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On the way home from church last week I heard a radio spot.
One guy tells another guy about his neighbor who's always hard on his son. They'll be out playing ball in the yard and the dad will constantly tell his son, "You'll never be a ball player if you keep messing up like that."
Then the guy says, "Get this - on Sunday mornings the whole family gets in the car and goes to church."
His friend asks, "How do you know they're going to church?"
"Because," he says, "the other day he came over and invited me to go to church with them and said, 'Jesus can make a big change in your life just like he's made in mine.'"
The friend says, "That's a change you don't need," and as they start talking about other things the announcer says something like, "Even the world knows how a Christian is supposed to act."
The implication is that those who call themselves Christians should behave Christianly. The men in the radio spot think that being harsh with your children and then going to church on Sundays - and inviting your neighbor to church - is being inconsistent.
On the surface, that seems like a good message.
Disclaimer: I am not saying Christians shouldn't do their best to follow God's Word. I'm not advocating Christians do whatever they want just because our eternity is secure and God accepts us no matter what. Being harsh with your children is just plain wrong.
That said, I disagree with this radio spot's basic message. It encourages a prevalent misconception about who is qualified to go to church - and what acting like a Christian means.
There are only two kinds of people in the world: sinners who know they're sinners and those who either don't know or don't care. So, someone who claims to be a Christian and acts sinfully and then goes to church is not being inconsistent. Church is for sinners.
The Christian dad was being consistent with his faith by inviting his neighbor to church, although he probably shouldn't have made the "Jesus changing my life" comment, which sounded a bit arrogant.
Next, the radio spot's emphasis on behaving Christianly: On the same radio station I heard a pastor say that obsession with obedience is the greatest cause of sin in the church. He said, "The only people who get any better are the ones who know that if they don't get any better, God will still hug them."
Focusing on sin and obedience produces pride and arrogance - and fearful people pretending to be better than they really are. That's where the message that church is for good people comes from. When the Christian in the radio spot invited his neighbor to church he should've said, "Church is where I can bring my struggles and hear about a God who hugs me. It's where others struggle and God picks us all up and makes us better."
Author Calvin Miller tells a story about two apple thieves, a girl and her priest. Every day they each secretly steal an apple from the orchard on their way to church, the girl to confess and the priest to absolve.
One day the priest gets fed up with the girl's same confession and refuses to absolve her sin of apple stealing. She eventually stops going to confession and stops going to church.
Months later, as she's stealing apples she hears a rustling in the trees. It's the priest, stealing apples! He sees her, falls out of the tree and begs, "Quick, you must give me last rites!"
"I can't, Father. I'm in an impure state," she says, and the priest dies.
A new priest comes to the church and the girl returns to daily confession, confessing her sin of apple stealing.
"You too?" the new priest exclaims. "Tomorrow let's steal three apples and bake a pie. Maybe God will provide the cinnamon."
The priest and the girl become friends and over time they actually help each other not steal apples any more, at least not as many.
The story's questionable theology aside, it's still an illustration of what church should be - apple stealers helping each other by telling each other the good news that God still loves them, even with juice dribbling down their chins. That's acting like a Christian.