Magazine Article

See All the People

We tell people church is a safe place. But how safe is safe?

Stephen Chavez
See All the People

A woman walks into church wearing her blond hair very short, dressed in black denim pants, white T-shirt, and black leather jacket. A man approaches and asks, “Are you a man or a woman?”

Caught slightly off guard, she replies,
“Uh, a woman.”

“Well, why don’t you dress like one?” the man harrumphs as he walks away, leaving her wondering why she bothered to come to church that morning.

A well-dressed African American walks into a Seventh-day Adventist church one Sabbath. One of the first people to greet him offers, “You should probably go to the church down the road; you’d feel more comfortable worshipping with your own people.”

A young woman raised in church returns after years of attending university and establishing her career. The preacher, speaking about something entirely different, notices her in the congregation, sets aside his notes, and directs a tirade against her spiritual and moral deficiencies (as he thinks he understands them).

Salvation, Not Condemnation

For a movement raised up to proclaim “the hour of [God’s] judgment” (Rev. 14:7), these vignettes, for some, illustrate how we’re supposed to deal with those who deserve some sort of correction, even rebuke.

The challenge, however, is to compare the words and actions of these “defenders of the faith” with Jesus, the one who said, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:14, 15).

Following these are words known and loved by every Christian: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (verse 16).

And immediately following this, one of the Bible’s greatest promises, are these words: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (verse 17).

Did you notice? Jesus came to offer salvation, not condemnation. Sometimes His followers seem better at condemning than at reflecting His character of love, grace, and inclusion.

We sometimes imagine that we’re responsible for turning sinners into saints; that people attend church so they can be “straightened out.” There are those in power in the world who sometimes use their influence to abuse others—physically, sexually, emotionally. There are stories about the  church of those who have been abused spiritually, too often by those who thought they were doing God’s will.

Bruised Reeds and Smoldering Wicks

It’s unnecessary to recount all the people who experienced grace and acceptance as they came into Jesus’ orbit during His earthly ministry. But it’s useful to remember that those who benefited most from His attention included those most likely to be overlooked today: laborers, immigrants, single parents, children, sinners, the diseased, those with physical or emotional disabilities. Jesus was there to support and encourage anyone to whom life had dealt a bad hand. Matthew, quoting Isaiah, said about Jesus: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory” (Matt. 12:20).

And why is that important?

Because 2,000 years ago the common perception was that health and prosperity were directly related to God’s favor. If you were sick, impoverished, or the victim of bad choices, that was evidence of God’s judgment.

We’re more enlightened than that now. Thanks to the words and example of Jesus, we know that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). We know that “God is love,” full stop (1 John 4:8).

But that hasn’t hindered us as it should, from reflecting poorly God’s love and grace. Some of us are old enough to remember when girls in Adventist academies were required to demonstrate their modesty by showing hemlines that were appropriately close to their knees. Boys were disciplined if their hair covered their ears or touched their shirt collars. This in defense of standards of purity and godliness.

For some, unfortunately, the church is still a place where nits are picked regarding hair color as if it is a matter of  orthodoxy. We readily agree that bullying and emotional abuse should not be tolerated in society and online. But have we done enough to make our congregations spiritually and emotionally safe places? If people can’t experience grace in church, where will they experience it?

Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God

In his book The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey tells of a woman who used prostitution to support her drug habit. As she cataloged her shameful behaviors someone asked if she had ever thought of going to church for help. “‘Church!’ she cried. ‘Why would I ever go there? They’d just make me feel worse than I already do!’”1

Can we imagine anyone saying about Jesus, “He’d only make me feel worse than I already feel”?

The church is a sanctuary in every sense of the word. People go to church to be safe, protected, encouraged, and supported. Gone are the days of eighteenth century preacher Jonathan Edwards and his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” along with “mourner’s benches” near the  front of a chapel where penitents went to weep for their sins and beg for heaven’s mercy.

Most of us feel broken at some point. It may be the result of some personal or professional trauma; disease may show up as an unwelcome visitor; circumstances may conspire to destroy relationships; it may be our conscience. When those things happen, when we’re tempted to doubt that God is really on our side, when the accuser torments us about our failure, we need a place we can go to experience the power of God’s love and forgiveness; where we can be surrounded by people who know our frailties, love us just the same, and will strengthen and help us grow by the power of God’s Spirit.

Welcome Home

Rebecca Manley Pippert, in the book Out of the Saltshaker, tells the story of “Bill,” a young man who lived in a university town and was characterized by his ragged clothes, unruly hair, and the fact that he always went around barefoot (even in winter).

One Sunday Bill entered a middle-class church across the street from campus. This was 40 years ago, when most people would have looked down at someone attending church dressed in blue jeans, a T-shirt, and . . . no shoes.

Bill began walking down the center aisle looking for a place to sit. With attendance at church that day unusually high, Bill walked closer and closer to the podium, unable to find a place to sit. Finding no available seating, he squatted on the floor and sat cross-legged in front of the pulpit.

Immediately another drama began to play out. An elderly man, dressed properly in suit, shirt, tie, and shiny dress shoes, began walking down the aisle. Suddenly the church became utterly silent as people began to imagine what they thought was going to happen next.

They never imagined that when the old man reached Bill, he slowly, with difficulty, lowered himself onto the floor and worshipped with Bill while sitting on the carpet.

Pippert writes: “The irony is that probably the only one who failed to see how great the giving had been that Sunday was Bill. But grace is always that way. It gives without the receiver realizing how great the gift really is.”2

The church in which I worship has the largest Adventist congregation on the East Coast of the United States. A friend of mine often remarks: “There are people here I’ve never seen before. When I ask if they’re visitors, they say, ‘We’ve been members here for 10, 12, 15 years.’”

This is how I’ve solved that embarrassment. My standard greeting to everyone I see—old or young; male or female; Black, White, Asian, or Hispanic; gay or straight—is: “Welcome to Sligo church. I’m glad you’re here.”

  1. Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), p. 148.
  2. Rebecca Manley Pippert, Out of the Saltshaker (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1979), p. 178.

Stephen Chavez is an assistant editor of Adventist Review. He chairs the administrative board of Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church in Takoma Park, Maryland.

Stephen Chavez