In recent years there seems to be an increase in the number of churches that have added or changed their church name to include the word 'community.' It feels like the popular thing to do. City and suburban churches alike have done this to signify that they are out in the neighbor, that they want to serve, and be missional. Certainly this is biblical and many churches have good intentions, but not all churches serve or include the community well. Everyone loves being a community church, until the community wants to come through your doors. Because it's one thing to go into the community, you can enter the messiness and leave it behind whenever you want, but it's entirely different when the community wants to worship with you regularly and be part your congregation.
If you claim you want to serve the community, particularly those living on the margins, you have to be ready for when the community shows up at your door and wants to share life with you. I mean, isn't that what you wanted? To go out in the neighborhood, share the love of Jesus, and then invite those people to be part of the body of Christ? I can't tell you how many churches are desperate to have new believers or unchurched people in their building, yet when some churches have that, they are more worried about the floors getting dirty than the opportunity to spread the gospel.The church needs to rejoice when those living on the margins show up in our buildings, not put up boundaries that make them feel unwelcome or devalued. Too often the church says, "Okay homeless people, here is your section of the building, don't touch anything, don't make a mess, and don't smoke in the front of the building because our neighbors will think our church isn't holy and won't want to be part us. If you break any of our rules you're gone. I hope you feel the love of Jesus!"
Putting up barriers and devaluing people can't be the way Jesus wants the church to behave.
I am reminded of a story Jesus told in the gospel of Luke about a great banquet. Jesus was having a meal at a Pharisee's house and teaching about humility, power structures, and the new radical boundaries of God's kingdom. He instructed them that in order to be faithful to God, they are to invite the poor, the disabled, and the outcast whenever they have a banquet. If they do so, they will be blessed by God. Someone seated at the table said to Jesus, "Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.” Testing the person's statement, Jesus told the parable of man who held a great banquet and invited many distinguished guests. The servant went out and said to the guests "Come, for everything is now ready" but each guest declined the invitation with more important matters to attend. The servant came back and reported this to the owner. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, "Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the disabled, and the outcast.""Sir," the servant said, "what you ordered has been done, but there is still room." Then the owner told his servant, "Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet."
What I interpret from this story is that God's kingdom is limitless, abundant, and grace filled. There is always room for more people to join in the banquet, to experience God's love and generosity, and be transformed. God's ultimate desire is for his house to be full of all his beloved children. In the parable, the invitation to be part of God's banquet extends beyond the city limits to the roads and country lanes which were unsafe with bandits (talk about a reversal to our thinking that says the city is unsafe). Jesus is declaring,"My kingdom is so full of goodness I don't want anyone to miss out. Everyone is welcome, even as far as the bandits."
We are not God. We are not the owners of the banquet. We are the servants. We don't get to decide who is invited. Our role is to invite and welcome everyone into the kingdom of God.
I can hear one of the guests ask Jesus a follow up question. "But Jesus, aren't you afraid 'those' people will ruin your house?! They're going to eat all your food, steal your toilet paper and dinner plates, and dirty up the house." Jesus appears to not be threatened by this possibility. He knows the risk and does not qualify his open invitation to come enter his father's house. For when people get a taste of the joy, hope, and grace of God's kingdom they can't help but be transformed.
As the church, and even faith based non-profits, we must trust in the transforming work and power of Jesus. Will the lying, stealing, and messiness still happen? Yes. Will our boundaries and patience be tested? Yes. But if we stay in relationship with those people, continue to practice generosity, and trust in God, will we see transformation? Absolutely. At our church and RCI's Community Building Center, time and time again we have found this to be true. We have witnessed lives be transformed. We will not let fear stop us from inviting those on the corners, alleys, and tents from being part of our community, sharing our space, and being part of our lives.