I appreciate church services that are thoughtfully planned and well directed. I enjoy good music and lots of interesting material. But is it possible that the devil sometimes uses our good plans and activities to get in the way of welcoming others?
The ministry of Jesus undoubtedly was the most inclusive of all ministries. He welcomed people from all walks of life. Even amidst huge crowds, He reached out to individuals — whether it be the hated tax collector Zacchaeus, the Gentile Syro-Phoenician woman, little children, or the paralytic man being admitted to His service through the roof!
In the following centuries, and perhaps even today, organized religion has sometimes failed to meet Jesus' challenge recorded in Mark 2:17b — "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." (KJV)
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was the Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin. He reputedly penned a short poem that satirized those who would not be considered welcoming to all:
- We are God's chosen few,
May all the rest be damned.
Hell's good enough for you,
We won't have heaven crammed.
In 1865, a young Methodist minister, William Booth, arose in a meeting of church leaders to express his strong feeling that the church should be doing much more to reach out. He was told to sit down and not disturb established procedures. Whereupon, his wife, Catherine, arose in the balcony and shouted "Never, William, never!" They then left, went to the Blind Beggar Pub in the east end of London, England, and conducted the first outreach meeting of the Christian mission that became The Salvation Army in 1878.
The Salvation Army has been my church home all my life. Although it has well-planned worship services and especially good music, despite its beginning as an outreach movement, it can sometimes fail in its mission to welcome sinners.
Approximately 20 years ago, our church had a visiting speaker conducting weekend services. With large musical sections and large crowds attending, we all looked forward to the final Sunday evening service. However, just as the service began, a gentleman, obviously drunk, came in and sat between my wife and myself. It was a challenge to keep him relatively quiet while the service proceeded. Finally, as the visiting speaker rose to give his final address, he said to my wife, "I need prayer, but I'd better get out of here. I'm disturbing the program!" Inspired, I believe, by the Holy Spirit, I rose to my feet, and in a loud voice, interrupted the speaker. I repeated what the inebriated man had whispered to my wife. The program suddenly changed into a prayer meeting for that man.
Some months later, a couple who had been very active in our church were transferred to another city. At the time of their farewell, they were asked to highlight their happiest times over the years at our church. They said that the single thing that they found most encouraging was that time when the planned program had been interrupted.
Jesus showed us how to make others welcome when He restricted no one. Whether we are working in a church setting or simply interchanging with others, our challenge is to follow His example.
Prayer: God, please help us in all our activities, both private and public, to follow the example of Jesus and make all welcome. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.