Church is for sinners.
When Jesus Christ made his way through Palestine and the surrounding areas preaching the gospel, he often associated with people many Jews considered evil, dirty, and sinful. They accused him by his association with them. In response Christ gave three of what I consider to be the most poignant parables about sinners. I reproduce the first here. The rest can be found in Luke Chapter 15.
1 Then drew near unto him all the apublicans and sinners for to hear him.
2 And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.
3 ¶And he spake this parable unto them, saying,
5 And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.
6 And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.
When I walked in to a chapel of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as a 21 year old recovering atheist, I did so, not as a strong believer in Mormonism, but as someone who was reaching for God and trying on a church.
I was raised in the LDS church, but made a break for it at thirteen years old. I don’t know why, I don’t have a good reason. I never felt judged as a young man, I didn’t feel restricted in my behavior, I just didn’t feel like going any more. None of my siblings attended any more, my father had taken his leave before I could remember, and my mother didn’t have much say in my young mind, but she did make attempts, bless her heart.
I attended certain activities for some years after, but was also ostracized by the local youth as my lifestyle strayed further and further from church standards, but by that time, I didn’t care one bit. As a 17 year old, I was proud of my atheism and spent time attempting to tear down believers that got in my way. I was the god of my world. And that was that.
I walked a dark path for some years. There’s no use dredging it up, but it was dark and ugly.
Then one day in my twenty first year, in the midst of the greatest despair of my young life, I reached out to God in prayer as a last ditch effort to assuage the hurt. With a sincere promise to do whatever He asked if He’d only let me live ten more minutes, I was answered, simply, clearly and indisputably. In a moment, I knew I wasn’t alone, that God lived, and that I had made a promise to find Him and do what He asked of me, whatever that was.
I used my new-found faith to investigate eastern religions. Buddhism, Taoism and the like. I enjoyed much of what I read and felt, and found a lot of wisdom there, and still do, but I could tell in my soul that my path didn’t lie in that direction.
So I started looking in to Christianity. From the point of view I had at the time, it was a religion that brought war and the Inquisition and the Crusades and many other problems to the world. But I had promised. So I opened up my mind and dove in. I attended services in a number of places.
But I wasn’t interested in the Mormons. I’d been there already. Why bother if it wasn’t true before?
Eventually, at the insistence of wonderful friends who were making similar journeys or had always been on that path, I attended services with the Mormons.
Mind you, I didn’t have any conviction that the Mormons had any more truth than anyone else.
Picture it with me. Purple hair. An oversized-on-purpose (it was the 90′s, come on) suit I picked up second hand at a thrift store. Five earrings. Smelling like freshly burnt tobacco. Probably looking hung over from the prior night’s late concert.
The meetinghouse was in Syracuse, a very conservative area of Utah.
Without digging in to too many of the details, let’s say I wasn’t warmly welcomed except by the friend that brought me and his family.
I remember one older lady sitting near the door giving me one of the worst stink-eyes I think I’ve ever received. She seemed to say with her look, “What are YOU doing here? You’re going to ruin our meeting…”
Maybe I’m just stubborn, but I kept attending services with the Mormons, though not with that congregation, trying different groups until I found one that would welcome me. After trying out eight different groups, I found a small congregation of young people, most of whom had spent a couple of years in religious service.
I walked in, and the first guy to see me grabbed me, shook my hand, and said, “You must be new. Why don’t you come sit by me and I’ll introduce you to some people and show you around.”
It was so relieving to be accepted so openly. I had finally found a place where I didn’t feel judged.
Through later experiences I received a witness of the truthfulness of the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in a way that I can only describe and can’t forget, a lightning bolt of truth and light which has welded me to the faith.
I hate to imagine what would have happened had I not been so stubborn in my search for a congregation to worship with. Would I ever have found the precious gem of truth I did? Would I have spent two years in Italy as a missionary? Would I have met my wife?
I can see how it would have been much easier to judge the church by its people instead of its doctrines.
If I had judged the church by the people, I would have walked away quickly after my first interaction, and never looked back.
I share all of this with you for a reason.
If you are a Christian of any stripe, welcome the sinners. Recognize that you are a sinner yourself, and that you need spiritual healing just as much as they do.
If you see someone who obviously doesn’t live your lifestyle enter your building, grab on to them.
If you are offended at the outfit someone wears to church, they need your love, not your judgement.
If you smell smoke on the guy that walks through the doors, praise the Lord he is in church with you.
Christ said to celebrate the prodigal son and the lost sheep.
Not ostracize them as they tried to enter your group.
Bring them inside.
Like He does.