By Lee Berger
My wife, Sue, and I recently attended a different kind of church service, and we learned an unexpected lesson from an unexpected source.
Sue and I are happily ensconced in our local GCI congregation, but we like to visit other churches whenever we can. For many months, we had been seeing plastic temporary signs placed on street corners all over our side of town. The signs said, “Church For the Rest of Us” and pointed to a website for further information. We were intrigued.
We looked over their website and found out the church is designed for people struggling with addictions: drugs, anger, bad sex, depression, eating disorders, alcohol, you name it. This is a church founded by, pastored by and mainly attended by addicts and homeless people. I guess these societal outcasts could be called “the rest of us.”
They met for services on Saturday evening, and we decided to check it out. We parked our car and began walking toward the meeting place—a somewhat rundown former movie theater. We didn’t see any smiling, energetic parking lot attendants nor any neat-and-tidy greeters outside the doors. Instead, there was an assortment of much-tattooed, rough-looking men and women with unkempt hair and ill-fitting clothes sitting on the curb, leaning against posts and smoking cigarettes. Eyes with dark bags stared at us “normal people,” wondering why we were there. We began to wonder the same thing.
Stepping around the bodies and through the thick haze of cigarette smoke, we entered the building and were greeted by two smiling women. We found out later one of them was the pastor’s wife. They asked our names, told us theirs, and handed us a printed bulletin for the upcoming church service. As we made our way down the hall to the sanctuary, several other people greeted us cheerfully. It wasn’t difficult to find a place to sit. It was ten minutes before services were to begin and we were the only congregants in the room. Most of the rest were still outside smoking.
On the simple stage, Levi, the worship leader/guitarist was practicing his songs. There was no multi-piece band, no choir, no backup singers, no piano, no organ—just Levi, his guitar and lyrics projected onto a screen. Simple, minimal, real. Kind of peaceful.
Then people began to come into the sanctuary. First, workers checking on the status of various aspects of preparation for church services. They all made it a point to come over to where Sue and I were sitting, in the middle of a row in the middle of the hall, introduce themselves and welcome us. As the rest of the members came in, several more went out of their way to say hello, shake our hands and share a smile. I’ve visited many “normal” churches of various denominations over the decades, and I’ve never been greeted by as many friendly people as at this church for “misfits.”
The service began. The music was meaningful, the sermon was biblical and helpful, and I knew God was present. I spent time looking around and imagining what powerful and discouraging addictions pulled at these men and women made in God’s image. It wasn’t hard to see they have gone through some rough times in their lives. Some are in various stages of “recovery,” and some are probably still high or drunk or mired in immoral behavior—even as they gather for church services. But there was a refreshing openness and authenticity among the group, and I can imagine Jesus would feel comfortable hanging out with them.
|These needy people were being taught from the Bible about the heart of God, and God’s heart leads us to give and share.|
The people I worshiped with that night have little in the way of material goods; some live on the streets or under bridges and carry all their possessions in backpacks or sacks. I guess that’s why I was so shocked by an announcement made near the close of services. “Remember to bring your canned or boxed goods next week for the food drive. In a month, we’ll take our donated food and present it to those in the community who are in need.”
What kind of crazy talk was this? Homeless people and addicts donating food to others “in need?!” Who could have more “needs” than these people sitting in this church? Surely they should keep what little they had, not give it away to others. But they were being taught from the Bible about the heart of God, and God’s heart leads us to give and share—not always from our abundance, but even from our scarcity.
I learned an unexpected lesson that evening—a humbling and inspiring lesson—surrounded by a group of social outcasts excited to be on mission with God. What an amazing picture of the heart of God in outreach toward others!