This obviously raises the big question of “why?” Why do we prefer churches with members who are like us? And, more importantly, why do we avoid churches with members who aren’t like us?
When Jesus started the first Christian church, he populated it at least in part with a ragtag group of laborers, tax collectors, and societal outcasts who clearly couldn’t cut the mustard, in terms of the Pharisaical standards of proper membership. In those days, the Pharisees required all kinds of behavioral compliance, in order to qualify for membership in their group.
Jesus, on the other hand, seems to have largely ignored a lot of the trappings of membership and focused instead on two things: loving God and loving your fellow man. He didn’t seem to worry too much about whether people conformed to the optics of religion. Instead, He taught that it was what was in your heart that matters.
When I think of that early church, I wonder what its members thought about each other. Certainly, some of Jesus’ followers had been on the receiving end of Matthew, the tax collector’s extortion. And we know that one of Jesus followers, Joseph of Arimethea was a member of the wealthy class of Jews of that day. I wonder what Joseph would have thought about those two brothers, Simon and Andrew. They were hardscrabble fishermen; dirty and probably hard to take from an olfactory perspective. And of course, most of us are familiar with the account of the woman anointing Jesus feet with oil. Popular legend is that she was a prostitute, although we don’t know much about her other than that she was a sinner. Whatever her sins, they were notable enough to draw the attention of the gospel writer and be mentioned specifically. So, it’s likely that her sins were pretty serious.
So, the early church was populated with a disparate group of people who somehow found themselves all together under common circumstances. And those circumstances were at least on one level, very simple- these people all followed Someone who claimed to be God.
So, we are back to the question I asked at the beginning of this blog post. Why do modern-day Christians tend to congregate with people who are like themselves? And conversely, why do we tend to, consciously or otherwise, avoid Christians who aren’t like us? Perhaps it’s because we project our desired ideal of Heaven as replicating the comforts of our suburban utopia, with neighbors who are like us- successful, prosperous and comfortable. Perhaps it’s because we don’t like to think about a Heaven populated with folks from the “other side of the tracks.” Or perhaps, we just don’t want to be around people who have been fishing all day, rather than working in an air-conditioned office.
Jesus’ followers, who were each so different from each other and from such different backgrounds all somehow find common ground. The common ground was simple. It was their common faith in Jesus. That faith superseded everything else. Simon and Andrew didn’t look down upon Matthew the tax collector. The rich man Joseph didn’t avoid sitting next to the sinful woman when the group got together. They all just looked to Jesus. And Jesus welcomed everyone. He offered comfort to anyone who had been beaten up, spiritually or otherwise by this life.
So, the next time you are sitting in church look around you. Are the folks sitting next to you pretty much just like you? Are there people present who look like they could use a meal? Do you see any folks who look like they slept in their clothes? The truth is, these are rhetorical questions. I’m betting that the answer to the first question is “yes” and the answer to the rest of these questions is “no.”
Is there anything you can do about it? Probably not. Unfortunately, it’s in our nature to want to be around people like us. It’s unlikely that you will find some destitute homeless person visiting your church. They know better. They sense our discomfort and have decided to do something else. Many modern day Christian congregations have replicated the Pharisaical order of things right in their own backyards. It’s a tragedy.
But then again, church is on Sunday. That leaves six other days to jump into the marketplace with people who are nothing like you. And more importantly, you can use what God has given you to positively influence their lives. You can show them, those people who have had a rough time of it, exactly what Jesus has done for you. He loved you right where you were, in the midst of all of your sin. He saved you from yourself.
And if you find yourself in the cultural majority at church- nice home, nice family, good job- think about the fact that there may very well be people in your midst who aren’t so fortunate. Perhaps it’s that person who stopped in for a visit. They had seen the signs outside, welcoming visitors, and decided to give it a try. You can spot them in your church. They don’t know where to sit. They don’t know when to stand. They look a little awkward. Rather than using your church time to chat with your friends (most of who you have probably grown up in church with), reach out to these folks. They need you to step up and make them feel welcome.
I’m betting God put them at this intersection for a reason. You can help them. But they can also help you. They can help you to become more like Jesus.
And if you are one of those fisherman/tax collectors who find yourselves in one of those churches, take heart. At their core and despite, their suburban homes, prosperous lifestyles and successful demeanors, they are just like you. In God’s eyes, they are just like you. We are all lost. We have all fallen short of God’s standards. You have done it your way. And I have done it my way. Yours might be alcohol or drugs. Mine might be moneylust or backbiting. But we are all in the same boat. And the boat, without a Captain, is headed somewhere that none of us really want to visit.
But here’s the good news. There is a Captain. His name is Jesus. If we do what He says, our ship is destined for some great ports of call while we are on this earth. And the journey afterwards, well that’s a trip of eternal happiness beyond anything you could ever imagine. If you want to read more about it, there is a great travel guide I recommend. It’s called “the Bible”. Open it up today and begin reading about it. You won’t be disappointed.
 Matthew 22.
 Matthew 23.
 Matthew 27.
 Matthew 9.
 Luke 7.
 John 10.
 Matthew 11.
 Romans 5.
 1 Corinthians 15.