“We need to reach the marginalised!”
The socially and economically deprived? Immigrants? Ethnic minorities? All worthy groups, but not my focus today.
There is a different group of marginalised people, and it’s one you might not have considered.
They come to church frequently. They put money in the offering bag. They smile at you at the door, and are polite and friendly. They offer you encouragement – “lovely sermon, vicar/pastor!” – and perhaps most challenging of all, some consider themselves to be important members of the community.
But, in reality, they’re not. Because they’re not Christians, they’re church-goers. The religious, the ones who hear the message, but have never actually responded. The ones who, though they have heard the gospel hundreds of times, have never given their lives to the Lord. I call them marginalised because we often ignore the religious. They just seem to blend in. We know they’re not responding, but we give up on them. A person becomes marginalised when we don’t pay attention to them.
Who are they? Surely only God knows their names, but I can guarantee you they are attending your church this Sunday. And they are often lovely people. Well-meaning people. Yet they are people who have never experienced the grace of God. They have heard of grace, but it has never brought them to their knees in repentance and faith. So for them, it’s all happening “out there.” Not “in here.” Not in the heart.
I sound a bit judgemental, don’t I? I don’t mean to be. I am merely pointing out an uncomfortable truth about many church congregations. The wheat and the tares are all mixed up, and I hope our hearts break for the tares. They need Jesus just as much as the wheat.
This should bother you. People who desperately need Jesus, they’re sitting right in front of you every Sunday! Yet the gospel leaves them cold. They remain tares, while surrounded by growing wheat. That should bother you. And it should also excite you, because the harvest is right there in your building. So while it is good to go out and reach the world, the world is also turning up each Sunday to listen to you.
What to do? How to respond to this challenge?
Lack of clarity
First, it is necessary to do some soul-searching. Is the gospel I preach a watered-down version? Is the grace of which I speak a cheapened version, which makes light of sin, judgement, commitment, sacrifice and love? Is my preaching of the gospel clear enough? No, more. Is my gospel so crystal clear that even the religious can identify what it is? Clearly. Do I offer this good news in a way that challenges people in the way that Jesus used to challenge his listeners? Or have I softened it for my culture so that my audience brushes past it each week without really understanding its true meaning?
Identify the needy
Know your people. Don’t just let Mrs. Davis brush past you each week without finding out more about her. Be deliberate in inviting Mrs. Davis to events which specifically give opportunities to share faith. Perhaps invite her to Alpha or Christianity Explored (or whichever course contains the gospel message.) In fact, you could do more. You could ask Mrs. Davis to lunch and show her that you love her. And her husband and children. At some point, however, you must be sure that she – and others like her – have heard and understood the gospel. But more than that, you need to know her response.
Perhaps she has trouble trusting God, because she was let down as a child. Perhaps it’s all about performance, because she is a perfectionist or someone who relies on external validation. Maybe she can’t believe that she’s worthy of love. How will you know what’s blocking her path to the cross, where her loving Saviour can lift her up and give her life, if you haven’t taken the time to find out?
Have compassion on all the religious, for you do not know what has led to such beliefs and behaviours. Until you find out. They may be desperate to respond, but they don’t know how.
That is not a problem. It’s an opportunity.
Don’t be shy about the evil of religion. Jesus wasn’t. He was quite free in calling out the religious, because religion blocks our path to God. The Pharisees were preventing the poor and needy from connecting with God. So we too should call out the deception and lies which lie behind religious observance as a substitute for true devotion to our Lord.
No religious person should be able to sit comfortably week after week in a church where Jesus is sovereign. Religion should be called out, and any religious person should be made to feel the inadequacy of religion regularly, and the wonderful alternative that is life in Christ. Grace freely given. Freely received. So don’t be coy about the truth. Don’t be shy about a gospel, which changes lives and offers hope even to those who seem removed and aloof, clinging to religious observance.
Not your burden
Remember, this is not your burden alone. It is the work of the Spirit to convict, to draw people and to reveal the truth. You are simply the messenger. Your responsibility is to bear witness and to preach the gospel boldly and clearly. God does the rest. So don’t feel burdened by the challenge of religious people coming through your doors.
Instead, see opportunity. Be deliberate in seeking out those who tuck themselves in at the back, and scoot out quickly. Don’t let that happen. The evasive, the flustered, the ones who attend infrequently perhaps. As well as the ones whose hearts are hard. They all need the love of a Saviour. We all do. And Jesus was especially compassionate towards those who struggled to connect. The woman at the well, Zacchaeus, Mary Magdalene, these broken ones were offered grace, and grace to overflowing. So should we towards those who seem to stand forever on the threshold of life, yet refuse to enter.
Why don’t you get ready for this Sunday by praying for some of the religious who attend your church? Select just a couple and seek them out at the end of the service. Give them time. Show them love. Show them the love of God by your actions and your words.
For the love of God extends to all. The religious, the zealots, the prideful, the disconnected, the desperate, the fearful, there is no one beyond his care. Ask him to guide you this Sunday to the ones who are on the edge.
He hasn’t forgotten them, nor shunned them.
He loves them. So be a conduit of that love. In the power of his Spirit.