Sometimes my life seems like a constant string of reevaluating opinions and attitudes and stupid things I say. Sometimes they’re things that I’ve been taught and never really thought too hard about. Sometimes they’re things that seem obvious on the surface, but there’s a lot going on underneath that I ignore. Sometimes it’s not that I’m wrong, it’s just that I’m just arrogant and graceless and went too far in what I said.
I’m not sure where this falls on the spectrum, but for the past few days, I’ve been thinking more and more about the Pew Research study (supposedly showing the decline of American Christianity) and the spins that various media outlets are giving it. The popular consensus seems to be the one that Ed Stetzer puts forward: that committed, or “convictional” Christians aren’t going anywhere, while “nominal Christians” (Christians in name only), or Default Christians as I put it in a recent post, aren’t checking the box any more. That’s basically what I said, and I likely wouldn’t have bothered saying it if I’d already known the number of much “larger” names saying the same thing.
In a nutshell, I said that it was a good thing. I said that nominal Christians shouldn’t be called Christians anyway. Then I went another step further to say that there are still a lot of nominal or default Christians in our pews that should basically go home and stop pretending. I said that if they did, then our churches would be more free to follow Jesus. I compared them to the fat of the church. Sometimes I’m an ass.
It’s not that I’m entirely wrong in what I said (I don’t think). Having pews full of marginal and uncommitted people who aren’t willing to commit to following Christ—becoming “real” Christians—does “weigh our churches down” and leave a less effective witness. I’ve been convinced, though, that my attitude towards it is unChristlike.
A big part of that was a reevaluation of Jesus’ “outreach” program, particularly as referenced in Matthew 9:11 —
When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
and, lest there be any confusion about exactly what kind of people these Pharisees meant, Matthew 11:19 —
The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’
Those passages are nothing new to most Christians. I’ve heard them a million times. I’ve quoted them and taught from them. I think about them as I think about the people that to all of the obvious things that we assume people outside of the Church do… those filthy “non-Christians”… the sweaty unchurched. I think about Jesus going into bars and building relationships and teaching them grace. I think of it as an example or a metaphor for us going out into “the world” to “reach people” for Jesus.
The thing is, that’s not what happened.
By simple arrangement of geography and priorities, Jesus rarely, if ever, hung out with the “unchurched.” If we want to look for examples of outreach to the Gentiles, we need to look at Paul and the post-ascension apostles. Jesus, in his own words, came to seek and save the lost sheep of Israel. The tax-collectors, the drunkards, the whores and the sinners, they were Jews. They were people that knew God, born and raised in the synagogues, but lived contradictory lifestyles. They were backsliders. They were the nominals. They were the default Jews.
I don’t know what went on behind closed doors. I don’t know what Jesus looked like at their feasts and parties, and I’m not going to presume to. I do know that Jesus wasn’t rejoicing over them leaving. He certainly wasn’t coming down on them with God’s own thunder for their “sinfulness”. He loved them. He spent time with them. He was Jesus to them.
So much of the time my grace runs out at the door of the church. When I look at nominals as a pastor, especially long-term nominals, I get frustrated. I have a get-in-or-get-out mentality. I want to pour my effort into the people that seem to be “getting it,” and not waste it on the people that don’t. I want them to drop their crap and commit so that I can lead them. I’ll give all sorts of room for non-Christians to be messy. It’s expected. Sinners gonna sin. When it comes to people that have claimed the Savior, though, I have different expectations, and I don’t know what to do when my expectations aren’t met, so most of the time I ignore them. If I don’t ignore them, I want to preach at them so they’ll stop frustrating and embarrassing me.
Because it’s about me. My frustration. My embarrassment on God’s behalf.
Apparently Jesus has a lot more grace for nominals than most of us do. Maybe instead of wanting to clear them out so that the faithful can move forward to reaching the unchurched, we should be “coming to seek and save the lost sheep of Christianity.” Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what that would look like. I do know that it probably looks like something that could get a “good Christian” a bad name or a pastor a reputation for lackadaisical faith.
I know that there are plenty of times that scripture calls out the “lukewarm,” and Jesus calls for extreme commitment, but there’s something else going on too. It’s something I need to learn and explore. I know I’m going to tend to waffle around between extremes, but a pursuit of Christlikeness means continually adjusting my aim. Right now, I feel like God is reminding me of something important.
Jesus, friend of nominals, loves them. I can’t throw them under the bus.