Last summer I took a trip to Las Vegas--yes, I went to Sin City--with 12 other guys. The trip was planned under the premise that it would be a birthday present for my younger brother who just happened to turn 21. In addition to that it was also a late Christmas present for my father. I assure you, nothing sketchy happened other than the one run-in we had with security at the Aria. I guess there was that guy who offered, unsolicited might I add, to sell us some coke. I like to tell myself he worked for the casino and was offering to take our drink order, but something tells me it wasn't Coca-Cola he was offering. Other than those two incidents, it was your average vacation. We relaxed by the pool, walked the strip, had dinner at some of the upscale restaurants, rode the zip-line down Fremont Street, hit up a few black jack tables and even walked away with a decent amount of cash from one of the craps tables (I can attest to the fact it is possible to come home with just as much money as you left with).
One night--the same night we happened to encounter security--we lost a few members of our posse. In hindsight, it was pointless to even attempt sticking together with a group that size. Even more pointless was searching for the few individuals who wandered off time and again. Yet that is exactly what we did! In search of the rest of our party, a friend and I were approached by two men wearing, what I would assume were high dollar Armani suits. I know what you're thinking, but neither of these individuals was the one that offered to sell us some of his product. These guys were handing out VIP passes to one of the premier night clubs in Vegas. Now, I'm not the night club kind of guy, but being sociable I conversed with them for a minute or two, took the passes and put them in my front pocket and continued on our search. A few minutes later my friend mentioned that he overheard someone in the group talk about hitting up the club. In a last ditch effort to locate the others, we made our way to the club.
Through the casino, up the escalator and around the corner we spotted the front door of the club. It was then I realized we might have a problem. In order to get to the front door, we had to be ushered past the red, velvet rope by the two men standing guard. Had this been Sioux Falls, we would have simply handed the bouncers our IDs and made our way in. But Las Vegas runs a different ship altogether. Given the fact we were in one of the swankiest hotels on the strip and the two men standing guard looked like they defected from the secret service, I was certain we would be turned away long before making it to the front of the line. Even so, we found the end of the line where we would spend the next few minutes annoyed our group couldn't stay together. Finally, upon reaching the two bouncers we extended our VIP passes (which we quickly realized weren't VIP passes at all--just a marketing scheme to get suckers like us to consider their club) to the men standing guard. They proceeded to look us over exactly one time. No more. No less. Upon making their assessment, we were informed the club didn't cater to our type. I guess a green, v-neck shirt, cammo shorts and sandals didn't appear affluent enough to afford anything the club had to offer. In their defense, their assessment was spot on.
On the trek back to our hotel, at the opposite end of the strip, I had a good deal of time to think about what had transpired. That's when it dawned on me, our churches operate a lot like that night club.
Allow me to explain.
For starters, the church thrives on exclusivity. As an institution, it spends an awful lot of time and energy differentiating between the "in" and the "out." This is best illustrated by the terminology they employ. Those "outside" their membership are referred to as the lost, the unsaved, the secular, and the pagan--all of which seem to have very negative connotations. Of course, nobody in the church would ever refer to themselves in such a manner. That's why they are the saved, the elect, or God's chosen people. Some churches make it very clear that you do not want to be on the outside. For anyone that happens to find themselves in that category, the disdain some churches view you with is quite obvious.
Then there's the fact that churches go to extreme lengths to separate the two groups. In an effort to keep "pure and holy," the church has created an entire Christian subculture. There's the ever popular Christian book store. Christian coffee shops. Christian schools. Christian media. And they have even created their own Christian clothing--a.k.a. witness wear (instead of Do the Dew, its Do the Jew; are you kidding me?) This has only served to isolate the church from the "different"--the ones they were called to reach in the first place. I've seen this in action when a church board voted to keep a mentally handicapped individual out of their building because he was a distraction to their Sunday morning service. But, I realize this doesn't describe every church. There are some that have sought to buck this trend. They put a great deal of focus on "seeking and saving the lost." However, when they intermingle with the outsiders, it often seems as though they hold themselves in a much higher regard. Not only that, but they also have a tendency to be closed-minded and the propensity to feel superior--as if they are the only ones with something valuable to offer.
And lastly, the church, like a night club, has a niche audience. If we are being completely honest, churches usually attract the like-minded (that wasn't an insult). This is evidenced by the fact that we categorize churches with labels like: Seeker Sensitive, Emergent, Urban, Young Adult, Traditional, etc. Furthermore, I'd venture a guess that you won't find may competing world-views amond a single church's congregants. Which means it is highly unlikely to walk through the front doors to be greeted by a culturally, ethnically, or theologically diverse group of people. And we can't overlook the fact that, from week to week, the programming changes very little, if any. To mix things up and stray from tradition could prove to be detrimental to the "in" crowd.
How quickly have we forgotten the church exists for the "out" and not the "in."
I guess this is nothing new. I understand the perfect church doesn't exist. And I realize no one church can reach everyone. But is this the way it has to be? Jesus confronted the religious leaders of his day any time they used this same approach. He informed them it's the sick who need a doctor, not the healthy (Matthew 9:12). And just in case that message wasn't clear enough, later Jesus went on to say that "[He] came to seek and save the lost." (Luke 19:10). Perhaps this has something to do with Paul "becom[ing] all things to all people so that by all possible means [he] might save some." (1 Corinthians 9:22).
So, why do we continue pedaling the Gospel as a VIP pass to get through the red, velvet rope segregating the church from the rest of the world? Jesus never intended the Gospel to serve as a line of demarcation. It was his plan that the Gospel would serve as an offer of hope--especially for those on the outside.