The other day I was reminded of a church youth group I attended back when I was in junior high school. I hadn't thought about that group in years, perhaps because it wasn't one of the happiest times in my life. For more than a year I tried my hardest to fit in with that group - I attended nearly every one of the group's events, including several that probably cost my parents a lot of money we didn't necessarily have.
But I might as well have been trying to knock over a concrete building with my head for all the progress I made. I was completely ignored by nearly everyone in that group, with the final straw coming during a hiking/camping trip where I was openly snubbed and left out of most of the weekend's activities. As I learned some time later, we were a lower middle class family attending an upper middle class church that taught a prosperity gospel; my parents would have started looking for another church much sooner if I hadn't been involved with that youth group.
As a result of that and other experiences I've had being on the outside looking in, whenever I am one of those on the inside I expend a lot of energy trying to bring others in with me. Not that I always do as much as I could; being one of the strongest introverts in world history sometimes hampers my outreach efforts, but I do hate to see people being excluded.
It might seem like a non-sequitur, then, to note that I could never share about my faith with non-Christians. I could talk about politics (rather outspokenly, in my younger days), and I loved introducing people to the Myers-Briggs personality system, but when it came to evangelism, which was supposedly about inviting people to join the best group of all, I couldn't have said anything to save my life. Even anonymously journaling my thoughts on a blog to a faceless audience would have been out of the question.
Or maybe it isn't so surprising, considering the capricious, hyper-critical picture of God I was given in churches and Christian schools from an early age. It wasn't until college that I heard God's grace presented as anything more than fire insurance, and even then there were always conditions and endless caveats attached to God's supposedly unconditional love. God loves you, but.
God loves you, but he's going to inflict endless, unimaginable torment on you if you don't believe all the right things. God loves you, but he's just waiting to smite you with a great big lightning bolt if you break the rules one too many times. God loves you, but he's going to destroy your entire nation and everyone in it if you don't actively persecute gays and coerce them into pretending to be heterosexual. Come to think of it, why would I have ever wanted to try to sell people on a God like that?
Perhaps I'm biased by my personal desire to include those stuck on the outside, but I do find myself drawn to Spencer Burke's depiction of grace as an "opt out" system (as opposed to the church's traditional "opt in" view) and his proposal to get the church out of the business of trying to determine who's "in" and who's "out" when it comes to salvation. All but the most extremist Christians would protest being associated with the picture of God that I laid out in the previous paragraph, but for most their own picture of God only differs from the one I used to hold by degree.
By fixating on the question of what a person has to do to get into heaven (even if it's nothing more than saying the "sinner's prayer"), Christians quickly start to resemble that clique that I once tried so hard to be a part of. Where that clique only accepted kids who wore the right clothes, knew how to act cool and had enough money, most churches will only truly accept those people who sign off on all the right beliefs, adopt all of the right outward behaviors and learn to speak fluent Christianese.
That's certainly not how any church would articulate its terms and conditions, but it's effectively how things work out in practice. Even most legalistic churches like to see themselves as welcoming to anyone who wants to be included, but "come as you are" carries an unspoken caveat: "as long as you become like us." God is theoretically free to work with people where they're at, but in practice the church has only limited patience for those who don't properly conform.
Chances are that clique would have welcomed me if my parents had held higher-paying jobs, and if I had learned how to be more hip and glamorous. In their eyes there was nothing unreasonable about placing such conditions on their friendship. But it wasn't actually me they were interested in; what they really wanted was another clone of themselves. So it is with human nature in general, and the church is no exception - what we really want is validation of our beliefs and lifestyles and perspectives. So it all too often is with me, too, and I don't always manage to break out of my comfort zone when I see others on the outside looking in.
But is that the way church should be? If I'm in danger of projecting my desire for inclusiveness onto my perception of God, then those who seek to exclude others based on even the most righteous-sounding set of criteria are no less susceptible to doing the same. And which of those two pictures reconciles better with the Jesus who freely associated with prostitutes and tax collectors and Samaritans, and who spoke of a shepherd willing to place his entire flock at risk for the sake of finding a single lost lamb?
Your answer may differ from mine, but in any case it wouldn't hurt to keep in mind what Jesus said about how we should treat the "least of these."