I’m white. So when I die, I’ll go to white heaven, right? Actually, a Jewish man named John once had a God-given vision of what heaven would look like, and what he saw was more like “a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9 NLT)
Heaven is God’s ideal – the ultimate restoration and renovation of the earth and universe into what He has envisioned as perfection for eternity, and it’s made up of people from every tribe on earth. Furthermore, in spite of our best efforts to segregate the church into congregations based on ethnicity, God’s real plan for the church is to be a family where everyone belongs on the basis of their relationship with Jesus Christ.
For you are all children of God through faith in Jesus Christ. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. – Galatians 3:27-28 NLT
When Angie and I started the work of planting Grace Hills, we were determined from day one that we would lead a church that welcomes people from all walks of life. In our core values, it’s stated this way: Everybody belongs. When we say everybody, we mean every color, every shape, every personality, and people with every kind of story imaginable. Everyone belongs, even before they believe.
I realize that’s a statement that might evoke theological objection from some, especially that last sentence, who are zealous for a church made up only of true believers in Jesus. The Bible is clear that faith in Jesus Christ is the one and only way to peace with God and membership in His eternal family. We are not all children of God. His family is composed only of those who have consciously received His Son, Jesus. But… every church ought to be adopting, and in order to adopt people into God’s family, we need to love them and include them like family, even before they believe.
Our philosophy is that if you hang around our church and let us love on you and care for you like family, you’re more likely to be convinced that we mean what we say when we say we’d like to adopt and include you. The gospel’s credibility is boosted when we love and accept people, even when we can’t approve of some of their choices on the grounds of eternal truth. So we make it ultra clear that everybody belongs, and everybody is welcome. And we get specific…
People of every color belong. Not just black, white, and tan, but every flavor of humanity, people from every socio-economic status and income level, every language group, and every ethnicity. Ethnicity is more than race. Our race is about the genetic and physical uniqueness passed on to us from our ancestors, but ethnicity includes our cultural heritage as well. Some call America a melting pot where people from every culture blend together. My wife, a social worker, is quick to point out that we shouldn’t aim to melt anyone’s culture away, but instead we should be more like a tossed salad where various cultures mix and mingle, each with the freedom to retain their own unique story.
People of every shape belong. Physically? Sure. Every height, build, and weight range are certainly welcome, but when we use the word shape, we’re signaling a reference to the idea that we each have a unique make-up of abilities and spiritual gifts, passions, personality types, and experiences. The body of Christ has its hands, eyes, feet, and even its spleen, and everybody needs each other – even those who tend to be a little grouchy and hard to get along with sometimes.
People with every kind of story imaginable belong. At Grace Hills, we have married couples, single adults and single parents, and divorcees, and they all belong. We welcome recovering drug addicts, alcoholics, and people who struggle with porn, and we can’t help them if they aren’t welcome to belong. Some among us have had abortions, affairs, and have declared bankruptcy because of an unwise approach to finances, and they belong. Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and people who hate political parties all belong. Gay people, straight people, couples who live together unmarried, and promiscuous people belong. We want to include you.
We don’t have to condone any unbiblical practices, compromise the gospel in any way, or check our theology at the door to welcome people into our house. We can talk about the biblical basis of membership in God’s family – repentance and faith in Jesus Christ – only if we get face-to-face time together to understand each other better.
I’m convinced that the church ought to be more like Grandma Briggs. My wife’s maternal grandmother was one of the sweetest souls I’ve ever met. From the first time I met her as Angie’s teenage boyfriend, she gave me hugs and kisses and fed me ham (long, inside story). As I watched Grandma Briggs over the years, I noticed that members of her family who had made big, obvious mistakes and unhealthy choices (the kind that get you talked about and shunned by many families) got those same kisses and hugs. They were always welcome to squeeze into her tiny house in Anaconda, Missouri… and eat ham together.
I realize this subject area is messy. It’s tricky. It’s hard to figure out. We walk the tightrope of accepting everyone while not approving of everything. I realize that welcoming people who are different than the people we’ve lived most of our lives with is uncomfortable, especially when we aren’t familiar with their language and their culture. But that’s family. That’s God’s family. And the more colorful and diverse it is, the more beautiful its story.
Jesus, a Jew, told His disciples to go everywhere and tell everyone about Him and His story, making disciples, baptizing them into the same family, and not to stop until He returned. So until He comes back, let’s keep welcoming people, because everybody belongs.