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Hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints

Whether you attribute the saying to St. Augustine or St. John Chrysostom in the 4th - 5th centuries, Abigail Van Buren in the 20th century, or Jakob Dylan of The Wallflowers, the assertion that the church should be a "hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints" rings true throughout the ages. Churches are called to minister to the least, the last, and the the margins of society. Too often, our churches become country clubs or museums for the saints rather than hospitals for sinners.

I once served a large suburban church where I witnessed this firsthand on multiple occasions. The first occurred one spring morning. I was leading an experimental new worship service in our gymnasium geared toward a modern experiential style of worship. I was also the Executive Pastor of the church and responsible for church operations. I arrived at church one morning to find some members in a tizzy. It seems there was a "homeless" man who had camped in our parking lot overnight and was still there when the early birds began arriving for church. As soon as I walked in, a group of men told me of the situation and demanded that I "go take care of that homeless guy." Now, I quickly learned that I had a different understanding of "take care of" than these particular church members. I went out, introduced myself to the man, and invited him inside to shower, get a hot breakfast, and worship with us. Some of my members were appalled that I hadn't run him off. That was their version of "taking care of him."

Not long after that, I was leading a small group through a book study. One day our discussion turned to some controversial social issues, and we began looking at our denomination's official stances and statements on those issues. Some in the group were relieved that our denomination took a stance that aligned with their political views. Some were upset that the church's stance was in opposition to their political views. And some, decided that perhaps they needed to change their political views to align with their theological views. One lady, obviously very troubled that the church would dare contradict her political preconceptions, asked me if, as a pastor, I would allow a convicted murderer who had been released from prison to come to our church. I immediately answered, "yes," and I even used the quote from above. I told her that I thought it was the church's place to be a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. I went on to say that if a sinner couldn't find solace in the church, then there was no hope in the church. I never saw that woman again after that class meeting.

I don't tell those stories to elevate myself or to say that I was right or I was wrong. There were some risks involved in inviting someone I didn't know into the church. He could have been dangerous. As it turns out, he was just down on his luck and didn't have a permanent place to stay. He could have stolen from us. Instead, he graced us with his presence and even shared his gift of music with us before the worship service. He could have been sick. Instead, his loving personality was contagious.

Is there danger involved in inviting a known murderer into your church? Possibly. But, to deny them access to your worship and your fellowship is also to possibly deny them access to a message of grace and forgiveness that they need to hear. And, we should never interfere with God's ability to transmit messages of peace and healing and hope and grace.

OK, great stories, but what's the point?

The point is, with the world the way it is now, your church may be called upon much more frequently to be a hospital. And that will have consequences.

* How will the church balance opening its doors to those in need of healing and wholeness while still maintaining sanitization and social distancing?

* If a homeless person with poor hygiene seeks services from your food pantry or clothing closet, how will you handle it?

* If someone who was caught stealing to put food on their family's table after a job loss wants to volunteer at your church, will you let them?

* If a church member with no prior history of violence succumbed to economic and personal pressures and punched a boss or co-worker or committed an act of violence against a family member, how will you treat them?

* If a member of your youth group comes to you and says they are now living out of their car because a parent lost a job, how will you react?

* If someone comes into your church exhibiting signs of infection, how will you respond?

The world has changed. COVID-19 will forever change the way we "do" church. Will your church be a hospital for sinners, or a museum for saints?

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