“…but if our gospel is hid, it is hid to those who are perishing.” (II Corinthians 4:3)
Yesterday, four somewhat frustrating things happened to me. It took the fourth one before I began to see a pattern.
After spending the night at a hotel in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and before departing for my destination in MIssouri, I decided to see Arkansas State University. The desk clerk gave directions and I drove to the campus, about a mile away. A directory on the side of the street told how to find the student center, which is normally where one will locate a campus store so I can pick up a t-shirt with the school emblem. It appeared to be simple: down this street, turn right. Oops. Construction work is going on there. So maybe I missed a sign. Yes, there it is. Turn right here. Free parking for visitors, the sign said. It’s not a big school; this shouldn’t be difficult.
Down that street–the one clearly marked as the direction of the student center–permanent barriers were embedded, blocking it off. The only thing accessible there was the post office. I pulled in, turned around, and left, deciding that a visit to Arkansas State was not on the agenda for me today.
Five minutes later, on my way out of the city, on the left side of the four-lane highway stood a Wal-mart. I needed a couple of things and decided to run by. Should be simple, right?
After exiting, I had to make a decision: whether to go to the right or left on a highway paralleling US 63. I chose “left,” drove 100 yards, then turned right and circled back over the highway. There should be a left turn here that would take me back to the Wal-mart. No left turn. I drove a few country blocks, turned in someone’s driveway, then returned, looking for directions. No street or driveway exited to my right in the direction of the store. I gave up and re-entered US 63 and drove on.
A mile out of town, I passed a church. Now, this area of Arkansas seems to have a church for every 50 people, so there was nothing unusual about that. What was strange was that across the entrance stood a huge gate barring anyone from the parking lot. What was that all about, I wondered. Were people parking there when they shouldn’t? Maybe teens using it as a lovers lane? Or truckers parking their rigs there?
I can just imagine some I’ll-take-care-of-this-person in the church assuring the pastor, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll stop those people from parking here.” And he erects this barrier.
It accomplished its purposes, I’m sure. Now no one parks there until the gate is unlocked and the barrier removed.
But is that the image you want to project to the community all week? Thousands of motorists travel up and down that busy highway all week and all they see of your church is that the entrance is barred to everyone.
The fourth incident occurred as I was approaching the town of Cabool. The highway billboard advertised Shetler’s home cooking. Now, this country boy is a patsy for any restaurant or cafe offering that, so I took the next exit. A sign instructed me to go left, across the highway. And then, nothing. I traveled down that country road a mile and decided I must have missed it. Back to the highway and still no sign. Finally, on a hunch, I turned down a frontage road toward a grocery store I’d seen with the name Shetler. I parked, walked up, and saw it was indeed a grocery store, not a restaurant. What to do?
Then, I noticed a small sign above the far end of the building. “Shetler’s cafe.” This was it. I went in, ordered, and ate a quick meal, then went on my way. (I wish I could recommend the food. Sorry.)
A strange series of small disappointments, all in a row. What to make of it, I wondered.
I decided all of it–the student center that would not be found, the Wal-mart I could not get to, and the restaurant that advertised itself on the highway and then hid behind the grocery store–was something of a parable for that church that barred access to its facility. That’s the one that concerns me.
And it’s not so much that this particular church is protecting its parking lot as that so many of our churches are unwelcoming to guests and visitors when they are open for business and should be receiving them with warmth and love. They are inhospitable even when they think they are accessible.
The gate is down, the doors are opened, and they’re still closed.
As the Lord Jesus made His final pass through Jericho on His way to Jerusalem where He had a date with destiny, He encountered two men–Bartimaeus and Zaccheus–who had to overcome people barriers to get to Him.
At the end of Luke 18, we read of Bartimaeus, the blind beggar of Jericho, who called for Jesus over and over, louder and louder, even though the very people with Jesus were trying to quieten him, asking him to hold the noise down.
As the Lord entered the city, Luke 19 introduces us to a chief tax collector named Zaccheus who tried to get up to the street for a glimpse of the Man of Nazareth, and unable because of the pressing crowds, climbed a sycamore tree.
That the Lord had the time and love enough to reach out to both men says volumes about Him. The “good people” in the twin story, however, do not fare so well. The very ones who should have been helping the two men–one down and out, the other up and out–were in their way.
