For a class last week, I had to read the book of Acts, all of it. Welcome to seminary? Throughout the book of Acts, the early “Christians” (Jewish followers of The Way) are eager to share the good news that Christ has risen. However, they repeatedly struggle to realize that the gospel is good news for everyone.
The journey of the early church begins with a carpenter named Jesus and eventually reaches the ends of the earth. The circle is drawn wider. The family of God grows exponentially. The Spirit slowly blows back the lines of division in the sand until they fade away completely. But God’s people don’t exactly catch on right away.
For many followers of The Way, “Who’s in and who’s out?” seemed to be the most important question. Unfortunately, this idea of “us” and “them” is all too common in the church today. I recently visited one of the many churches I love and had a brief conversation with someone about my year-long experience in New York. After I finished sharing, this person asked one question, “So, did you have to deal with any Muslims?” Shocked by the bluntness and insensitivity of the question, I gave a quick answer and changed the subject to my eagerness about starting seminary. This person put their arm around me, leaned in real close, and whispered, “You’re really gonna win ‘em for Christ.”
What does it mean to deal with Muslims and to win someone for Christ? Who and what am I winning? Where did I get this power? Our conversation certainly made me ask a lot of questions, but it mostly made me sad. It made me sad that after years of discerning what “ministry” might look like in my future, it just got boiled down to winning people. It made me sad to think that seminary is perceived to be some sort of religious boot camp. It made me sad to think people of other religions are a dehumanized problem we have to deal with. It makes me sad to think that so many Christians have such a distorted view of God. Do human beings really have the power to control who’s in and who’s out? Like Peter asked two thousand years ago, can we really withhold water for baptizing those who have received the same Holy Spirit we have?
Today I’m celebrating because the answer is no. I’m celebrating life. I’m celebrating stories. I’m celebrating ripples. Four months ago today, Room for All launched their newest short film Room for Me? on their website. If you haven’t seen it yet, you must. As the ripples continue to pulse out, the responses continue to pour in. Today I’m celebrating those who have used this film to come out to their families. I’m celebrating the ministers who have watched it and are engaging with the LGBTQ community in a new way. I’m celebrating the older generation of Christians who now know they’re not alone. I’m celebrating the young people who watch it and see 26 examples of what it can look like to be both gay and Christian.
In addition to the stories that bring us great joy, there are many stories filled with pain. The number of closeted Christians who have reached out to me in the last year is staggering. For fear of losing their job, being asked to leave their church, or getting kicked out of their home, they live in closets. We live in a world where those fears actually exist. We live in a world where children get kicked out of their homes for being honest. We live in a world where some expressions of Christianity cause others to live in darkness. This is simply not the way it should be. Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly. How do we create a Christian culture that lives out what Jesus modeled? Imagine church as a communal invitation to be fully yourself, a commitment to creating a family where everyone feels like they belong, a campfire to sit around and tell stories.
What if we told more stories?
The sweet thing about storytelling is that the ripples are unpredictable and often unknowable. I think this is why I find comfort in a reformed understanding of evangelism: we leave room for ripples. I used to think it was my responsibility to tell people what to believe. I used to think it was my “Christian duty” to tell my friends how they were sinning. I’ve been to too many youth conferences where success is solely based on the number of kids that “prayed the sinner’s prayer,” and if this number was low then somehow we had failed. These feelings of responsibility, guilt, and failure were foolish because the burden of saving souls was never really on our shoulders.
I used to want to do ministry so I could change people into who I thought they should be. Now, I want to do ministry because I believe God offers us a better way to do life, and I want to help create space for others encounter the transforming power of that living God. I used to think my responsibility in this life was to make sure people got to Heaven in the next. Now I trust that God is bigger, better, and more sovereign than I could have ever imagined, and my only “responsibilities” are to love God and care for God’s people here and now. I used to want to pursue ministry because I thought I owed God something. Now I want to pursue ministry as a response to the amazing grace I’ve been so freely given by God.
Like the first followers of The Way, we humbly remember that God shows no partiality. Christianity isn’t a club. People are not projects to be won. Church is not about drawing lines of division, winning people onto our side, and judging those who don’t make the cut. Friends, the Spirit of the living God is on the move. Do you see the ripples?