The Church is at her best when she specializes in outcasts – the more outrageous brand of outcasts the better. This is the kind of church I call an “Outer Circle Churches,” which are made up of “Outer Circle Christians,” the title of a recent essay I posted on Luke 15. Here’s a Readers Digest version of that writing:
Jesus is not so much looking for Inner Circle favorites but Outer Circle followers who are willing to collaborate with him in loving and serving the least and the left out. His not-very-messiah-like-looking mission disgusted the favorite spiritual sons of the day prompting him to challenge them to rethink their sequestration away from undesirables and follow his example to engage with the cast offs of their society.
I think Jesus wants us to avoid all forms of entitled elitist Inner Circle attitudes and accompany him at the table with “with tax collectors and sinners.” These so-called “Outer Circle Christians” tend to gather with others of similar stripe in what I’d like to call “Outer Circle Churches.”
As a former church planter myself I’m always on the lookout for young church planters in my city. I’ve found that it’s a rare individual who aspires to begin where Jesus began – at the bottom of the societal barrel. (See the Jesus – The Middle-Class Messiah?) Most church planters are trained to begin with the well heeled and then, if they receive a distinct call from the Spirit at some distant point in the future, they might create a program to reach out to the poor. The logic is that you have to start with the rich because they’ll pay the bills. Then you can move on to do some community serving and give a slice to the needy so you can feel good about yourself when you’re spending most of the budget on lighting and state of the art sound equipment. But Jesus didn’t seem to care much about paying the bills or acquiring the best apparatus for his mission.
I’ve lived in a middle-class home all my life and have pastored churches of similar socio-economics. I like comfortable church chairs, adequate heating and air-conditioning as needed; and I prefer well-performed and sound engineered worship music as much as anyone. It’s not my first choice to sit next to someone – in church or anywhere else – who smells like they haven’t showered since the Bush administration. They don’t have to smell good, just not bad. But when I think about the Jesus story I have a hard time trying to fit his way of life into my middle-class preferences.
Besides its stunning skyline, cultural and ethnic diversity, and free outdoor concerts, one of San Francisco’s features I love most is that there are a lot of poor people here. I’m not glad about their poverty but where people are hurting and hungry, God is somewhere close by – and I like being around people he’s close to.
God spends a lot of time thinking about the destitute. A decade ago when I first started to notice this ubiquitous theme in the Bible and began to challenge our middle class suburban church to think about it too, their response was less than abandoned enthusiasm. But could I blame them when their supposed Bible expert pastor had been so glacially slow to get on board with God’s passion for the poor himself?
When I first moved to the City I had an experience that reconfigured my paradigm about Outer Circle people. I was speaking at a faith-based drug rehab facility for men in the Mission District. We were crammed into a small room, not well ventilated (not “well” anything), with two-dozen careworn men, each battling their drug demons. This place houses, treats, and trains recovering addicts to live clean and sober lives in the way of Jesus. This is no lavish rehab center for the rich and famous, complete with swimming pools, five star cuisine, and putting greens. The men here, whose addiction kicked them to the curb, sleep in a bunk bed dorm (in dire need of paint, ceiling to floor), shower in a decrepit shared stall, and eat whatever the center can afford that month.
I walked in to the stifling air of poorly bathed bodies and stale cigarettes and introduced myself to a few of the men gathering for the meeting. As the service began I sat down on a bent metal folding chair and had the sense that I was there for more than to tell them what I know. They belted out worship songs to YouTube videos projected on a large screen TV. Most sang and shouted and gave testimonies of how twisted up their lives had been and how God was untangling them.
At the end of my talk they played another YouTube song and gave an altar call for those who wanted to dedicate or rededicate themselves to Jesus and/or to sobriety. It was during that concluding song that I heard the voice of God as clearly as any former time in my life. It wasn’t audible, but there were words like the song lyrics projected on the TV screen. The words I “heard” or “saw” or “felt” were: “These are your people.”
“What exactly does that mean? ‘My people?’ Are you saying I should join this organization? Are you sending me to the City to do a drug and alcohol rehab ministry?” On and on went my overactive mind when the Spirit gently placed his parental hand on this child’s mouth and whispered, “Hush.”
I came away with a conviction that “these people” didn’t necessarily mean that particular roomful of desperate men per se. “My people,” my new circle of friends, were the desperate and indigent, the defeated and diseased, the pitiful and the poor. I can’t say that everyone is supposed to adopt “these people” as their people per se, but I know I’m becoming an Outer Circle Christian and an advocate for Outer Circle Churches.