They were making Jesus inaccessible. But the Lord would have none of it.
Walk around your church early Sunday morning. What signals are you sending to newcomers?
Is your church communicating “welcome” to visitors, or “stay away?”
1) Is the appearance inviting? If you were traveling the highway and spotted your church, would you want to stop and come inside?
2) Are there signs telling visitors where to go? Are the signs accurate and current? Remember that an old rusty sign is worse than none.
3) Do newcomers have convenient places to park? Or do the church members all get the best spots?
4) Are greeters standing outside so visitors will know which entrance to use? Are the greeters looking for people or are they busy chatting with each other and actually blocking the entrance? (I suggest husband and wife teams, and rotating them often.)
5) Are your people friendly, but not smothering?
6) Is your pulpit visitor-sensitive? Or do those speaking from the pulpit assume everyone in the church is an insider and does not require additional explanations?
7) Is the printed handout (bulletin) helpful to newcomers?
“When a foreigner lives with you in your land, you must not oppress him. You must regard the foreigner who lives with you as the native born among you. You are to love him as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)
During the presidency of Andrew Jackson, the United States instituted harsh deportation laws regarding the native Americans living east of the Mississippi River. In a cruel episode in this nation’s history known as “The Trail of Tears,” thousands upon thousands of American Indians were resettled into the vacant areas of the American west. One story from the state of Mississippi, sometime around 1832, illustrates what we are talking about here.
The “Indian agent,” as he was called, was the government’s representative in dealing with the Choctaws and other tribes living in Mississippi. The people were informed that on a certain date, they were all to be relocated west (to Oklahoma, I believe; going by memory here). However, any persons not wishing to move away from their homeland simply had to sign up with the Indian agent and they would be allowed to remain.
That sounds simple enough. And it would have been, except for one thing. The agent wanted them gone. He was not sympathetic to the tribal people, and so made himself scarce. The only Indians who remained in Mississippi were those able to run him down and get on his list. That’s why to this day, the number of Indians in the state is very low. Most, I believe, live around Philadelphia, MS.
You and I who know Jesus Christ have been designated by Him as his “agents.” To us has been committed “the ministry of reconciliation;” we are His “ambassadors” (II Corinthians 5:18,20).
But what if we are inaccessible? What if we erect signs across our churches warning people to stay away? What if we erect signs of a more subtle nature in our lives that inform anyone whom we encounter that we are not available and whatever we have to share is not accessible?
Jesus said, “Freely you have received; now freely give.”
“Father, it burdens me that people will look at me and make decisions about You. They may see my bad attitude today and think You have no time for them. They may conclude by my lack of friendliness that God is hostile to them.
“Everything inside me protests that such should not be, that they should not look at me if they want to find You. And yet, this is how you have set things up. For better or worse.
“I will be needing supernatural help from Thee if people are not to be discouraged from coming to Thee because of what they see in me.
“Help them through me, Lord. Help them believe in Thee by making me strong. Show them the way by guiding my steps. Love them through me, Dear Lord.
Reflect Jesus Christ through me, I pray. For Jesus’ sake, yes, but also for the sake of all those depending on me to get it right. Amen.”
There are only so many stories one should put in an article like this, I know. But I keep remembering a time many years ago when our family lived in North Carolina and on my off day, Margaret and I would drive into the mountains. One day, we were above Asheville, heading over toward the Tennessee State Line. On the hillside, high above the road, we noticed a sweet little church that was just crying for us to come check it out. We drove back and forth in both directions for a mile and could never find a side road that would take us to it. Finally, we went on.
A couple of miles up the winding highway, we stopped at a country store for soft drinks and asked the proprietor about that church. “It went out of business,” he said. “Now, somebody owns it and has shut it down.” I think I know why it went out of business. No one could get there.
I’ve told you more than you want to know about yesterday’s frustrations, but there was actually one more. At one point, I needed to take a bathroom break and saw a sign announcing a rest stop ahead with tourist information. This would be ideal. And, once again, I pulled off, followed the arrow and crossed over the highway to the left and then nothing. A few businesses of one type or the other and a gas station, but no further indication of anything resembling a rest stop or tourist information.
This is not an anti-Arkansas rant. I love this state and the people are wonderful. What I do not love is signs that give some help but not enough, and churches that discourage people from entering and worshiping and finding God.