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Visitors to the service

November 2015 | by Paul Brown

The church service had already started and the first hymn was more than half way through. Two young women appeared at the church door and the deacon, standing there for any latecomers and visitors, showed them to two seats on the back row.

There was nothing unusual in this for a church situated in a seaside resort in the holiday season. Although the church was doing quite well, the members always looked forward to the summer when the building was nearly full and Christians visited from many other churches and parts of the country.

From the pulpit the pastor noticed the latecomers. They did not look as if they often attended services, though one seemed to know the hymn that was coming to its end. They both looked round at everyone, as if they were sizing up who was there and occasionally they exchanged glances and whispers.

Lunch invitation

It was time for the notices and the pastor invited everyone, especially visitors, to stay for an informal lunch after the service. The day was warm and bright, so not only could people eat in the church hall, but were welcome to sit on the lawn next to it. He hoped they would enjoy fellowship together.      The service came to its close and the pastor came to the door. The two women got up and turned to where he stood. He noted how they looked at each other and the wedding rings each of them wore.

He welcomed them and asked where they came from: a town some miles away. One of them had attended a church occasionally some years ago, and they had come in on a whim as they saw the open doors (possibly for a bit of a laugh, though they did not say so).

Would they like to stay for lunch? They would be very welcome, and he would be glad to get to know them better.

They seemed rather taken aback by this at first. One who appeared to take the initiative seemed suspicious of the invitation and said she didn’t think they would stay; they didn’t profess to be Christians and they would be certain to disagree if anyone tried to convert them.

The pastor was genuinely sorry. He said the invitation was given in good faith and many different people had responded in the past, but there were no hard feelings and he was glad to wish them well. He shook their hands and they left.

Gay visitors

The scene is imaginary, but not beyond possibility. What is certain is that from time to time gay people will come into gospel churches. Whether or not they can be recognised; whether they are ‘married’ or single, alone or with a partner; whether their motive for coming is to be provocative and confront; or expecting to be accepted; or with genuine spiritual concern: all these are irrelevant. The question is, how will they be received whether or not they are recognised for what they are?

It is surely important, as we consider a scenario like the one above, to remember that our Lord Jesus Christ was particularly criticised for receiving sinners and eating with them (Luke 15:1-2).

He was known as ‘the friend of sinners’ (Matthew 12:19) and ‘the common people heard him gladly’ (Mark 12:37). He had come to seek and to save the lost and, while only a minority actually believed and followed him, it was those who were forgiven much who loved him much (Luke 7:47).

The word ‘sinners’, linked as it is with ‘tax collectors’, clearly covers people who were guilty of serious sins, even though it probably also indicated those who were not strict in their adherence to the Pharisaic law.

Whether there would actually be identifiable homosexuals among them then is irrelevant, ‘sinners’ is a catch-all word. The sinners of Jesus’ day seem to have been much more ready to listen to Jesus than those of today are to listen to his followers. We need to examine ourselves to see why there is this difference.

We need to guard against the dangers of a modern type of Pharisaism. Our Lord Jesus spoke much more harshly against the Pharisees than he did regarding any other group of people; Matthew 23 is a fearful catalogue of condemnation.

Christ’s compassion

The Lord was himself able to combine absolute holiness with a tender love and care for the lost, for those whom he saw ‘as sheep having no shepherd’ (Matthew 9:36). He was moved with compassion over the sight of so many who were weary and burdened, like lost sheep far away in a barren wilderness.

Our danger is that we may be more likely to focus on the lack of respectability and godless lifestyle than on the spiritual need and tragic lostness that lie behind the outward behaviour and apparent godless carelessness.

We easily react with anger, or with a sense of helplessness, when confronted with modern cynicism and outrageous lifestyles. It is easy to condemn, or else feel completely incapable of saying anything that will make any impression on such who live around us.

If it expresses itself in no other way, our concern should be poured out in prayer to our heavenly Father, and in support of those who have a special gift of getting alongside their fellow human beings. There are some situations that demand special prayer (cf. Mark 9:29).

However, we also surely need to recapture faith in the convicting and converting power of the Holy Spirit and the way he speaks through Holy Scripture. This is not a matter of using texts as missiles, but of being prepared to try and explain what the Bible says and why it says what it does; and the resources that Scripture promises for living a life acceptable to God.

Those who preach God’s Word should not assume that everyone in a service is a Christian, nor use the pulpit simply as an opportunity to condemn our present society. It may be true that, for some churches, complete strangers to any service are few and far between, but preachers should surely always bear in mind that they never know who might appear on any particular occasion.

Instead of feeling threatened and of being prickly, or merely formally polite, if people come into our services who appear very different from our usual congregation, we all need to be friendly and welcoming.

In some circumstances, we may not feel competent to answer the questions they might have or discuss matters beyond our own competence. However, we can always refer them to those who are ready for such discussion, or at least suggest books or websites which might be of help.

Tough love

Concerned faithfulness and tough love will at least be recognised for what they are, even if people still reject what they hear. Of course, we are also liable to meet all sorts of people at work, among neighbours, and in many other contexts.

Christian characteristics — humility, steadfastness, graciousness, thoughtfulness, love — are bound to show in time and, in general, people will respond in line with what they discern in us. Hard, negative and bitter attitudes only turn people further from the gospel and confirm their belief that we are extremists — they may even honestly conclude that we are motivated more by hate than anything else!

Yes, it is right to hate sins and vile behaviour, but that very fact should lead us to mourn and sorrow over fellow human beings who fall into such things and long for their repentance, forgiveness and restoration.

There are no easy answers to some of the dilemmas Christians find themselves in today. Some situations may take us right out of our depth, but it is at this point that we have to trust the Holy Spirit to guide us in accordance with the promise of Scripture (cf. Luke 12:11-12).

In a situation of increasing departure from the moral standards of the Bible, our duty must be first to make these standards credible and attractive in our own lives and then to uphold and commend them by our gracious attitude and loving concern. ‘God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved’ (John 3:17).

Paul E. Brown served in the pastoral ministry for 42 years, in Southampton, Stoke-on-Trent and Dunstable. Now retired from full-time ministry, he and his wife Mary live near Lancaster in the north of England.