Everybody Belongs, Starting with You

Stained GlassEverybody 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.

It’s sad that we have to expound on the word “everybody” to make sure people know that we mean everybody. This is the fourth core value of Grace Hills, and like the others, it is rooted both in our understanding of the biblical role of the church as well as our overarching passion for people whom Jesus loves.

Let me clarify my theology of the church by saying that it’s a word that refers to those who are called out from the culture to be an assembly of people who commonly identify with Jesus Christ and who celebrate baptism and communion together while fulfilling the Great Commission. In other words, in the technical definition of the word “church,” it refers to Christians. But…

The Christian Church is a family that is to be constantly adopting new family members. So everybody belongs under the care of, in relationship with, and under the influence of the church. The church should be that family that always has extra guests for Thanksgiving dinner.

Though it should be enough to say that everybody belongs without qualifying who everybody is, we’ve gone ahead and made it ultra-clear who can be under the care of our church family:

  • Every color. There is neither Jew nor Greek, in Christ. We want people from every ethnicity in our city represented in our church family. We don’t want people to sacrifice their culture, but rather to share it with us as we get to know and understand one another.
  • Every shape. Though we don’t actually mean this physically, it is true nonetheless – tall, short, thin, well-insulated – all shapes and sizes are welcome. But what we really mean is, people with different spiritual gifts, passions, abilities, and experiences.
  • Every personality. Happy-go-lucky people, grumpy people, and eccentric types are all welcome. We’re a pretty positive body of people, but we don’t require everyone to wear fake smiles and pretend to be someone else. You be you, and the real you belongs here!
  • People with every kind of story imaginable. Everybody has a story and a struggle. Some have been abused, others are addicted. Some have marriages that are falling apart or have been divorced once or thrice. Others have been addicted to drugs, alcohol, pornography, or promiscuity. We’ve heard it all. We won’t let your story shock us, but we will pray that God’s grace will shock you.

Everybody belongs. God formed you for His family and He wants you to come home to Him and do life under His care as part of a community of people who are coming to know Jesus and serving others for the glory of God.

You belong. Yes you!

Also check out our recent “You Belong” video, produced by Nathan Wilson:

Everybody Belongs In the Church, Including You

Grandma Briggs
Grandma Briggs, daughter Carolyn, granddaughter Angie (my wife), and great-granddaughter Ella (my daughter).

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.

I Am a Foreigner

Happy Kids from the Dominican Republic
Some smiling, happy kids in Santiago, Dominican Republic, who spent the day with us, learning about Jesus and hugging us randomly.

I don’t like that word. I don’t like to hear people called “foreigners” on American soil. And frankly, I just don’t care that much about the politics of immigration. I’m a Christian, a stranger and a foreigner in this culture. My citizenship is in another kingdom, so I’m odd and strange because of my beliefs and values.

Right now, I’m a foreigner in a more real sense. I’m writing this in my hotel room in the Dominican Republic. I’m on a mission trip, visiting Pastor Aridio Garcia and his church, Iglesia Bautista Nueve Espenaza. My task tonight was to take a Haitian translator (he’s tri-lingual) door-to-door and invite people to a Bible study, which I would later lead at a local family’s home.

At one door, the man of the house was a little upset that my Haitian friend had brought these “Americano’s” by and another group of guys around the corner felt the same. I’m not entirely sure about the source of their feelings, but Antoine tried to explain that the locals don’t always like to have “Americano’s” come down to tell Dominicans how to live. I get that.

It wasn’t personally upsetting to me to experience that rejection. I understand. But it did help me, if only a little, to identify with what it is like to be the foreigner, the intruder into the culture of another people. While most of the people here are extremely friendly and receptive, that welcoming attitude isn’t universal.

America’s ethnic landscape is changing rapidly, and it has many people afraid that we will lose our identity, our security, or our “way of life.” Such is the history of the human race. Wars have been fought over less. And it is out of this fear that we often become unwelcoming. We tend to look at those with a different shade of skin color or a different accent or language and mutter things like:

  • If they’re going to come here, they should at least learn the language.
  • Have you seen the way those people live? That’s just not how we do things here.
  • You just can’t trust those people.

We have plenty of stereotypes and prejudices, all based ultimately in fear displaying itself as anger.

But I’m a Christian. I’m a pilgrim, a foreigner, a stranger in a land that is ultimately not my home, just as Abraham borrowed a cave for the burial of his wife in a land he himself would never call home. And as a Christian, my attitude toward guests and immigrants from places beyond our borders is different. For example, I believe that:

  • We are all one human family, descended from a sinful Adam.
  • I deserve hell for my sin as much as anyone else on the planet.
  • The cross leveled the playing field for everyone.
  • Jesus died for a church that would be very diverse.
  • As an ambassador for Christ, I am to welcome everyone with a smile and with grace.
  • I am glad that God is bringing the mission field to us.
  • I have something to learn from people of other cultures.
  • I have nothing to fear. I’m eternally secure because of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
  • When a neighbor comes needing bread, I’m commanded to share what I have.
  • English won’t be the primary language of heaven.

So if you can’t embrace people coming to America with loving, open arms, don’t bother complaining about it to me. I’m thrilled when I look at the people walking into my church every week and I see multiple colors and hear different accents. It’s beautiful, and it’s the way heaven will be. If you can’t enjoy it here, you aren’t preparing yourself well to enjoy it when we get home to heaven with the whole, mutli-colored, beautiful family of God.

For now, I’ll take my spot among the foreigners. I’m pretty sure that’s where Jesus likes to hang out.