Being the Church

I began Bible study with a room full of people, a lot of traveling kids, some local street youth, and some regulars. I asked them all to name an ordinary object as part of an ice breaker, so we assembled a list of 20+ random objects on the white board. Then I asked them, one by one, to tell me if one of the objects was "Christian" or "unChristian." I gave no guidance of definitions, and I asked for quick decisions. Out of 20 objects, they were able to classify all of them. Easily. And they all had reasons for their choices. "A dog is Christian because 'All Dogs Go to Heaven." "A plate is Christian because they use it to pass the collection." "Money is unChristian because it's the root of all evil." [sic] "A pen is unChristian because so many powerful and evil things have been written with a pen." The list went on, but each reason showed that Christian ideas are steeped into their street culture and background. Some of their ideas were missing elements of the truth; some were completely out of context. But this street youth culture is not ignorant of Christianity.

And yet, when I asked for a definition of a Christian, I didn't get a satisfactory answer. I got all sorts of rhetoric ("being Christ-like") and bits of dogma or tradition ("someone who confesses Christ", "someone who is baptized"). But no one could offer me the simple definition I had hoped. I shared this definition: "someone who knows Jesus Christ personally as Lord and Savior." They liked it for it's simplicity.

We moved into Bible study. We were in the second half of Luke 6. I asked them to snap their fingers as we read aloud when they heard something that they recognized. The room was full of snaps. It's a very quotable chapter. But what is the context?
In the second half of Luke, Jesus is telling his followers how to respond to people in the world. I simplify it and say, "Jesus is telling followers how to interact with non-followers." While Jesus loves justice and mercy, he seems to make the point in this sermon of ask us to do the unexpected: pray for abusers, bless those who curse us, give more than expected. We even see some strategy for passively resisting wrong (al la Martin Luther King, Jr.) and calling community attention to grievous wrongs: turning the other cheek, giving even when too much is asked for (coat and shirt), not chasing after someone who takes from you. These things are all hard to do, and they are all unexpected responses. I believe they are all responses designed to get a non-follower of Jesus to stop and ask, "Why did he do that? That's not what people do. Why isn't he hitting me back? Why isn't he hurting me back? Why doesn't he hate me–I would?" Jesus wants us to get people's attention. When we do, we get the opportunity to help someone find out what we've got and they don't–To find out why we can love, give, serve, and stand with those in serious trouble when much of the world will not.

I asked the street youth, "What is their experience of the church?" They didn't say kind things. "They don't want me there. They stare at me. I get called named. They ask me to leave." This wasn't universal but it was very common. I then asked them, "Why do you expect something different?" They answer is telling of how much they believe in the hope of Christianity, even if they aren't Christian. "Because they are Christian. They are supposed to be better." Wow! This is coming from a bunch of crusty kids, traveling kids, alcoholics, drug addicts–scared and abused, withdrawn from mainstream society. They believe that following Christ should make a difference!

I had two reactions. First, I asked the kids to understand this working definition of a church: 'it's a group of sinners many of whom follow Jesus.' They should do better. They may even want to do better. But they are sinners and will fail at the ideal. So I asked the street youth to be patient and kind. To turn the other cheek to show when the church is being unreasonable. To give up coat and shirt and to stand naked, if need be, when the church asks for too much from the oppressed and poor. To pray for us even if we abuse them. To forgive us even when we hurt them. It's hard to do, but it's great advice from Jesus Himself.

My second reaction, is to cry out to the church: "Do the unexpected! Surprise those who have come to expect so little of us. Bless those who curse us. Don't demand an eye for an eye from those who wrong us. Don't strike back when someone strike out at us, but stand firm and turn the other cheek. Show them that you know they are wrong but that you will take it for their sake. Let the guilt and pain of their mistakes be evident but continue to love and bless anyway."

These street youth know part of the truth: Christians are set apart to try to do better. But they have learned and expect to be disappointed. Let's surprise them–and all those who do not yet know Jesus! Amen. 

— Terry

"To know, love and serve street dependent youth."
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