“Tried out a new church today. Jesus was there. It was a very nice welcome.” That was my Facebook status a few weeks ago after I’d decided to strike out on a new adventure.
When you’re restless, when you’re bored, when you’re tired of the same thing day in and day out, you start looking for something new. And that’s where I’ve been, oh, I don’t know, for the past two years or so. And with that latest revelation that my next step would either be helped or hindered by how I handled “radical acceptance”, I was keeping my eyes (and my options) open. So I decided to start by trying out a few new churches. I like to do that periodically anyway, just to keep tabs on what’s out there, but now I was doing it with an eye toward a real change, not just a temporary change of scenery.
I should first clarify that my ecclesiastical wandering eye was not the result of some turmoil or blow up at the church I’d been attending for the past five or six years. I wasn’t mad at the pastor, there were no quarrels with members of the congregation, and there was no conflict driving me out. I was simply looking to stretch myself, find new growing opportunities, and I’d become comfortable and too complacent there. It was time to shake the tree a little and see what fell out.
So after revisiting churches I’d attended years ago, and checking out a new high-energy type church a few times, I decided to try something more along the lines of “radical”. I’d seen advertisements for a congregation I instinctively knew I’d be really uncomfortable with, and I decided to go. It was a small, Bible-believing church with an emphasis on outreach to the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) community. Over the years, I’d been to a few gay-affirming churches, and they’d always kinda left me wondering why they bothered. Okay, that’s a bit judgmental and harsh, I know. They tended to be more liturgical, less Bible-based preaching, and generally more socially or politically activist. That’s fine, I guess, but it’s just not my style. And I fully expected this new church to fall neatly in that same box. I got there just a bit late, wanting to kind of sneak in attracting as little attention as possible, do my reconnaissance unnoticed, and escape with another undercover adventure under my belt. But it was not to be.
When I arrived, I was stopped on the stoop by several of the congregants, and engaged in some light banter. That in itself was remarkable. I’m usually one of those guys who barely tolerates the dreaded “everyone, turn to your neighbor and greet them in the love of the Lord” moments, screwing a smile on my face, and counting the seconds till I can sit back down in my seat and be left alone. But these people were genuinely friendly, and we actually had real conversations, not just idle words to fill in the gaps before service began. That was nice; it was refreshing. Hey, real human interaction. Who would have thought? Then came the music part of the service. An electric piano, drums, and three or four worship leaders led with a mixed list of songs, hymns, and choruses. And as we were singing, the atmosphere suddenly got warm, heavy and peaceful. And there it was, thick as a blanket covering all of us: the tangible presence of God. People behind me began weeping, I was in communion with my God, and the pastor and leaders up front recognized the presence and honored it. They didn’t rush on with their program. The didn’t fiddle with their microphones uncomfortably, they didn’t tell us to sit down to start the announcements or take up the offering. They simply began to sing some of the same songs over again, lingering in the honey air, not wanting to break their attention off the love that was flowing from us to God and so evidently from God back to us.
Knowing that the church was a haven for the gay community, I’d expected to be put off by people fitting the wide range of stereotypes. Obviously, it’s not because I disapprove of homosexuality, or even find it theologically problematic. I’ve done the Bible study, and God has spoken to me specifically about it, so I’ve long since made my peace with this controversial topic in the Body of Christ. But I’ll admit that I am uncomfortable around some of the more … shall we say, flamboyant … aspects associated with it. I’m blinded by the outward appearance, disturbed by some of the unconventional behavior, and find it difficult to connect with the real people underneath. And this is what I’d come to confront. “Radical acceptance”, remember? Could I step into this situation and see people as Jesus did? Could I overcome my own superficial prejudices and let the love of God do its thing?
There I was, surrounded by all kinds of people: gay and straight couples, friends and families, mothers and children. And yes, there were those blatantly fitting the stereotypes that made me uncomfortable. And the presence of God was there, placing his divine seal of approval on them all. These were his beloved children, people whose hearts cried out to him, who raised their voices in praise and worship of him, men and women who loved him because of his grace to them — grace denied them in other churches. And I felt comfortable there in the house of God. Jesus was there in a very real way, how could I not?
Later, I had lunch with the pastor and several of the church members, and as we talked I grew more convinced that God was actively at work. This was real. This wasn’t just a religious performance or going through motions. The pastor spoke about a few of his plans that shocked me, disturbed me, stretching my perspective in very unsettling ways. Yet, picking my jaw up off the floor, I found myself continually smiling. These were just the kinds of things Jesus would do. Yes, they were unconventional, even questionable, challenging my views of the Church, but they were motivated at the core by a love for people, for a desire to bring them to Jesus. Maybe I’ll risk offending some of my readers and write about them later, but I was excited by the vision, by its radicalness. By the heart of Jesus.
I’ve still got my boatload of issues to work through. That experience didn’t knock all my roadblocks down in a single day. But I recognized the stretching. I felt my heart being expanded, my narrow vision being broadened — and God’s fingerprints on the entire experience. The truth is, if you want to be of real service to God, you’ve got to love his people, and you cannot shy away from controversy. Fear of shaking things up or stirring up a little attention will only hold you back. And that means overcoming your hang-ups, and learning to love people unconditionally. It means embracing radical acceptance.
I’d wanted to shake up the tree a little, and I did. This was a step in that direction. And I knew I’d be back for more. Because when it comes to God’s Number One priority — people — a little “radical” is not something to avoid. It’s a God thing, and it’s good.