JOY SYLVESTER-JOHNSON: Keeping The Open Doors Open

Joy Sylvester Johnson

I am reminded of a story about a downtown church whose youth group decided to take packets of flower seeds  into the surrounding neighborhood as an introduction to their church where “people come to grow and bloom.” The youth plan was vetoed by the adults, not because they thought it wouldn’t work, but because it might. One person said out loud what the rest were thinking, “What would we do if they came?”

Evangelism is scariest when it works!
When a church becomes convicted about its ministry to the “the least, the last and the lost” it often unknowingly begins a journey into unchartered waters.
How does a church make that leap of faith from a “thoughts and prayers” conversation about the good news of unconditional love and restorative justice to actually becoming a church that is serious about creating it?
A traditional approach has been to attempt to do things to “save” the poor and the marginalized. This approach can involve special offerings, additional programming and for some even making the sacrifice of moving the family into a disadvantaged neighborhood.  It can also involve research and becoming involved in  local government initiatives. There are many ways to make sure poor and marginalized people see the love of God in all that we are doing to help them and hopefully as a long term unstated result they come to accept the Christian gospel.
This is the approach of my heritage and one that the churches I love and respect the most have done.
However, I have learned over the last 70 years it is not the only or perhaps even the best approach.
Another approach involves the church seeking not to “save”, but “to be saved” by the poor and marginalized. This way recognizes that Jesus is not someone the church is bringing to the people on the margins, but someone the church must go to the margins in order to meet and accompany to fulfill the Great Commission.
If we want to stand with Christ, see things through the lens of Christ and do what Christ has already told (and shown) us to do, then we must first learn what only the poor and the marginalized can teach us.
This is a hard lesson.   When we read scripture we all want to become the generous Samaritan rather than the guy in the ditch, or the ones who passed by on the other side and certainly not the robbers. When we read Genesis we all want to identify with Moses, not Pharaoh.  To let scripture live in and inform our lives it is a good exercise to ask ourselves: “In what ways are we still like each of the less than stellar characters in the story?” And then we repent and try again.
Ever since the days of Constantine, the church has been on a trajectory of seeking comfort and validity  by getting comfortable with the power of the world at the expense of the powerless in the world. Recent days have shown us where this anemic (some would say faux) faith leads.
We have preached a gospel of  “Christ crucified”, but have  been unwilling to follow Him, choosing instead the false security of integrating ourselves with the political and economically  powerful rather than seeking  “the peace that surpasses our (human) understanding.”  We have been suckered into a philosophy of “scarcity” when God has promised us life “abundant.”
Standing where Jesus did (with people who are poor or marginalized)  means becoming a church that is concerned with becoming the “embodiment” of Christ. We all have heard sermons about being the face, hands or feet of Christ, but most of us are not as eager to become the blisters or the sweat glands, or as Sister Simone from Nuns on the Bus says, “ the stomach acid” of the Body of Christ.
When the good news of the gospel is reduced to a tactic by which the church can “reach” the marginalized to bring them under the tent of a somewhat desperate church often motivated by empty seats and shrinking budgets, a ministry of unconditional love and restorative justice” is reduced to a slick marketing plan with a thinly veiled goal of bringing people (especially millennials) under the old wine skins of patriarchal authority, nationalist propaganda and a philosophy of grace reduced to a contractual arrangement.
The slogans of churches composed with such great words which originally gave me great hope have lately seem more like ecclesiastical bait and switch.
“Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.”
“We are evangelical, but not exclusive, biblical, but not doctrinaire, traditional, but not rigid, congregational, but not independent.”
“A caring church for changing times.”
I am a lover of words, but I know they are a limited vehicle for carrying ideas. If those ideas never become real then the words are nothing more than the writer of Corinthians reminds us: “resounding gongs or clanging cymbals.”
When we do become convicted, let us approach that conviction with humility so that our actions mirror the One we follow. We are called to be Christians. We are not called
“to save” or “to judge.”
Christians are called to be reflectors of God’s endless mercy and love to all people. To become these reflectors we must now leave the building with humbled hearts and open minds and as Mother Theresa reminded us, “See Jesus in each face.”
I had the benefit of being tutored by Dr Bryant Hicks at Louisville’s Southern Seminary, who taught me evangelism methodology:  “Go into every conversation about faith with as much willingness to be converted as to convert.”
I believe when  our minds and hearts are truly open to the poor and the marginalized we will no longer have to worry about keeping the “open doors” open.
Joy Sylvester-Johnson