[As you can see, this is a multi-post theme and you might find it helpful to begin at the beginning. And the “ish” – well, that’s because I don’t really know long this is going to be. Every time I think I’m done, I think of something else to say. The curse of the preacher I suppose. We know how to take off and fly around in circles, but never quite sure how to land.]
I have no doubt that Jesus wants to say to all disciples at their end of life performance review:
“I was hungry, and instead of stuffing yourself to obesity you bought me lunch. I was thirsty, and you quit buying sparkling mineral water and dug clean water wells in my community. I was a stranger, and instead of having me deported, you got to know me and realized that I left my country to make enough money to send some home to my starving family. I needed clothes, and instead of buying more shoes to add to your grand collection, you took me shopping for my first pair of new jeans. I was sick, and instead of pointing out the behaviors that led to my sickness, you took me to the doctor and paid my bill. I was in prison and you didn’t say I was getting what I deserved, but you befriended me on visiting days and helped me find a job when I got out.”
I’ll concede that each of us has a unique call and not everyone is supposed to spend all his/her free time with the most socio-economically destitute and spiritually twisted. On the other hand, I feel pretty strongly that our cradled Christian community needs a kick in the #%*# to become more sensitized to the least and last among our neighbors worldwide. After all how is it that it’s not news when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but when the stock market loses two points, it’s on every church’s prayer list?
“They (Peter, James, and John) asked me to continue to remember the poor… which I was inclined to do…” Galatians 2:10
We Baby Boomers saved in or as a result of the Jesus Movement had to fight our way into a Church that didn’t like our lifestyles, our hair, our music, or our hippie ideas. Now we’re all “grown up” and have gotten the Church just like we like it – interestingly enough, it’s about as conservative as our predecessors’. And there are outrageous outcasts, including gays and liberals and homeless people who want in, even worse, claim to be in, and wonder why we don’t talk to them at the dinner table. You see the irony in this, right?
When someone is church shopping these days, their short list of criteria usually include such qualities as “good worship” (my least favorite of all Christianeze phrases!), good preaching, good facilities, and good programs. I propose that compassion for the outcast belongs on that list, if not at the top of it! When, as a pastor, I was “interviewed” by a potential member, in thirty years no one ever asked me, “What does this church do for the poor and marginalized?” I fielded all kinds of other inquiries: “What do you believe about tithing? Is your worship contemporary or traditional? Do you have a Women’s Ministry?” But no one ever inquired about how we served the Outer Circlers in our community and beyond. Hmmm.
Recently I attended a church wherein the pastor directed us to get in small groups to pray for each other. In the group that I joined was a guy who was half hammered (maybe three-quarters)! He explained that he’d just lost his wife to cancer and admitted that he’d been self-medicating with Johnny Walker ever since. He asked us to pray for him to regain his sobriety and to move on with his life. During his prayer request he used the “F-word” several times and a few other choice terms from his decidedly un-churched vocabulary. A woman in the group chimed in, “My daughter committed suicide this week. I know what you’re going through.” Upon which she put her hand on Drunk Guy’s shoulder and prayed an amazing prayer for comfort and sobriety. That’s an Outer Circle Church at work.
It’s been said that 11:00 Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. As true as that is, I propose that churches are not only segregated by ethnicity, but also by socio-economics and social class. Whatever form of caste system we tolerate in America it’s most apparent in our churches. As it is in society as a whole, our families of worship are divided among have’s and have-not’s – Inner and Outer Circle Churches.
Some churches are so wrapped up in being the most spiritually advanced church in town that cast offs don’t even appear on their radar. They probably don’t actually think they are, but act like they believe they’re closer to Jesus and nearer his ideal model of church. “If anyone does it right, we do. We’re in the center of God’s purposes. We’re like the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples – Peter, James, and John. He shows us stuff that he doesn’t show others and commissions us to do things that others can’t do because they don’t know what we know. And by token of our impressive numerical growth we have an assignment to show them how to do it better and to create a movement of other Inner Circle Churches like us.”
I want to challenge us to think about is another kind of church community – an “Outer Circle Church,” and here are some of my opinions about some characteristics of an “Outer Circle Church.”