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Culture Check: The Welcome

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Our church culture should match our church doctrine. The latter shapes and informs the former. Since our primary doctrine is the Gospel, then our culture should align. Do we have a gospel culture? 

Francis Shaeffer said two things that help us think about church culture more deeply as an evangelistic tool: “Love is the final apologetic to the watching world,” and “Nothing is more ugly than orthodoxy without compassion.” In other words, the beauty of human relationships in gospel community matters.    

Here’s a question: Is it reasonable for a person to base the legitimacy of the message he or she has heard, on the church culture he or she experiences? Jesus says YES. He challenged His followers and prayed to His Father about that reality:  

“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” -John 13:35

“That they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that You have sent Me.” -John 17:21

Jesus says the love we show and the unity we share will be visible. Sentimentality doesn’t count. Nobody is moved by cheap, Hallmark sincerity. This is beauty that turns heads. This is unity that changes minds. These are byproducts of the gospel.

Imagine you invite to church a scoffing friend with a rock in his shoe. He gets up early on Sunday to visit a group of people who claim to have been changed by a message. He’s naturally suspicious. What will he find in that church community? What kind of culture awaits him? 

Before your friend ever walked into a church service, he’s already “leaned in” and “listened up” to Christians in a back-and-forth. Perhaps he knows believers at his job. Christianity has a social media presence. No doubt he’s encountered those in his late-night scrolls. What did he see? Political rancor? Social outrage? Or head-turning beauty and unity? 

He arrives to smiling greeters. He shakes a few hands, grabs a coffee, and follows his ears to the music. On the way, he sees people smiling and laughing. A couple is praying in the corner. Another greeter sees him and introduces himself, then invites him into the auditorium and asks to sit with him. 

A screen displays words to the songs. He finds himself moved by the lyrics. “I’m no longer a slave to fear.” If only it could be true. But what arrested him, surprised him, really, was the transparency of the worship leader. He confesses to not loving his wife as he should and being impatient with his children. He asks forgiveness and sounds happy, even free. How can this man be so vulnerable in front of everyone? Our friend marvels at the confidence to share such private thoughts in public. He has no wife or children, but he has secrets and has never shared his personal failings with anyone. He begins to suspect that he may be a slave to fear.  

Then the pastor gets up. He’s not full of himself, or even aware of himself really, not the way our friend remembers some preachers on TV. He’s not wearing an expensive suit. He doesn’t seem angry. But he is passionate. The subject is Jesus. The Cross is the focus. Resurrection. Victory. Our sins, covered by his blood. Our lives, redeemable. Our hope, unassailable. Forgiveness is possible. He hears a clear Gospel message.  

The people are following along. There is a hushed reverence our friend has never encountered. He leaves with a strange hope—and curiosity. He’s not converted. But he is moved. His suspicions have been engaged. He has tasted both doctrine and culture. 

The way we treat one another is indicative of how we believe we’ve been treated by God. After multiple chapters of rich, Gospel doctrine, Paul writes to the Romans “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” 

That verse contains gospel doctrine and gospel culture. As one man said, it’s almost the entire Bible in one verse. “Christ has welcomed you.” That’s gospel doctrine. “Welcome one another.” That’s gospel culture. Together, that’s a powerful, un-ignorable reality.   

How have we been welcomed by Christ? The verb is intense. It’s a super reception. An abundant, no restraint, unencumbered welcome. We’ve been received into the deepest places of Christ’s heart. He does not “tolerate us.” He doesn't hold his nose. He embraces us the way we might embrace our muddy son who fell into a pond and nearly drowned, but comes running to us in tears.  

Christ's reception of us is a "profound, permanent, whole-hearted welcome.” It’s genuine. It’s scandalous, like the prodigal son being welcomed home by his father. A rebellious son who shamed his dad and spurned his love, welcomed home with a party! 

The Bible says something remarkable about God’s welcome to us in Christ. 

While we were still weak…Christ died for us. 

While we were still sinners…Christ died for us. 

While we were still enemies ….. Christ died for us.   

How many times and ways can God say it? He received us—His enemies—with open-arms. He welcomed us. And now…it’s our turn to reciprocate that to others.  

The next part of Paul’s charge is hard, but equally beautiful. “Welcome one another." The verb is the same. A super, abundant reception into the deepest parts of our heart. Not a put-off and wait on someone to clean up or grow up. Receive them now, the same way Jesus received us. Unconditionally. Without restraint. 

Our churches should feel like heaven on earth. Like God is stooping down and giving us a kiss on the cheek. Experiencing Christian community should feel like fresh oxygen to the formerly suffocating. Energizing and life-giving. Nobody has anything to fear. We're not intimidated. Nobody is wondering, "What's really going on here?" It's not tense. It's not improperly competitive. It’s not harsh, neurotic or paranoid. It’s not divisive.

The beauty of human relationships is contrasted every day with what we see in the world: Competitive. Harsh. Macho. Dog-eat-Dog. People are either vehicles to get us what we want or obstacles to be removed. There is no “welcome” out there. But in here, we can breathe. We can relax. We can finally belong. And how?

Because Jesus lost all his welcome on the Cross. His friends abandoned him. His father forsook him. The crowds disdained him. His people rejected him. He was utterly alone. That's a picture of what should’ve happened to us…because that's what sin does. It separates us from God and one another. But now—because of Jesus—we can draw near and experience true love. We're in the family and loved. We don't have to bite, fight, kick, scratch, and work our way in. Jesus took care of everything. He paid it all. He welcomed us, so we can welcome one another. That’s the beautiful gospel doctrine that creates a beautiful, head-turning gospel culture.

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