It was Sunday night church at the inner city. Just when you think you have seen it all you are proven wrong. There is no predictability to interactions with those who are struggling with addiction and mental health issues. There is no way to prepare for those drawn into the service by the warmth of the building on a cold night. When you think about it, all the marketing in the world will never be as effective as offering a warm place on a cold night to someone who lives on the streets. Now there’s a product you don’t have to sell!
Church needs to be a safe place for everyone which is what makes it feel so unsafe.
In a church culture that often splits missions and numerical growth into different categories, the church can be ill prepared to deal with those who show up at a service. It was different for the staff at the inner city church but for most churches the mission field is either too far away or so local that the people who can attend are just like them. Whether it is on the other side of the world or the other side of the tracks, there is a safe feeling that comes from believing that the work done outside of our comfort zone will not have to be done inside our comfort zone, our home church.
I can serve at a mission for a few hours or days and show love outwardly. Once it’s over I get to go home to my safe church. The storms of life stay at the mission never threatening my peaceful Sunday morning sanctuary. Don’t ask me to do the same, to love the same type of people in my church, they actually might stay… They are not worth it, they bring the storm into the church and make it unsafe.*
If you are going to open the door you may not like what comes in.
Working at an inner city church located within walking distance of homeless shelters and a park (both used as lodging) meant that you could see the effects of life altering struggles on the faces as well as in the actions and words of those that attended church. For most people our comfort zone/home church remains safe and comfortable only as long as no one shows signs of life altering struggles on their faces or through their actions and words. As I said at the beginning of this blog, “it was Sunday night church in the inner city.” In from the cold came two men. You could see it in their faces, in their actions and hear it in their words, they had suspended life’s worries through the ingestion of large amounts of alcohol. Throughout the service one of the two men would pass out, wake up, mumble something and then return to dreamland. Over time the mumble became a yell and the words, although slurred, became more understandable. “I don’t believe in your f**k’n God,” he said loudly and then off to la la land once again. He did this a few times before his friend reminded him in a very loud whisper, “you can’t say that Sh*t in church!”
What would you do at your church?
I was able to convince the first man to come to the back of the church and sit in a “more comfortable chair.” Now out of earshot from the service we started to talk. He showed me his tattoos and pointed to two of them. He explained that he had them done in memory of his two kids that died at a very young age. I asked him if it was this loss that led him to start drinking. He shook his head yes as his eyes teared up. It was only a moment in time, an interruption to my comfort zone, a comfort zone that was difficult to push me out of, and then it was over. A short but important opportunity to listen and show love to someone who acted in a way that did not invite people to listen or love.
I would never say there is a time or place for loud outbursts and inappropriate language in a church service, even an inner city church service, but I also would never say that there isn’t a role for the church to play in the lives of those who do these sort of things. I was left wondering what my Sunday morning suburbia church would have done if this man had acted the same way there. We already weren’t good at allowing the uncomfortable into our comfort zone, could we even fathom showing love to someone like this?
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. 1 John 4:7-12 (NIV)
* taken from the book Blueprint by J David Peever (currently seeking publisher)