Monday, March 25, 2013

Where is the grace?

Many years ago, before I began preaching, I served as a deacon in our church.  One year during Vacation Bible School a young girl came forward during the invitation.  Because she did not attend our church the pastor wanted to visit her family before baptizing her and asked me to go with him.  The girl lived with her mother in a nearby apartment complex.  When we visited with the mother the pastor explained why we were there and asked if she had any problems with her daughter being baptized.  The mother hesitantly asked if that would mean her daughter would be a member of our church.  Our pastor explained that normally one became a member of the church when they were baptized but that did not have to be the case if the mother had any objections.  She then told us her story.

A few years earlier she had been an active member of another church in our community.  Against her wishes her husband filed for divorce and left her.  The next Sunday she felt like a stranger in her church.  People would not talk with her and most acted as if she wasn't even in the service.  At a time when she needed her church it turned its back on her.  After a few weeks of such treatment she stopped attending and never returned to a church.  Although she was happy her daughter wanted to become a Christian she did not want her daughter to be hurt by a church as she had been.

 It's a story that could be repeated endless times.  A few years ago I coached a pastor in another state and one of the questions I asked her was if she could do anything she wanted to in ministry what would it be.  She immediately responded that she always wanted to start a ministry to people who had been hurt by the church.  I laughed a little and told her if she was successful with such a ministry her church would not be small for long because in every community there are many people who have been hurt by their churches.

The working title for my book The Healthy Community: Moving Your Church Beyond Tunnel Vision was Heart Disease in the Body of Christ.  One of the diseases I address in the book is the lack of grace that exists in so many churches.  We are known as people who shoot their wounded for good reason.  Too many people in church seem to think that the church is a hotel for saints when in reality it is to be a hospital for sinners.  It is a place where imperfect people should be able to come to when they need to find forgiveness, cleansing, hope, and salvation.  Instead, it is often a place where they encounter condemnation and shame.  When unchurched people see how we treat our brothers and sisters when they encounter failures in their lives it is no wonder they do not believe that they will be treated any better.

Even worse is the way we respond to people whose views are different than ours.  I'm not talking about compromising the integrity of the Word of God or denying its fundamental teachings; I'm talking about such things as the length of a man's hair or whether or not a woman wears jewelry and which version of the Bible is the right one.  I'm talking about being critical of the type of car a fellow believer drives, the size of his or her house, or the clothes he or she wears.  I once had a church member tell me she hoped she never saw me own a Cadillac as she didn't believe a minister should drive such a car.  I assured her she didn't have to worry; if I could afford a Cadillac I would probably buy a Mercedes.  She was not amused!

The apostle Paul warned, "But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another!"  That is what is happening today in many of our churches.  Our lack of grace towards one another is tearing our churches apart and running unbelievers away from God because of what they see in us.   It is driving good people out of the ministry and doing great harm to their families.

Some will argue that if we extend too much grace people might take advantage of it.  No doubt some will.  In fact, I've seen people claim that because they are under grace they are free to do some things that are contrary to biblical teaching.  At such times it becomes important to explain the difference between cheap grace and true grace.  Cheap grace justifies the sin rather than the sinner while true grace justifies the sinner, not the sin.  Some of the greatest heroes in the Bible failed greatly.  Moses, Paul, and David are just a few whose names immediately pop into one's mind.  God never justified their sins, but He did justify them and used them mightily for His purposes.

We must never forget that we have been the recipients of God's grace.  I cannot imagine where I might be today without such grace.  Having received grace can we refuse to extend grace to others?  I think not.  I believe it is time for churches to once again become places where hurting people can experience God's grace through His people. For more on this subject be sure to read my book.

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