My wife and I gathered with 20-30 friends one Sunday evening not long ago for a discussion about the state of the church’s missionary program. A high-ranking official from the church’s missionary department presented and led a great discussion. I came away encouraged that the missionary program is in very capable and innovative hands.
The part of the presentation that interested me most was about our messaging. What is our message to the world? How do we invite people? What do we promise that people will experience when they come to worship with us?
In response to that question, our speaker showed this remarkable one-minute video from the church’s youtube channel called “This Is Church”.
I love this message. To quote the video, “Hallelujah!”
This is the message we want to send to the world. It is about drawing a circle that includes everyone, maybe especially those on the margins of society, exactly as Jesus did. It is about a church that celebrates life and brings light and love to the darkest places. It is a church where breakdancing can be experienced as a hymn, where redemption knows no bounds, where your color, your gender, your economic station and your past don’t matter.
“This is church,” it claims. “This is organized religion.”
That is the invitation and the promise we are extending. It feels exhilarating and deeply right. It is the message that could unite and inspire current and future generations of latter-day saints…if it is authentic.
So, the question some of us were discussing as we milled around and chatted after the meeting: “Is this our church?”
One of our friends suggested that before posting this video on youtube, maybe the church should have shown it to all of our congregations, just to make sure we’re all in on this. “All in favor, please manifest by the usual sign.” Or better, maybe even shout “hallelujah!”
So can our congregations deliver on the promise? Yes! We can. We must.
We’re getting there. AND… we have a ways to go. But I’m encouraged. Why?
For my wife and me, service in the church over the past decade or so has been largely centered around those on the margins. Addicts. Refugees. People in extreme poverty. People who have lost hope. People who have lost their faith. Broken lives. Broken families. Broken spirits. In this process, their lives have often become our lives.
Just before this Sunday evening gathering, we had finished a long meeting with a Congolese refugee family and their remarkable, inspired, Swahili-speaking branch leaders.
This family of eleven has faced challenges beyond the imagination of most of us. We were meeting to work through the details of relocating them to a new home and helping them develop a plan for each member of the family. It’s hard. We have come to know and love this family over the past year. The amount of time and resources that have been consecrated to help this family is truly impressive.
And this kind of thing happens in the church every minute of every day in countless places across the globe. We are a very small part of a largely invisible army of church members working at the margins, learning by faith and hard experience how to genuinely love, include and serve people who are in desperate shape. Serving the people Jesus came to serve—not the “elect” (whatever that means), but the forsaken.
This army of servants doesn’t serve perfectly. We often even serve clumsily. But we know God is mindful of each person we serve and is there to assist and teach us. We are learning to become “Healers on Mount Zion.”
So when I question whether we as a church are ready to step up to the promise made in the video and show that “This is Church,” my own church experience gives me hope.
I know the church has critics, (and I can occasionally be one myself), but often those critics are simply unaware of what is really going on in the trenches. And working in the trenches, doing the work of the Redeemer, is gradually changing and even redeeming the “body of Christ”—His church.
That said, we have a long way to go. It starts by asking ourselves honest questions, some of which came up in conversation at this private gathering.
For example, what unnecessary boundaries do we throw up that tend to make people feel unwelcome—our homogeneity of speech and dress, our defensiveness (“the world vs. us), our self-consciousness, our exclusionary language?
Are our talks and lessons and music alive and inviting?
If a person suffers from addictions but wants a place to worship and feel connected, will he/she find it among us? Will single, divorced, gay people, or people with faltering faith feel inspired, included and welcome in our congregations, or will they experience and hear things that make them feel “less than” or defective. As we speak and teach and pray in church, can we be aware that these people are among us? Each has been brave and hopeful enough to come worship with us. The truth is, they are us.
So yes, we still have a ways to go. But we can do this. We have come a long way. We really have.
Those things shown in the video…it’s not that we don’t do them. But we could do a lot more of them…right now…right on our own street.
I believe the church is being redeemed as we open our hearts and our lives, drawing a circle big enough to include the kinds of people shown in the video—the people on the margins whom Christ has unequivocally called us to serve.
This is the how the body of Christ will be made whole.
This is Church.