I like stories. I do. Not fiction, but stories that are true. And I hope you like them as well, since this week's"thought" is a story. A true story. One that is a little humorous, a little sad, and a little challenging as well. It comes to you from William Willimon and is taken from the preface of his book, "The Intrusive Word, Preaching to the Unbaptized." Enjoy.
"In my last congregation, we decided that we needed to grow. We voted to launch a program of evangelism... You know what that means. It's the, "We had better go out and get new members of we'll die" syndrome.. Our church had begun a two-decade decline in membership, so we figured that a little church-growth strategy was in order. We studied a program from our denomination telling us how to get new members. Among other things, the church-growth program advocated a system of door-to-door visitation. So we organized ourselves into groups of two and, on an appointed Sunday afternoon, we set out to visit, and invite people to our church.
The teams went out, armed with packets of pamphlets describing our congregation, our denomination, and fliers portraying me, the smiling, accessible pastor, inviting people to our church. Each team was given a map with their assigned street. Helen and Gladys were given a map. They were clearly told to go down Summit Drive and to TURN RIGHT. That's what they were told. I heard the team leader tell them, "You go down Summit Drive and turn right. Do you hear me, Helen? That's down Summit Drive and turn right." But Helen and Gladys, both approaching eighty, after lifetimes of teaching elementary school, were better at giving directions than receiving them. Thy turned left, venturing down into the housing projects to the west of Summit Drive... [They] proceeded to evangelize the wrong neighborhood, and thereby ran the risk of evangelizing the wrong people.
Late that afternoon, each team returned to the church to make their reports. Helen and Gladys had only one interested person to report -- a woman named Verleen. Nobody on their spurious route was interested in visiting our church, nobody but Verleen. She lived with her two children in a three-room-apartment in the projects, we were told. Although she had never been to a church in her life, Verleen wanted to visit ours. This is what you get, I said to myself, when you don't follow directions. This is what you get when you won't do what the pastor tells you to do. You get a woman from the projects named Verleen.
The next Sunday, Helen and Gladys proudly presented Verleen at the 11:00 service, along with her two feral-looking children. Verleen liked the service so much she said that she wanted to attend the Women's Thursday Morning Bible Study. On Thursday, Verleen appeared, proudly clutching her new Bible, a gift from Helen, the first Bible Verleen had ever seen, much less owned. I was leading the study on the prescribed reading for the coming Sunday, Luke 4, the story of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness. "Have any of you ever been faced with temptation and, with Jesus' help, resisted?" I asked the group after presenting my material. "Have any of you refused some temptation because of your Christian commitment?" One of the women told about how, just the week before, there was some confusion in the supermarket checkout line, and before she knew it, she was standing in the parking lot with a loaf of bread she hadn't paid for. "At first I thought, 'why should I pay for it? They have enough money here as it is.' But then I thought, 'No, you are a Christian.' So I went back in the store and paid them for that loaf of bread." I made some approving comment.
It was then that Verleen spoke up. "A couple years ago, I was into cocaine really big. You know what that's like! You know how that stuff makes you crazy. Well, anyway, my boyfriend, not the one I got now, the one who was the daddy of my first child, that one, well, we knocked over a gas station one night. Got two hundred dollars out of it. It was as simple as taking candy from a baby. Well, my boyfriend, he says to me, "Let's knock off that Seven-eleven store down on the corner.' And something in me, it says, 'No, I held up that gas station with you, but I ain't going to hold up no convenience store.' He beat the hell out of me, but I still said, 'No.' It felt great to say 'No,' cause that's the only time in my life I ever said 'No' to anything. Made me feel like I was somebody." Through the stunned silence I managed to mutter, "Well, er, uh, that's resisting temptation. That's sort of what this text is about. And now it's time for our closing prayer." After I stumbled out of the church parlor and was standing out in the parking lot helping Helen into her Plymouth, she said to me, "You know, I can't wait to get home and get on the phone and invite people to come next Thursday! Your Bible studies used to be dull. I think I can get a good crowd for this!"...
Verleen taught me that evangelism is not about getting new members for the church... Evangelism is not about helping more nice, buttoned-down, middle-class folk like me to find deeper meaning in our lives. Evangelism is a gracious, unmanageable, messy by-product of the intrusions of God into the lives of people. Verleen was not the only one who intruded into our nice, bourgeois club called Northside United Methodist Church. She had been brought there, I believe, by Another. Time and again in our life together as a church, just when we get everything all figured out, the pews bolted down, and everyone blissfully adjusted to the status quo, God has intruded, inserting some topsy-turvy-turned life like Verleen, just to remind the baptized that God is large, unimaginable, and full of surprises... I contend that, through evangelism - through repeated confrontations with the intrusive grace of God - the church can be born again. By letting God use us in God's never-ending pursuit of the unbaptized, the baptized can rediscover what it means for us to be the church. That unlikely gathering of those who are called to sign, signal, and witness to the graciousness of God in a world dying for lack of salvation."
Willimon dedicated his book to Verleen. His experience struck me because I have also experienced the blessing of God bringing along very real, transparent, 'don't-yet-know-church-words-or-culture' people like Verleen. A non-churched addict who had contracted aids through sharing needles, and was initially dating a prostitute. A man I had the privilege of baptizing him before he passed.
Another was a young lady, who after much prodding by a friend, finally came to our church in Honduras in an expensive car she had borrowed from a friend. She parked on the steep hill in front of the church, and during the service the emergency brake let loose. One of the greeters interrupted the service to ask if anyone owned a grey Mercedes, because it had just rolled down the hill into a brick wall. At that, the lady jumped up from her seat, and in front of everyone (in a very loud voice) blurted out: "Oh ___!" And, despite the initially stunned faces, the church elders were so happy she had joined with us, they paid for the repairs.
Another time, a gentleman who struggled with alcohol (and had previously gotten into a fight with his wife in our front yard!) called us to come down to his house because he'd "found Jesus." When we arrived at his house, he was watching a VHS (some of you remember what those are) of a Bill Gaither Concert. And at one point in the concert, he was so moved by joy (I can't remember the song), that he leaped up where he was standing, and jumped so high, that his head hit the glass globe of a hanging light and shattered it all over him and the floor! And that doesn't even include the young new-to-church ex-nightclub dancer, who offered a prayer request during the service with such descriptive language that some of the older folk almost turned pale from shock!
You see, sometimes Christians can forget that Jesus' band of disciples were not all moral, straight-laced, upstanding, well-educated, middle-class, "grew-up-in-church-every-week" type people. Some came from the other side of the tracks. Some shocked those who were the self-appointed guardians of the religious status-quo. It's supposed to be that way. In fact, if the Verleen's of the world are not attracted to our churches, or feeling welcomed there, we are doing something wrong. For as we see in the gospels, sinners (the really bad ones like Zealots, prostitutes and tax collectors) were attracted to Jesus, felt loved by Jesus, did not feel judged by Jesus, and wanted to be around Jesus. It's something that should be true of us as well if we are Christians (or as the word means, "little Christ's"). Dare we pray for more gracious intrusions from people like Verleen?
Living in the Grace of Jesus, Pastor Jeff