Excerpted from “Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend” (Zondervan)
I grew up attending churches designed for church people. No one said it, but the assumption was that church was for church people. The unspoken message to the outside world was, “Once you start believing and behaving like us, you are welcome to join us.”
The corollary of being a church for churched people was that we had a tendency to be against everything unchurched people were for. We were against just about everything at one time or another. We were against certain genres of music, alcohol, the lottery, the equal rights amendment, gay people, and Democrats. Seemed like we were always looking for something or someone to boycott. As strange as all that sounds now, it didn’t seem strange at all back then. Funny how time does that. But our dilemma then is a dilemma the church has struggled with throughout its history. Who is the church for? Who gets to be part of the Jesus gathering? While it’s easy to shake our heads in disgust at the narrow-mindedness of a previous generation, this is an issue every generation is forced to wrestle with at some level and often around some unexpected issue. This generation is no exception.
My first major encounter with both the importance and complexity of this question took place in 1987 while I was working for my dad at our downtown location. For some reason that nobody can remember, our church got crossways with the gay community in Atlanta. This was back when nobody really talked about that kind of thing in church. So I’m not sure what created all the hoopla. But for whatever reason, the organizers of the Gay Pride Day march, which always took place on a Sunday, decided to adjust their schedule so the parade would be passing in front of our church around noon—the approximate time we would be dismissing our congregation from our eleven o’clock worship service.
Well, when our church leaders got word of this, they went on the defensive. They decided to let church out early and send everybody out the back so that by the time the parade was in front of our church, all us good church people would be on our way back to the ’burbs! What happened instead was that they let us out in time to line the streets to watch the parade. After all, the best way to ensure that people look at something is to tell them not to look. So there we were, gawking at the show as it slowly made its way down Peachtree Street.
Two circumstances associated with this event made it a defining moment for me. The first thing was what took place directly across the street from our church. St. Mark United Methodist Church had their members standing along the street handing out cups of water to parade participants. While some handed out water, others held up posters that read, Everybody Welcomed! Come Worship with Us! God Is Love! The contrast could not have been more pronounced. It was embarrassing.
The other thing that impacted me about that weekend was our Sunday evening service. I was scheduled to preach the evening service before we knew anything about the parade. When I found out about the controversy, I asked my dad if he was planning to address the subject of homosexuality in his morning sermon. He was not. So I asked him if it would be alright if I did. I still remember the concerned look on his face. “What are you going to say?” he asked. I said, “I don’t know, but since it is going to be on everyone’s mind, it seems like somebody should say something!” He agreed.
And he agreed it should be me.