"An All-Welcoming Church"
By Jeremy A. McKeen
April 28, 2023
“And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me. Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions."
Mark 10:21-22
All are welcome at our church. Let me state it again—ALL are welcome! Whether you are rich or poor, or you consider yourself gay or transgender, or questioning, you are most welcome at our church. I wish I could shout it from the rooftops—Please come! But the question that is being hotly discussed today is, what does it mean to be an all-welcoming church? What does it look like to extend the welcome of Jesus? Part of our vision as a church is to be a house of refuge by extending the welcome of Jesus. But that begs the question—what does the welcome of Jesus really mean and practically look like? In order to extend the welcome of Jesus, we first need to understand the essence of welcome, and in particular the welcome of Jesus.

Understanding the Essence of Welcome: The etymology of our English word 'welcome' is a combination of two words: ‘will’—meaning to desire or wish, and ‘cuma’—meaning a guest or to enter. Therefore, to welcome someone literally means to desire their presence. It means that you want them with you. When it comes to the gay and transgender community, this is the heart of our church. We welcome with open arms anyone who identifies as LGBTQ+ into our midst. We love them and want them with us! So, to be an all-welcoming church means to express and embody God's desire for all to come to him regardless of age, sex, race, background, gender orientation, economic or social status, etc. The day a church closes it’s doors to certain types of people is the day the church should close its doors for good because it has ceased to express the heart and gospel of Christ. But this begs another question—does all-welcoming mean all-affirming?

Understanding the Welcome of Jesus: Did the welcoming posture of Jesus mean that he just affirmed, endorsed, or remained silent about the sinful desires and misguided affections of each person who came to him? We see that this certainly wasn’t the case with the rich young ruler who came to Jesus. Two things are striking from that story—1) Jesus loved the man, and 2) Jesus’ words caused the man to walk away sad. Think about that. The man went away from the loving and welcoming heart of Jesus feeling sad! If that happened today, I bet many people (including myself perhaps) would be tempted to put the blame on Jesus for making this person feel sad and feeling unwelcome. But if we don't have a practical and theological category for that happening, then it shows we haven't truly understood the welcome of Jesus. Was Jesus being unwelcoming in that moment? Did Jesus turn him away at the door?  Of course not. Would we say a doctor was being unwelcoming to a patient by pointing out his or her serious condition? Of course not.

Jesus saw the languishing spiritual condition of this young man. Jesus saw that he was entrapped in the grip of his possessions and greed. His possessions and passions were mastering his heart and life. So the way Jesus welcomed the man was by being honest about what coming to him and following him would mean. It would mean dying to his instinctive passions for the things of this earth and experiencing the freedom of living under a different Master and for a different purpose. But instead of saying to Jesus, “I admit I need help. I confess that I struggle in this area and I can’t change without your help," the man just walked away. Let's be clear. The man wasn’t unwelcomed by Jesus. He wasn’t turned away by Jesus. He walked away from Jesus because the real Jesus didn't affirm the sinful grip that money and possessions had on his life. Embracing the welcome of Jesus means confessing our sins and our need for Christ to help us and save us.

Reclaiming and Extending the Welcome of Jesus: Much of our mainstream culture today is dogmatically asserting that "all-welcoming" must mean "all-affirming." But we see in the welcome of Jesus that that's not the case. We see from this story that the welcome of Jesus is always honest and upfront with people. This compassionate and courageous honesty is what the church must reclaim if we are going to faithfully extend the welcome of Jesus. This means that extending the welcome of Jesus may not “sit well” with everyone in the moment because it means hearing the uncomfortable truth that regardless of our personal preferences, each of us needs to confess our sins, die to self, and live for Jesus. Coming to Jesus means a willingness to confess and surrender our former passions—even the ones that may seem most instinctive to who we are—to the superior wisdom, good design, and liberating authority of Another, namely the One who made us and knows us better than we know ourselves.

Being an all-welcoming church means welcoming everyone in the name of Christ and affirming each person as a fellow image-bearer of God. No one is turned away at the doorstep of Christ. However, it is the doorstep of Christ not the world. And the true and living Christ calls for real repentance and real faith to come to Him, not perfect repentance and faith, but genuine. Jesus taught us that all-welcoming does not mean all-affirming. To redefine the welcome of Jesus that way is to avoid the offense of the gospel, the only gospel that sets us free.

We don’t know what happened to that rich young ruler who walked away from Jesus that day, but because we know Jesus loved him, my hope is that the man’s sadness eventually drove him back to Jesus. Maybe Jesus knew that it would? He might have felt frustrated and unwelcomed by Jesus in the moment, but he truly wasn’t. He was simply being welcomed onto the difficult road of authentic Christian discipleship—the road that our church here along the North Shore is trying to walk by faith. And everyone—and we mean everyone— is welcome to join us down that road. It may be a hard road and a long road—Jesus told us, "The way is hard that leads to life" (Matthew 7:14)—but it's the only road worth traveling. Come to Jesus and let's travel this road together.
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