Most likely, many of us would not have become followers of Jesus if an us-verses-them philosophy had met us at the church door. Yet if you look at the comment section of my previous article entitled “Can I Come to Your Church? I’m Gay,” it seems some Christians today still want to keep the lines clearly defined. The mantra “Love the sinner, hate the sin” is well-meaning, but it fails in one important aspect: It creates labels for certain sinners, when in reality, we are all guilty of falling short.
Chances are, if you go to church, there is a point in the service where you are asked to stand and introduce yourself to a total stranger. Sometimes they make it easier for us by giving us an icebreaker question to answer, like “Who’s the best father on television?” or “What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?”
But what would happen if our churches threw us a curveball this weekend? What if during the meet-and-greet moment, our pastor announced: “Please take a moment and share the sin you’ve been secretly battling with the total stranger standing next to you.”
Would we run for the door never to return? Or, do we believe that our church is a safe place to offload the massive burden of our deepest secrets?
We all carry sin, secrets and pain into church every week. No matter what we do to keep our secrets—our attempts at masking them and the weight of it all is too much for us to bear. The good news is the Church is intended to be a safe place to share our secrets without fear of judgment or abandonment. Not with total strangers during an icebreaker question, but in the community of a few friends, a small group and loving leaders.
A Jesus Encounter
At 17 years old, I dropped out of high school to “mix” cocaine. It was just me, the drugs, a triple beam balance scale and my boss—who sat facing the door with his 9mm handgun. For six hours of work I was paid $2,500 and was high as a kite despite the mask I wore to keep the particles out.
The lifestyle of a cocaine dealer in the late ‘80s was fun—but only for a while. In the midst of all this, my uncle called to tell me that my grandfather was in the final days of his battle with cancer.
I traveled to Chicago, knowing this would be the last time I would get to see this guiding force in my life. I had no words to comfort my grandfather, but instead, I felt I was there to listen—and to experience something that would change the trajectory of my life forever.
As we drank milkshakes together—the only food my grandfather could get down—he put his hand on my knee and began to weep. I attempted to console him, but then I realized he was weeping over me. He was attempting to console me. It took just one look at me for my grandfather to see that I was living on the ragged edge. In his frail voice, he repeated the only words he would say that day and the last words he would say to me in this life: “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry for what’s happened to you.”
My grandfather became a living expression of Jesus for me that day. He was the one suffering, yet he looked past his own pain and wept over the condition of my life. It would take years before I fully grasped the significance of that encounter. But I knew then that I had to make some changes in my life.
Belonging, then Believing
One of the resulting changes occurred on Christmas Eve, when I found myself in the sanctuary of a church for the first time in a long time. Still, I was convinced that “church people” would take one look at me and see that I didn’t belong, much less meet their standards. My palms started to sweat as though I might have been wearing a name tag that read: “Hello, My Sins Are: drug-dealing, smoking, drinking, swearing and much worse.”
But instead, I was received with a deep movement of grace. I was warmly welcomed that Christmas; and, soon after, I was embraced by two families that had known me when I was younger. For no reason apparent to me, they simply decided to make me part of their families.
They knew that I had been places and done things I wasn’t ready to talk about. Yet, they didn’t press and they didn’t judge. They simply journeyed with me, loved me and lived out their faith in front of me. And when I did open up about my past, they didn’t say, “We love you but hate your sin,”—they loved me without condition. As a result, they loved me into a relationship with Jesus. They allowed me to belong well before I was ready to believe.
Come As You Are
What was true for me is true for a lot of people. My life was forever changed by people who didn’t endorse my sin but were wise enough to know that I didn’t need constant reminding of it or the pain it caused. I needed Jesus—which is what we all need. wa
So many of you feel, or have felt, the way I did when I entered Moraine Valley Church that Christmas Eve. You feel as though you are wearing your secrets, your sins and your failures like a name tag for all to see —and judge. You are desperate to find a safe place, with a few safe people, where you can offload the things that are weighing you down to the point of physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion.
The good news is that there is a place for you.
I recently had coffee with Mike Howerton, lead pastor at Overlake Church, and leaders from Eastlake Church whose mission statement is: “Church for the rest of us.” These are two Seattle area churches that are committed, at the very core of their existence, to journeying with people who are collapsing beneath the weight of their lives until they come face to face with Love in an encounter with Jesus.
This is what the Church was always meant to be—and there’s one in your city for you. There are churches led by, and full of, imperfect people who wrestle with the same secrets you and I wrestle with, but they don’t mask those secrets with hollow religion. They are committed to taking the journey toward Jesus together without judgment, clauses or conditions—where we can wear our sins out in the open without shame, for the sake of healing.
Todd Morrison is a writer and speaker who has spent over 15 years serving the local church. Todd lives in the Seattle area with his wife, Kara, and their two daughters, Gracie and Sophie. Check out his blog.