Can I worship with you, please?
Audrey was an amazing 30-something woman with a great smile and an exuberant personality. She’d been attending our church for several years and she loved it. Being at church was one of the highlights of her week.
You see, Audrey was a special-needs person. I forget her precise condition, but she was wheelchair bound, could only communicate through a series of grunts, squeals, and hand gestures, and it was often difficult to know how much she really understood about what was happening around her. But, when she was happy, she wanted everyone to know…loudly.
And, Audrey was always happy at church.
Some were pretty vocal about wanting Audrey out of the service. They argued that she was so loud and distracting distracting that it interfered with worship. Who can concentrate with all that noise? And, they were concerned that she would keep visitors from coming back. Who wants to attend a church where you have to put up with that every Sunday?
Only a few voiced their concerns out loud, but my guess is that quite a few nourished the same thoughts quietly.
No one questioned whether she should be part of the church, they just thought that she needed to sit somewhere else. She could come, but she shouldn’t sit with us. Several even proposed that we put her in the nursery since that was the part of the church most suited for noisy attenders.
She could worship, but not with us.
Orderliness vs. Openness
As a parent, I’ve wrestled with a similar question before. Kids are disruptive and distracting. There really isn’t any easy way around it. They’re constantly doing something loud, cute, annoying, or interesting. Whatever it is, it’s distracting. And, when they’re my kids, I worry about how it’s affecting the people around us.
After all, didn’t Paul place a high value on doing things “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40)? If worship is to focus on God, shouldn’t we minimize or even eliminate those things that distract us from that task?
But, the church has always placed a high value as well on openness. Jesus rebuked the disciples when they tried to keep the children from him (Mt. 19:13-15) and Paul sharply criticized the Corinthians for their exclusionary communion practices (1 Cor 11). The Gospel is for everyone, and those who respond to the Gospel are united in Christ with one another through the Spirit.
Orderliness and openness. Both seem pretty important. What do you do when they collide?
The Open Gospel
Like many situations, some examples of orderliness vs. openness seem easier to address. If my 6-month-old has a terrible cold and covers everyone inside a three foot radius with a generous coat of both phlegm and snot, I’m thinking that it’s best to stay home. Likewise, if I find it impossibly distracting that the person singing next to me sounds like a cat caught in the dishwasher (don’t ask me why I know what that sounds like), I should probably get over myself.
But, other situations are much less clear. And, when there’s doubt, I think we should always err on the side of openness. Any other approach sends a message that ultimately undermines the Gospel. When we tell people that they can’t worship with us, we subtly suggest that they’re not good enough, that there’s a bar they have to clear to be worthy of worshiping with God’s people. And, it’s a short step from there to the conclusion that they’re not worthy of God, that there’s something more they need to do or be to merit a place at the table. And that’s not the Gospel.
I’m sure that’s not the message that we intend to send. We’re just trying to be “sensitive” to the others in the congregation. But, regardless of our intentions, that’s the message that often gets received. And it’s a devastating message.
My pastor consistently refused any suggestion that we should remove Audrey from the worship service. I never asked him why. It may have just been because he thought it would be rude. Or, it may have been because there was no other place for her other than the nursery – and putting a 30-year old woman in the nursery just seemed to be a step too far. I don’t know.
But, it taught me something about the Gospel. We all have a place at the table. We’re not pretty, well-behaved, orderly, or nice. We’d like to think that we are. And, we’ll do anything to look like we are. But we’re not. We’re a mess. And God invites us in anyway. I wonder if he finds us distracting?
I don’t know what Audrey’s doing now. She wasn’t even supposed to have lived to 30. So, maybe she’s passed on. But if she hasn’t, I hope she’s singing somewhere.