When my children were still young and I was pastoring in another city, my wife and I took the kids downtown one Sunday afternoon and walked around the square and up and down the street. Downtown was unusually empty that day, but as we lingered in front of a store, a lone woman approached us.
She was holding something in her hand, a pamphlet of some sort. Not knowing that I was a pastor, she offered and I accepted it, and found that it was a religious tract. I looked it over briefly and then asked her, “What church do you belong to?”
She answered (in what seemed to me a rather haughty tone) that she did not belong to any church. It was her opinion that the churches in the community all had problems. (Of course as the pastor of one of those churches, I already knew that.) She had not found one that met her standards for orthodoxy or moral uprightness, so she chose to do the Christian life on her own.
I tried to engage her further in conversation, but she had another sinner in her sights and was targeting him for the gospel. She left us almost immediately.
I’ve thought about that encounter many times over the years. That woman, God bless her, was offering a salvation that was disconnected from day to day life. And is it any wonder? She was herself disconnected – from a church family, certainly, but also from the people to whom she gave her tracts. She said, in effect, “I’m offering eternal life, but I don’t have two minutes to spare.” It seemed weirdly incongruous.
How much a healthy church family could have benefitted her! She had grown crooked. She lacked the balance that comes from being in contact with different personalities and different viewpoints, and so her life grew at an angle. She needed other people to balance her, to smooth out her rough edges and broaden her narrow perspective.
And what benefit she might have brought to a healthy church family! She had a passion (and perhaps a gift, though undeveloped) for evangelism. She might have stirred up a local church, inculcated in it a concern for others and got its people outside the walls of their building and into the streets with the good news of God’s love.
A connection to a healthy church would also have made a tremendous difference in her success in spreading the news of God’s love. Because God’s love is relational, it is best understood in a relational setting. When people hear about God’s love in the context of a loving faith community, it makes sense to them in a way it does not when they hear about it in isolation.
There is a fine example of how this works in the Bible. People were responding in great numbers to the news that God loved them and had acted on their behalf through the sacrificial death of Jesus. That message had enormous impact because people could see the kind of love and sacrifice that church people attributed to God expressed naturally in their everyday lives.
The Bible says that the early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer. And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had … with great joy and generosity.”
It was the love those early church members had for each other and the sacrifices they made for each other that helped their friends and neighbors believe that the message of God’s love and sacrifice might be true. The message and the medium blended seamlessly, and provided convincing proof of the validity of the good news the church proclaimed.
Contrast that with the woman I met on that downtown street. Their message was presented against the backdrop of a loving church family, where people enjoyed one another’s company and willingly sacrificed for each other’s good. Hers was given in total isolation from such expressions. Their lifestyle gave their message a street cred that hers utterly lacked.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 2/7/105