Today my church celebrated its 23rd birthday party.
This is a church that first started meeting in the pastor’s living room. When that space became too small, they started meeting in the park. They didn’t have a church building at the time. People brought their own lawn chairs or spread out a blanket to sit on.
This was unusual enough, but the pastor was a woman.
She had never anticipated becoming a pastor when she went to divinity school, but then she said she felt a calling. She prayed with her husband and others before she decided to go for it. She gave up a stable position in an established church to go out on her own — no salary, no benefits, not even a building.
However, one thing led to another, and the congregation kept growing. Now we meet in an actual church building. We also have another space where we can have prayer meetings, Bible studies, the youth group, and also prepare and serve meals.
One thing that attracted me to this church— it’s nonjudgmental.
Part of this is due to the pastor. She is a very loving person. She smiles at everyone and makes them feel welcome. She really cares about people and gets to know them. She dispenses hugs to anyone who wants them, even if the person is homeless and hasn’t bathed in who knows how long.
So do other members of the congregation.
One ministry the church participates in is an outreach to the homeless. Church members who go there talk to the homeless and pray with those that want it. Many embrace those who want that type of human interaction. They try to help in other ways too, donating time and money. In some cases, this can make a difference in helping someone get off the street. In other cases, the person doesn’t want to do that, but they appreciate being treated with respect.
Our congregation also welcomes people of all races and also of a variety of political persuasions and gender identities. People are also not judged by their appearance — they can come in suits (and some do) or in flip-flops and shorts (and some do that too!) A couple of people bring their emotional support animals.
Yet the atmosphere is not chaotic. Instead, it is a very peaceful, loving, joyful place.
It’s not that they don’t take the Bible seriously — they do. In fact, the reason the church is so nonjudgmental is that they do take the Bible seriously. The Bible tells people to judge not lest they be judged (Matthew 7:1) and to love your neighbor as you love yourself (Mark 12:31). It then defines neighbor in an inclusive way.
That doesn’t mean we don’t take sin seriously, but Christ died so our sins can be forgiven. (John 3:17) And the focus should never be on the mote in another’s eyes, but the beam in one’s own, when we consider sin. (Matthew 7:3)
It’s not that any of us are perfect — we aren’t. People sometimes get on each others’ nerves or get impatient with each other, or have misunderstandings. Church people are still people, with all of the failings that that entails. But when the emphasis of the church is love, then people are motivated to strive for the ideal, and people are more likely to show kindness and grace.
I have found this in other churches, and I’ve also found churches that are legalistic, judgmental, and non-welcoming. The leadership of the church often plays a key difference.
If the pastor is humble and focused on serving the congregation with love and respect, then the church will be warm and nurturing. When the pastor is focused on serving the needs of his own ego — and many are focused on that — then people often seem to follow that lead as well.
For those of us who crave real intimacy with God, only the former type of church can help facilitate that.
I am fighting stage IV cancer. If you can help with medical bills, I would really appreciate it. Or if you enjoy my writing and would like to buy me a cup of coffee, that’s great too. Maybe someday I can return the favor.
This post was previously published on Shefali O’Hara’s blog.
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