On June 12, 1987, in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, Germany, U.S. President Ronald Reagan called out the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, and challenged him to remove the barrier which had divided West and East Berlin for over 25 years. Reagan very pointedly said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” It’s time for Christian leaders to look around our churches (and maybe in the mirror), examine the religious culture we’ve created and say, “Pastor, sisters and brothers, let us tear down these walls!”
Now I’m not talking about the actual structures! Let me explain. I recently shared a devotional on Luke 15:1-7 for a clergy “Day Apart” with my colleagues from the northwest corner of Arkansas. One component of our discussion had to do with how we see “the lost” in our communities. In my own life and ministry I have often been looking over an institutional wall at non-believers while I reinforce both blatant and hidden requirements for one to become a part of the faith community. Religious institutions often have some peculiarities and rituals that do not favor the outsider. In fact religion (in its most negative sense) acts as a barrier. It repeats the mantra, “That’s not how we do it,” or “You must be new here,” or “Come back when you ______.”
There is a concept in the social sciences that compares two perspectives on seeing the outsider, the other, or in the language from this parable, the lost. It is the Bounded Set and the Centered Set.
When we should be joyfully guiding people closer to Jesus, discipling them to be all that God wants them to be (as a good shepherd would), churches have often been building walls, piling on burdens and requirements and systematically culling the folks who don’t fit in. Jesus shows us the danger of ritualistic religion and dogmatic attitudes in Matthew 15 and 23. He shows grace to a Gentile/Canaanite woman and praises her faith. Jesus calls the religious leaders “Hypocrites… What sorrow awaits you!” There’s some contrast and comparison too!
I have been going through a real learning and refining season as a pastor and one of the things that I see as most important in my role is to be one who removes barriers, breaks down walls and destroys any impediment to people finding the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Every now and then I fail and fall back into my old way of seeing things, but praise the Lord for His grace! He gives everyone an opportunity, “to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep His love is” (Ephesians 3:18). Faith in Jesus is a game changer that we should share with all humankind, not a secret recipe to be locked up for the chosen few.
If you are already a part of a local congregation, how do you and your church reinforce the Bounded Set perspective of seeing the lost? What religious barriers do you see that need to be torn down? How can you encourage those who might be a long way off but heading in the right direction? One thing I love about being a United Methodist Pastor is the privilege of saying “Welcome! There is a place at the (Lord’s) Table for you.” That’s the invitation no matter how far away you are. After all, we were all outsiders until, by grace through faith, Jesus joyfully guided us home.