In my city, one of the coolest churches blundered over the weekend. A gentleman with Tourette’s visited the main service in a search of a church home. He audibly tics, which is normal for him, and abnormal for most all in the white suburban evangelical church. During the main service some congregants were disturbed by his behaviour, and (I didn’t know you could do this), texted the pastors/security to remove him. And they did. Not quietly either. In front of everyone the speaker came down, told him he was disturbing the video recording, and asked him to listen to a feed in a separate room.

You’re not welcome in the body. That was the message in a church that boasts being a place to belong for all.

The recording was saved, the congregation returned to their comfortable experience, and all it took was destroying the spirit of one man.

Can you imagine if this man wasn’t a Christian? Is this how churches today treat outsiders? It begs the question, why are contemporary evangelical churches CLOSED to anybody who doesn’t fit dominant culture?

The church in question centres most activity on the Sunday service and programs, delivers music and content very well, and attracts a contemporary “cool” generation to fill the pews. Sound familiar? It may sound like your church. They’re really no different than most others in function. They exist for their membership foremost and are not built well to welcome, let alone accept, outsiders.

Why do churches struggle to welcome outsiders?

You could write a book on that question. I won’t do it justice, but I do have some ideas.

Part of it has to do with ideology. Conservative churches are built to protect a way of life (to put simply). If you don’t conform then you aren’t welcome. That doesn’t mean these churches can’t love well, but there’s always an underlying precondition to that love, or to be more fair, there’s always underlying tension. For example, churches who claim to love the LGBTQ+2 community, but have no such person from the community in their church, and are not affirming, will never be fully welcoming. That’s not a question of who’s wrong or right, rather an issue of relationship.

Conversely, liberal churches have done better at welcoming some outsiders, but have their own struggles as well. Most liberal churches have a “threshold” of understanding that you can’t cross. Issues of systemic racism, for example, won’t dismantle with ease. Also, curiously liberal (thinking mainline here) churches haven’t been very good at keeping younger generations. Ironically, conservative churches have kept their own because they offer a bit more substance in identity. You have to “stand for” more things in conservative churches, whereas in liberal churches more is held with open hands.

What you stand for is a reflection of your values. For the church that kicked out the man with Tourette’s, their value was clear: the production of the service was paramount. When most of your money and effort goes into producing polished gatherings, they need to be great all the time. It’s the pursuit of excellence in production at the expense of relationship (which I wrote about over at V3). This focus is necessary for churches that rely on transfer growth–Christians switching from other churches seeking a better spiritual product.

Transfer growth is how the majority of contemporary evangelical churches grow. It’s the epitome of consumer Christianity that leads to a viscous cycle I call the “Goldilocks Conundrum“. (I talk about this extensively in my book, Thrive.) Churches who are consumer/service oriented must continue producing excellent services or risk losing their parishioners for the better show down the road. 

Herein lies the problem. When you don’t reflect the dominant culture (for this church it’s white, suburban, and millennial) you ultimately don’t fit and aren’t welcome. To compound matters, when you spoil the polish of the “sacred cow”, it’s even worse. People were uncomfortable with Tourette’s because they aren’t used to seeing something different. The leadership didn’t want to have the video of the service bothered by a disturbance. There’s a lot of layers here, but I think the overall situation is sad and a reflection of contemporary evangelicalism as a whole.

Relationships across differences in age, race, income, ability, etc., is hard. That’s why you should be very alert as a church about claiming “belonging” for those who are different. In reality you may not mean what you preach. At Cypher Church, I know we’re not accessible by a lot of people. We’ll welcome you with open arms if you show up, but we’re not that welcoming to everyone (part of that is on purpose). \

Welcoming and Belonging Reflects Maturity

Why a church would have trouble welcoming the people Jesus would is an issue of spiritual maturity (the lack of deep discipleship), retaining the comforts of consumer Christianity (sameness), and perhaps something more nefarious surrounding power.

So what will happen to the church in question? Probably nothing. I would suspect the leadership will respond well to the moment. I think it’s a great teaching time for them to grow. But they may not. The people I’ve heard from that call the church home are sooner to defend their response or simply don’t care. That’s quite the signal about the state of discipleship….

As for the man who was devalued, he’s showing extra grace by reaching out and giving the church a chance to respond well. He’s acting more Christlike than he should. Ultimately, he shouldn’t be the one who has to do the work.

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