Yesterday was marked in hundreds of our churches as 'The Big Welcome', sponsored by BUGB and others, and an excellent initiative. But the issue of welcome is not about one Sunday in September, its about our underlying orientation to today’s generation.
One of my deepest convictions is that nothing, absolutely nothing, should get in the way of enabling people to encounter Jesus. Superficially, that's an easy statement to agree with but history tells us it can be hard to put it into practice.
From the beginning, the disciples wanted to keep the children away. Then the Pharisees wanted to keep the sinners away. As the church developed, the clergy preferred to keep the laity away, and their doctrine kept the women away.
When disputes arose, the church divided – often – and to this day some branches of the church keep others away, believing them to be unsound or unsaved.
Today when we celebrate communion we keep the unconverted away, and although we say we welcome everyone into our churches, and often we really mean it, our actions and our words do not always convey that welcome to those whose lives do not pass our litmus test.
We don’t mean to be unwelcoming. If anything our devotion to Christ seems to drive us to make sure that any who come are worthy of coming. Its as if we forget that no-one is worthy, least of all ourselves.
Today, we have to conclude that fewer and fewer people are finding the church an attractive, or attracting community. As a result, many Christians are asking questions about the essence of the gospel and how well we communicate it. This blog has often been my faltering attempt to do just that. Let me tell you why.
Although I grew up in a devout Christian family, I reached my late teens and early 20s desperately searching for a fresh encounter with God. When it came it wasn't because someone told me I was a sinner in need of forgiveness - I instinctively knew that. What won my heart was the experience of a very ordinary local Baptist church who accepted me as I was, and where the worship of the people and the preaching of the Word exalted Jesus to such heights that my whole being was drawn to him like iron to a magnet. It was as wonderful as it was unstoppable!
From this personal experience came a lifelong desire that no-one should be denied the opportunity of experiencing the magnetic field that emanates from Jesus and which captured my heart and mind.
Over the years my preaching, teaching, and writing have been a consistent reflection of this conversion experience. I've found myself telling people, many times, that we can face the people and major on the fact that they’re sinners in need of Christ (and there's a time and place for that) or we can turn 180 degrees and face Christ and major on how loving and accepting he was, especially to those who did not feel they deserved his compassion.
To put it simply, our emphasis can be on the sinful nature of people, or it can be on the beauty of Christ and the availability of his love and grace.
Either way is incomplete without the other. The question is one of emphasis, of sequence, of priority, of language, of tone – and we haven’t always got those right.
There is a growing movement today to re-examine how we present the gospel. I don’t believe that people are trying to change the core truths of the faith but rather they are committed to presenting a more compassionate, more grace-full, more Christ-like face to an unbelieving world.
I believe with all my heart that this is a move of God's spirit in our generation. Like all such movements into which God invites to participate and make our contribution, we will not get everything right. Grace and understanding will be required as we have seen in sensitive debates earlier this year.
And if this is a movement of God's Spirit, it's echo will be heard far beyond our small part of the worldwide church. Maybe the words of Pope Francis this week (full text here) are a sign that the breath of God's Spirit is blowing in that most conservative of institutions.
Appealing for a more balanced presentation of the gospel, less 'obsessed' with a focus on a narrow range of issues, Pope Francis said that "the ministers of the Church must be ministers of mercy above all". Amen! We are not to be gatekeepers or rule-keepers deciding who can come close to Jesus. We are to be ministers of mercy.
And with surprising honesty considering the numerical strength of the Catholic communion he reminded people of the welcoming nature of the gospel: "this Church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal Church to a nest protecting our mediocrity."
Is our welcome unconditional? The welcome of Jesus certainly was.