“Here there be sinners”

One of the signs of a health church is the presence of sinners. Well, sure, people will say. Everyone is a sinner, so if there is anyone there, sinners will be there. No way around it. What’s the big deal?

When I say that one of the the signs of a healthy church is the presence of sinners I’m not just saying healthy churches have people (who, according to the Bible, are all sinners). We say all people are sinners, but we usually don’t take it too seriously. Sure, everyone is a sinner, but churches are full of nice people who, for the most part, have their lives together. They’ve never murdered anyone or robbed a bank. Most have never been to prison. Most haven’t even ever been arrested. We’re all sinners in theory, but our very membership and attendance in church indicate that the sin part of our lives is under control. At least we put on that front.

Healthy churches have people who look like sinners, people who obviously don’t have their lives together. These are folks who are seeking Jesus not because it’s something they’ve always done or because mom, dad or grandma does it. They need Jesus and know it. Or maybe they don’t know it yet, they just know they need something.

Sometimes we’re surprised when events and institutions that bear a Christian label turn out to be less than entirely Christian in their content. My wife chose her college partly on the strength of the “United Methodist” label. A United Methodist is a kind of Christian. If this college is a United Methodist college, it must be a Christian college. If it is a Christian college, it must be full of Christians and driven by an explicit Christian ethos in all it does. But it wasn’t. As far as the day to day operations it looked pretty much like any other academic semi-elite college. Jesus didn’t not feature prominently in many classes, and in those he did, it likely a Bultmann-style Jesus (i.e., no incarnation, no resurrection). Frats had their parties. There was plenty of drinking and drunkenness (in spite of the “brown bag” rule). Sure there was chapel, but it was rarely aimed in any obvious way at helping people come to faith in Christ or to grow in their faith (in less “growth” was the same thing as “becoming more skeptical and doubting”).There were sinners there.

Other so-called Christian institutions are sometimes different. I was at church camp last week. Unlike college, this event was explicit about helping people come to faith and grow in it. Preaching, prayer and worship were the main events. But guess what? Even at church camp we had sinners!

What are parents to do if they want to send their kids to a sinner-free environment. Here are some suggestions:

Find a dead church. Sure it will be full (inasmuch as anyone attends) of sinners, but at least they’ll never admit to it.

Don’t let your kids go to college. Homeschool them instead, keeping them in the purity and safety of your fortress or home.

Don’t send your kids to camp. They’ll get some godly input, yes, but they’ll do it in the presence of other kids who might be sinners. Dangerous!

None of those are real suggestions – at least for Christians. Here’s the real thing to do. Train your kids to know themselves to be sinners. Train them to know that as sinners they have an advocate who speaks to the Father in their defense, Jesus Christ the Righteous One. As your kids learn to rely on grace (and not there inherent perfection or solid work ethic and family values) they will learn to extend the same grace they have experienced to others who desperately need it.

For this to happen, you’ll have to talk to your kids. They’ll have to know that sin is real. They’ll have to know that it’s a reality in our lives – not just in the lives of those kinds of people. Let them see you exercise compassion for sinners. Let them hear you sharing words of mercy and forgiveness. If we do this for our kids, we might just equip them to survive even a Christian college or camp. Who knows? We might even equip them to survive a church with sinners.

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