I can remember the first time I ever attended a Young Life event when I was in high school. I was a shy kid and wasn’t too keen on social things unless it involved sports, especially if it was religious in nature. I remember walking in and noticing how loud and packed it was. Multiple people cheered my name as if they were excited that I was there. The leaders, whom I had never met before, were genuinely interested in me and immediately made me feel like I was supposed to be there. The atmosphere was light and jovial and welcoming. I was way out of my comfort zone, but there was something about it that I just knew I belonged there. And it hadn’t even started yet! I didn’t have to sign anything or check any boxes to be involved. Everyone was invited. There was something refreshing about that. The other thing I remember is the way the speaker talked about Jesus. I wasn’t that interested in hearing what the speaker had to say, but the way she talked about Him as if she knew Him personally really stuck out to me. She also talked in such a way that made it clear I had to decide for myself what I thought about Jesus. It wasn’t forced, but there was a gentleness and freedom to explore what I believed. It was very clear to me that it was a safe place where I wouldn’t be judged for my beliefs (or non-beliefs) about God.
Looking back, that was a defining moment for me. I had grown up going to church because that’s what my parents told me I had to do. There was never any choice in the matter. And because we were Catholic, there was a big learning curve with memorizing all the prayers during mass and knowing when to stand and sit and kneel. It was easy to spot someone new or a guest because they wouldn’t know when to stand and sit. I knew a lot of Bible stories, but that’s all they were – stories. It wasn’t until that experience at Young Life that I viewed God and Jesus as someONE I could get to know rather than someTHING I read about or heard about on Sundays. And it wasn’t so much what was said that night as it was about the atmosphere and how it was said. For the first time, faith in Jesus was explained in a way that was accessible to me. As the saying goes, the cookies were put on the bottom shelf.
Sometimes, maybe even a lot of the time, I think that those of us who are following Jesus get in the way of His mission. Jesus made numerous statements about His mission. “For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it.” (John 12:47). “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31-32). “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19:10) “Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so I can preach there also. That is why I have come” (Mark 1:38). The list could go on and on. Jesus also tells us that there is more rejoicing over one sinner that repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. If you read the gospels, you can’t help but notice that Jesus is on a mission – a mission to reach the lost, the sick, the sinners. He is always on the move, always has a crowd around Him, and he seems to eat and drink a lot with “sinners and tax collectors”. There was something so attractive about Jesus that the “non-religious” people of the day wanted to be around Him. In fact, the larger narrative of the Bible and all of creation is the story of God on a mission to bring His people back to Him. Our God is a missional God and He sent Jesus to live among us on a mission to bring us – ALL of us – back to Him.
I say that we get in the way because I think we inadvertently (and unfortunately sometimes advertently) create barriers between the “sick, lost, and sinners” and Jesus. As an example, take my experience growing up in the church, which I know is not unique to me. The person and work of Jesus was clouded out by rituals and traditions and teachings about doctrine specific to the denomination I belonged to. It’s not that the person and work of Jesus wasn’t talked about, I just missed it amid everything else. And that’s just one example from my own experience. There are numerous others; the Christian subculture that can be a challenge assimilating to, the perceived hypocritical nature of church- goers, the distrust of the institution of the church marred by one scandal after another. But more often than not, it’s the politicization of Christianity as a whole, or more acutely, the “stance” of a particular church. “That church doesn’t believe in ____________” or “that church is anti ___________.”
Don’t get me wrong, truth is truth. I’m not suggesting we water down or ignore God’s word. I just think we would be well served to keep the main thing the main thing. And isn’t the main thing more people – specifically the lost, broken, sick, and sinners – coming to know Jesus and put their trust in Him? So why do we create barriers that make it harder for that to become reality? When Jesus called to Zacchaeus, a “tax collector”, in the sycamore tree, He didn’t share his “stance” on tax collectors. He said, “I must stay at your house today”. It was a relational invitation. “Zacchaeus came down at once and welcomed him gladly. Everyone else around muttered that Jesus had gone to be the guest of a “sinner”.” (Luke 19:6-7) Jesus didn’t require Zacchaeus to repent BEFORE He spent time with Him. In fact, there’s no mention of Jesus asking Zacchaeus to do anything other than to open his house to Him. Zacchaeus offers to give half of his possessions to the poor and pay back everyone he has cheated AFTER he had spent time with Jesus AND it was unprompted. You might even say that it was his encounter with Jesus that compelled him to repent and change.
