A few days ago I wrote about how it feels to negotiate travel with two small children, and how I can feel like a nuisance or even an offense to those around me. Like the women seated in the row directly behind us on the plane. As soon as my body turned to begin the task of de-sherpa-ing myself so as to get Aaron situated into his carseat, their commentary began. “Oh great, we are surrounded by babies…”, “So much for my five hours of sleep…” , etc. I did not even look up to make eye contact, but I marveled at their need to make sure I heard how inconvenienced they were because my family existed. I especially marveled at this in light of the fact that the flight was TOTALLY EMPTY and it was more than obvious that we would all have our choice of just about any seat we could wish for once we were in the air.Contrast this with the gentleman who, before I could get to it, had my stroller completely assembled in the jet way and was standing ready to assist me in placing my kids inside. Oh, and did I mention he was THE PILOT? Or the young lady employed by the airport who literally chased us all the way to baggage to give me the earring I lost on the plane.
I just got back from visiting Jeremy and Amy’s church. They are a delightful group of people, very genuinely seeking after God in their lives and in their community, and I could not have felt more welcomed. People were generous with their smiles, with introductions and conversation; they were quick to hold doors and help corral babies; they communicated, verbally and non-verbally, that my being there among them was a very good thing. They were like the pilot and the airport employee, going out of their way to serve and to see.
Now I realize that I am the dream demographic for growing churches. Young families are almost always given center-stage in church-planting strategies. My sister is the coordinator for the children’s ministries at our church and we talk often about how important quality ministry to children is in its own right, but also to our ability as a church to attract and retain families. So while I hold little appeal to frequent fliers on Delta, I am popular with “the church”.
What struck me in thinking about all this is that I wonder who it is that comes to our church and feels, even in a small way, the way I felt boarding that airplane. I know it’s not the parents of toddlers, but what about the elderly woman with physical limitations and the beginning of mental ones? What about the sullen youth who likes to wander around when the service goes long? Or the man who smells like booze who stands way too close to you when he talks?
When we started our church, a young woman named Jen challenged us to be “fringe-centric”; to have those who are odd and difficult to welcome and integrate; those who are physically and socially weak; those whose needs are worn like garments; to place THEM, those on the fringes, at the center of who we are and what we do. It has not been an easy challenge. It is a choice that must be made every day and every hour. And we don’t always make it. One of the shameful moments in our history was our decision to move our worship gathering to a meeting space that was not accessible to wheelchairs. We did this right after God brought two gifted, faithful, and wheelchair-bound women into our fellowship. We told ourselves that we would figure out a solution and we gave it great effort, but the reality is that for four months we excluded exactly those individuals God was sending us to help build our church. The memory of Jennie, sitting outside the open door of our meeting space in the California heat, having the scripture told to her over the phone by Agnes (whose chair could be lifted up the stairs and so sat inside), still brings tears to my eyes. And it should.
It is not always that glaring, of course. But is it not the case that churches can communicate to people, those who are undesirable for a host of reasons, physical, social, theological, that they are somehow a nuisance or a “challenge” or even an offence? That their being there is a hardship and not a blessing? Or maybe those people remain just simply and obviously unseen.
And instead of being like the pilot or the airport employee we become, in some small way, those women on the plane who make sure that it is clear who are the preferable companions and who are not.