Fortress Jesus

The bartender says, “Tell ‘em to come and have a drink.” The Church says, “Please step away from our door!”

It was a bright, sunny Thursday morning in the central business district of a small Kansas town. A middle-aged man, attired for his task in a crisp white shirt, cuff links, dress trousers, polished shoes, and long tie, approached the door of the oldest and largest outpost of a mainline Protestant church in the town.

The staff parking lot was full, but there was no sign of life around the building. The stone and brick structure looked to be around 100 years old. The grounds were nicely kept. Near the large doors that likely opened to the narthex was a sign. The name of the congregation was at the top of the sign followed by the names of two clergy and the times for services and Christian education. The lower part of the sign featured a bright electronic message of “We are Happy You are Here!”

The visitor walked around the church building looking for an open door or for signs that would indicate the location of the church office. There were none. However, he did notice a mailbox near a door on the side of the building. To the right of the door was a speaker with a single button below.

The visitor pressed the button.
“___________ Church,” said a female voice from the speaker.

“Good morning,” the visitor responded, “My name is____. My choral group is presenting a concert of sacred music here in town. I have some flyers and a poster I would like to leave for your music staff.”

“Please wait,” said the disembodied voice.
After a few seconds the voice in the speaker spoke again. “We do not accept solicitations. Goodbye.”

A bit flabbergasted, the visitor pushed the button again and said, “Ma’am, I am not selling anything. I just wanted to drop a flyer for a free sacred concert for your music people. They can judge whether they wish to post it.”

The disembodied voice, now with a tone of harshness, spoke again: “I told you we do not accept solicitations. Please step away from our door!”

The visitor was, of course, myself. The bright spring day was last Thursday. It is not important to report the name of the church or the town.

I walked away trembling. I felt that I had been reprimanded for trespassing. I felt I had been scolded like a ten-year-old who went into the wrong old lady’s yard to retrieve a baseball. I felt like I had been lied to by the cheery electric sign.

As I have on a thousand occasions in my almost forty years serving the Church, I felt tears falling on my face in grief for the kingdom. How have our priorities become so tragically corrupted?

I honestly wasn’t that upset about the concert flyer. When I served congregations as music director I didn’t always post or announce everything that was handed to me.

I also understood the need for security in any public place. It is only prudent and responsible these days to assess the purpose of anyone seeking entry, especially if there are children present on the campus.

Still, the question must be asked what an exchange like the one I experienced last week says about the Church and about the kingdom of Jesus Christ. I came to the door of the church with a flyer for a concert. What if I had been the victim of a stabbing and was bleeding and begging for a call to 9-1-1? What if I had come bearing a broken heart, seeking spiritual guidance? What if, after 20 years away from the Church, I had just learned that I was diagnosed with terminal cancer and was coming in panic and desperation to “get it right” with God.

Is it really true that the Word of God says, “Come unto Him all ye that labor and are heavy-burdened?” Really? Or, does it really mean, “Come on Sunday morning at 10:30 with a thirst not for salvation, but for a pledge card to complete. Otherwise, ‘Please step away from our door!?’” “Of course, we will allow you admire the electronic welcome sign as you walk back to your car.”

After this first stop I approached 15 additional churches with my flyers. Of the total of 16 I visited, there were only five where the location of the office was clearly marked. Four of those were either closed or no one responded to the door buzzer or my knocking. A number of times, in the churches where I did manage to summon a human being, the person responding came to the door and chatted, mostly friendly, outside the building. I only entered two of the 16 church buildings.

On one of those I had found an open door under a sign that said, “Sanctuary and Church Offices.” I followed signs through a narthex to a door, up a flight of stairs and to an office at the top of the stairs. A friendly volunteer pointed to another office down the hall and mentioned that to be the “Church Office.” In that office a woman was typing away at the computer. Without pausing in her typing, and without looking in my direction, but with a friendly voice, she asked how she could help me. I stated my business. She replied, “Sounds great. Just leave it there on the counter and I will see that the choir director gets it.” I said, “Thank you.” She didn’t reply. I left. I am certain she never looked on my face.

 

The other building I entered had an unmarked open door near what looked like a multi-purpose room. I entered and walked toward a lighted hallway. As I entered the hallway, a collared man I assume to be a pastor greeted me and asked my name. I told him my name and my purpose. He thanked me for stopping by, took the flyer, looked at it and asked about our music, where we were from, why we chose to visit his town, and what church I attended at home. After a few minutes of conversation I thanked him for his hospitality. He mentioned that he would love to come to the concert, but Saturday nights are hard for ministers. I shook his hand and left feeling, at long last, that I had visited a house of God.

I met up with my college-age son, who had been getting a lesson retail politics by posting flyers on bulletin boards and in shop windows while I visited churches. I asked him how it went. He said, “Almost everyone took a flyer. Some put them up, but others took one and said they would put it up later. I don’t know if they were just being nice or will really post the flyers.” My son replied “yes” when I asked if all of the business owners seemed friendly.

The restaurant and bar people were really nice. One guy at the Louie Bar told me to tell the choir to come there after the concert to have a drink. He joked, ‘If they sing a song for me, I might buy everyone a round.’”

A couple of decades ago, in my hearing, Baptist-turned-Anglican theologian John Claypool spoke at Candler Seminary about the hemorrhaging of members suffered then -and being suffered now- by mainline churches. He said, “The spiritual needs of Man and his thirst for God have not changed. The compelling narratives of scripture have not changed. The power of the heart to be transported in prayer and praise has not changed. The open arms of Jesus and His promise of eternal life has not changed. What has changed is the Church, and not for the better. Oh, dear God, we pray for a revival of our trust in You, and for a renewal of our purpose.”

The bartender says, “Tell ‘em to come and have a drink.” The Church says, “Please step away from our door!”

Shame on us! Lord, in Your mercy, forgive us!

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