” The alcoholic returned for several days, each day denying his alcoholism to the counterman. “I do drink too much sometimes, and buying booze always leaves me broke, but I’m not an alcoholic.” The man always smiled and said, “That’s fine. You’re welcome to sit here as long as you like.” After many more days sitting there sipping coffee, he stepped into a meeting. He kept coming back, found his higher power, and got sober. He credits the simple acceptance of the man behind the counter, an act of love that paved his path to God, who freed him from his slavery.
Thirty years ago, my brother used to get me to go with him to the elementary school’s playground to play basketball with the gang. I was lousy at basketball and didn’t much like everybody knowing it, but I was often bored enough to go anyway.
A group of slightly older kids, strangers to us, came to play one day. Their dark jeans, clean white sneakers, polo shirts, and neatly parted hair stood out sharply against our scruffy play clothes, dirty shoes, and messy hair. They seemed curiously overdressed for basketball, but they played well enough. When the game ended, stacks of religious tracts appeared in their hands. They said they were from the Community Baptist Church and they began to tell us about heaven and hell and how we had to accept Jesus Christ – today – or risk a tortured eternity.
I had never been evangelized before, and the pressure was high. “If you haven’t accepted Jesus into your heart, if you died today you’d go to hell, which the Bible calls the lake of fire! You would be in the lake of fire for all eternity! Can you imagine what that would be like? Won’t you pray with me right now to accept Jesus into your heart so you can be in heaven?” I was not going to be pressured and said no, I would not pray with him. He would not take no for an answer, and I eventually had to tell him to leave me alone. He wouldn’t, so I ignored him when he talked to me.
I learned that Christians want to seem superior to you and use fear and pressure to get you to go to their church. I was now not favorably disposed toward Christians.
A few years later, a friend of mine asked me to visit her church with her. She said she’d arrange to have the church bus come pick me up on Sunday. I didn’t know where she went to church, but I had not forgotten my past experience with Community Baptist Church when their bus pulled up. I felt on my guard, but everybody was friendly and the morning went fine. Eight days later, however, three high school boys rang our doorbell and asked for me. They wanted to know why I hadn’t been to church the day before. I said that I just visited that one time with my friend. They said, “God wants us to worship him every Sunday. Don’t you want to worship the Lord?” I didn’t know what to say. I thought I had just gone to visit with my friend one time, but they acted like they expected me to come back every week. I don’t remember how I got them to go away. But they were back the next week, and I stammered through trying to tell them no. My dad came to the door and told them I didn’t want to come back to their church and that they should take no for an answer. They came again the next week anyway, this time with an adult. Dad told them that if they ever returned, he’d get a lawyer and sue them for harassment. We didn’t see them again.
When I was in college, I thought it was funny how you could always spot the Bible thumpers by their neatly parted hair, dark jeans, polo shirts, and clean sneakers. Did they buy their uniforms from the same place? One of the so uniformed lived on my floor. I think his name was Mark. I steered clear as much as I could, but one day I couldn’t avoid him and he struck up a conversation with me. Fearing high pressure, I stiffened and gave him one-syllable answers. But then I realized he wasn’t talking about God or hell or church. He was just talking. And so I didn’t work so hard to steer clear. He talked to me a few more times, and I began to respond in complete sentences. Just as I thought he might be all right, he said, “Hey, you know I’m a Christian. I like to talk about it with people. Would you be willing?”
Fear stabbed at me. “I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t want to be pressured about God.”
“Whoa, don’t worry. I’m not going to try to push you into anything you don’t want. It’s just that I’ve found that following Jesus is pretty good. It’s made a big difference in my life. I think it can make a big difference in everyone’s lives.”
We ended up meeting for an hour for each of the next several weeks. As I loosened up, I asked him questions about God and about his faith. He told me how it was for him to start on God’s path, how he still messed it up a lot, but how God had been patient with him. He told me that God would be just as patient with me, and that he wanted me just as I was. He asked me about what fears I had about starting on that path. My fears were considerable, and I was not ready to give them up. And so our talks came to an end.
But as the counterman at the AA clubhouse did for the alcoholic, Mark made me feel welcome and accepted at the edge of surrender. When I was ready to take that step years later, Mark had given me a good idea of how to find the path God had prepared for me. Because of Mark, I knew that I should look for simple acceptance, because it was evidence that God’s love was present.
Wherever you are, Mark, thanks, man. I hope to live up to your example.