I attended church last Sunday by myself, not entirely sure why, but sure that I wanted to. I’ve always gone to church to accompany my girlfriend, but this time she was working, but I still went with our baby. I figured I’d go, sit down, listen to what the message was so I could later tell my girlfriend, then go home and go on with my day. I was able to do all that just fine, but the message stuck with me, spoke to me directly in some instances, made me think, and made me want to reflect on it.
Below is the recording of the message at Summit Church (Herndon Campus) for Sunday, Oct 10, 2016 (recorded Thursday, Oct 13), delivered by Kailey Newkirk, director of Summit’s reGROUP recovery ministry. It’s 33 minutes long, and I actually invite you to listen to it whole. I will be focusing on a few specific sections below, and will include time stamps so you can check out those specific parts.
The crux of the message deals with how what the church does says something about God, and in this week the idea being explored is that of invitation (1:30-1:52): individual people invite other people to the church for many reasons, but the church itself, the combined group of people that form the institution, must also have a posture of invitation in order to make those that come feel not only welcomed, but like they can be themselves while there.
“Diverse people living in unity because of their love and their God is compelling. People who are all the same living together in unity isn’t compelling because you’re like everyone else, there’s no risk, there’s no conflict, there’s no fear of being seen as you are because you are like everyone else (9:35-9:53).”
That was a powerful statement that I honestly never expected to hear in a church. After all, who sets out to look for conflict? Wouldn’t services, programs, life in general in the church be better if everyone going there was on the same page about everything? It seems to me like a logical conclusion, but we all know the reality is different, and to hear it being addressed, accepted, embraced even, it made me perk up.
Newkirk develops the idea that homogeneity isn’t conducive to development, bringing in examples from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians which talk about how the early church distinguished itself by being all inclusive to anyone, regardless of background, social class, or economic situation. She proposes (16:20-17:20) that a church that is homogeneous, that isn’t diverse not only in physical traits like race or gender, but also in social, economic, opinion, politics, and even beliefs, that that church has lost its posture of invitation, for who looking in from the outside would feel that they can be themselves in there?
For me, as that precise outsider, this was a poignant question to be asked of those around me. Would they, if/when they find out that I’m very much not like them, still make the place an inviting one for me? Newkirk’s message says that yes. In fact, she states, “If you only want to serve Jesus with those that think like you, you don’t want unity, you want harmony (19:49).”
[Aside: There’s a great moment at 17:10 where Newkirk asks if the supporters of each presidential candidate would feel at home at this church, and then says categorically, “We should hope so, Because I promise you one thing, Jesus does not endorse your political candidate.” I wanted to clap at that.]
I also welcomed that Newkirk addressed the obvious elephant in the room of this conversation: the non-Christian, i.e. me. Newkirk speaks directly to those in the audience that are not Christian, that are there because of someone’s invitation, saying,
“And listen, if you’re here and you’re not a Christian, […] I just let the cat out of the bag and now you know that they want you to be a Christian. Yes, they want you to be a Christian. And no, it’s not because they think you’re a heathen, or that they’re secretly judging your lifestyle. They want you to be a Christian because they found something in Jesus (21:45-22:13).”
The point she makes is that people take chances when they invite those they have a relationship with to come with them to their place of worship, that they are willing to risk that relationship in order to share something that is dear and cherished. This is something that I always kept in mind from the moment that my girlfriend first invited me to go with her. For a long time I did not accept the invitation, but I always reminded myself that she was extending that invitation out of love, not out of a desire to beat me over the head with dogma. And I reminded myself of that as I sat in church, listening to this message, even though my inviter wasn’t sitting next to me on this day.
But what now? I’m the non-Christian who accepted the invitation, and here I am. What can I expect?
“I promise you the person who invited you didn’t do it because they want you to morally conform to a faith you don’t yet profess (22:37-22:45). […] And if you disagree with what we’re teaching, then please stay, we want you to stay, we need you to stay. We need you to hold us in tension that will help us to grow. Yes, this is a safe place for you to be known. No, it won’t always be a comfortable place. By safe I don’t mean unchallenged; I’m not trying to pull a bait-and-switch (22:55-23:17).”
I appreciate the upfrontness of the message, and I appreciate the invitation to stay even though I (and others like me) am an agent of tension simply because I believe differently. And this isn’t about being confrontational even in a nice kind of way, but it is about having hard questions that will demand thoughtful and deep answers, especially with someone like me, who comes from a very different background, and has been studying for a while. More than anything, it was this point of the message that convinced me that this was a place we could continue to attend as a family.
If we strip off the Christian part of the equation in this message, it is still a good one that is applicable to any faith. Places of worship need to be inviting to those who are seeking for spiritual answers, yet in many cases they are some of the most insular places you can find. I lost count of how many synagogues I attended over the last 12-13 years where I, even as a fellow Jew, did not feel welcomed at all by the members of the congregation. I can’t even imagine how it would’ve been had it been someone coming in because they were curious or had questions. This is why in general I always went to a Chabad synagogue, because with very few exceptions, I was always welcomed by both the people and the community, even before my conversion.
Some people are 100% sure of their path of faith right from the get-go, but for those of us who are seekers, who wrestle with the angel continually, having places that will not only invite us, but want us to stay as well even though they know we come bearing challenging questions, is essential to our journeys. I would hope that every place of worship adopts a posture of invitation for those who are different, for those who will challenge them, for those who are seeking. It seems that in Summit, I have found such a place myself.