If Jesus had no requirements or stipulations for who He spent time with and communed with, why do we as the church often do the opposite? Not necessarily explicitly, but it’s often implied. To be a part of this church you must believe this or do that or change this behavior or act this way. It’s as if we forget that we too are still sinners and that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”. I think that’s why my first experience with Young Life still sticks with me. There were no barriers. Everyone was welcome. The atheist, the drug dealer, the sports star, the shy kid, the cute girl, the band kids, the nerds – everyone. I was welcomed and it was clear that I belonged without having to commit to doing anything or believing anything. And you know what? It was Jesus that compelled me and drew me in. Not the fun and games. And it was only possible because the barriers were removed. I couldn’t tell you what any of the leaders believed about X, Y, or Z, what their political affiliation was, or what denomination they were a part of, but I knew that they possessed a joy I had rarely seen, and they really loved the Jesus they talked about and wanted me to experience that as well. Isn’t that what the church should be known for above all else? I think it must be if we are to eliminate barriers and follow Jesus’s example and participate with Him in His mission to reach the sick, lost, and “sinners”.
I share my experience not to lift Young Life up as the gold standard, but because it was my story of how I came to know Jesus. I do think we can learn something from it though regarding the breaking down of barriers. In the book The Shaping of Things to Come, Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost discuss the idea of social set theory and how people gather or organize. They discuss the difference between bounded and centered sets. A bounded set is just what it sounds like – bounded. You are either in or out. It’s clear who’s in or out based on usually moral or cultural or theological boundaries. A centered set is the exact opposite. There’s a very clear vision at the center, but no boundaries people must cross to join. They illustrate these ideas with an example from farming. A bounded set would be a farm with a fence around it to keep livestock in. A centered set is one where there is no fence on the farm, but a deep well in the middle. The animals may stray, but they will never get too far from the well, the supply of clean water and the source for life. The author Ken Blanchard puts it this way. A bounded-set thinker asks the question, “Do you believe what I believe?” A centered set thinker asks the question, “Do you care about what I care about?” In her book Untamed, Deb Hirsch says that in a centered-set church there is a “sense of belonging before believing”. She goes on to say, “people didn’t need to agree with us on the finer points of theology in order to belong. They were invited into a journey that led to Jesus.” That is exactly what I experienced when I showed up to Young Life that very first night and my life is forever changed because of it. I’m thankful it wasn’t a bounded set and that I was able to encounter Jesus for myself.
I’ve been reflecting on this ever since we felt God’s prompting to help plant a church in the Boston area called Renaissance. As we have begun to form this new faith community and spent a considerable amount of time dreaming and getting to know the area we now call home, it has become more and more clear that if we are going to reach people for Jesus then we must eliminate barriers. A lot of people I have met have given up on the church for whatever reason, many of which I named earlier, but they are still intrigued by the person of Jesus. In an education rich culture, churches here are known much more for what they are for instead of who they are for. A common first question after someone finds out I work for a church is, “What does your church believe?” – a bounded set thinker question. How I respond would immediately allow some in while keeping others out and reinforce whatever their perception is about the church. But I respond with a centered set thinking response, “We want to help people get to know the Jesus of the Bible and help make earth look a little more like heaven.” It’s not that we don’t have beliefs and values we hold dearly, it’s just that we want everyone to drink from the well first and taste the living water themselves.
Jesus is the well at the center of the centered-set. He said as much to the Samaritan Woman He met at the well in Samaria. He offers her living water and when she asks where she can get this living water Jesus responds by saying, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13) Wouldn’t we be better off leading people to the well (Jesus) and letting them drink of it themselves rather them giving them some water we retrieved from the well or requiring them to jump over a fence just to get near the well? Could it be that the inadvertent barriers we put up are because underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit to transform someone? Remember, God doesn’t need us, but allows us to participate in His mission with Him. Or could it be because of our pride and ego and thinking that if someone is following Jesus, they must see everything as we see it? Are we even capable of having it all figured out? Or, could it be, that we haven’t actually drank from the well ourselves? Others helped us over the “fence” and have been bringing us water, but we have yet to drink from the well ourselves?
In her book Untamed, Deb also says, “The disciple is a servant-priest, and our role is to introduce people to Jesus and Jesus to the people, and then, as quickly as possible, move out of the way.” I agree. If we really want to participate in Jesus’s mission to reach the lost and broken and sick and sinners, then we need to follow his example and remove any and all barriers and help lead others to the living water that offers eternal life – and then get out of the way and trust that Jesus is enough. It was for me.