In June of 2008, my wife and I were on our way to the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Indianapolis. We flew in and out of Chicago, since the air fares were better, it accomodated our schedule and we had a nice evening planned that included an overnight stay and a dinner of deep dish pizza. The flight was delayed, and by the time we arrived in Chicago, it was well past dark. Neon signs are part of the Chicago landscape, and businesses use them to attract attention from the throngs of people on the crowded sidewalks. One sign that really drew my attention was in the shape of a cross, with the words “Jesus Saves” blazing across the middle. In the middle of a busy block, this sign proclaimed the gospel in a nutshell to everyone that came by all night long.
There are times when I have wondered whether our church has some kind of neon sign out front, either attracting people, or sending some other message. I used the analogy in a recent Bible study to demonstrate the fact that, as a church, we do send messages to the community and they are sometimes caught, and acted upon, in the same way that a flashing neon sign might attract people to a business. With that in mind, here are some of the neon signs we need to have out front.
1. Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment
Isn’t that a message we want to communicate? James 2:12-13 gives a pretty good explanation of the importance of the church communicating this concept. Mercy comes through Jesus Christ, and that is the basic gospel message we preach. Unfortunately, sometimes it gets lost in everything else we try to do, and our actions, as well as our words, do not always convey this message.
2. Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. Everything else is negotiable.
Many times, this verse (Hebrews 13:8, without the second sentence!) is taken completely out of context to justify keeping some kind of program or method used by the church, something with which people are comfortable and familiar, when it probably needs to be evaluated for effectiveness and chucked out the door. Jesus, indeed, is the same, and remains so. But it is not a good thing to equate what we believe about Jesus with the way we do ministry. Much of what we do in the church is culturally based, not scripturally based. And while that does not reduce its effectiveness, sometimes time and culture do. Our message must be presented in a way that people can understand, and will be able to follow without having to interpret the cultural trappings in which it is enclosed.
3. No perfect people allowed inside.
In Romans 7, the Apostle Paul confesses his own struggle with sin, and the difficulties that are faced when we try to reconcile our faith in Jesus, and what we know we need to do to live a life that is pleasing to him, and the struggle we have with the flesh and the pull that it has over our lives. “I do not understand what I do,” says Paul, “For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate I do.” The word reveals sin to us, and the Spirit brings conviction, but the flesh keeps trying to do its own thing. And it’s not “the devil made me do it,” either. It is a conscious choice that causes us great grief. The message that the church needs to send is that everyone in community with each other should be transparent, so that we know we are all in the same spot. Not only does misery love company, but in community with other Christians, overcoming the flesh seems to be less of a chore.
4. Everyone welcome.
Ah, if only that were true. We put it on all of our publicity, almost as if it is some kind of cliche. But the fact of the matter is that not everyone is welcomed, or feels welcome, in the church. In fact, if the truth were known, a lot of people are made to feel uncomfortable by a church environment that often is more of a reflection of our cultural biases than it is an open, welcoming community.
Colossians 3:11 points out some of the barriers that Christ came to eliminate, and for which bringing down was an ideal for the church. We’ve excused bad behavior in this area by insisting that people like to be “with their own kind” when what we really mean is that we’re not comfortable with people who are not like us. The Christian faith is a maturing process, something that we become over time, though redemption in Christ happens instantly. But the fact of the matter is that we need to be as accepting of people who are among those that Paul calls “the weaker brothers” as much as we need to be accepting of people who have different cultural and racial backgrounds. We are united in Christ, and no one should ever feel that there is a barrier between them and the doorway to the church.
It’s time to turn on the neon signs.