When I was about 13 I applied for my first job. My parents drove me past a dark brown sign that said: Kenosha Country Club Members Only.
I was applying to be a caddie. Thankfully I got the job.
On my first day, the assistant pro took us out on the golf course. He taught us proper caddie etiquette. “Walk quickly, be quiet, pick up divots, and remember: do whatever’s best for the members.”
The country club had a unique culture. Everybody seemed beautiful and put together. They all followed the same rules, like when you buy a drink, you buy them for everyone. When you played golf, you took a caddie. When you paid the caddie, you gave them at least a $5 tip.
I felt very comfortable there and hoped one day I could be the one golfing instead of just holding the golf clubs.
My first church was like my first job
My first job as a caddie was very similar to my first experience in the church. I felt very comfortable in the church I grew up in.
I knew the culture and the insider language, like when the pastor said, “Open your hymnal and turn to page 105 to sing Psalm 100 then we will sing hymn 112, which is actually on page 220,” I knew what he meant. I opened my hymnal and sang with everyone else.
We also threw around words like “synod”, “lectionary”, and “catechism”, and everybody knew exactly what we were talking about.
There was also an unwritten rule in my church which was: do whatever was best for the members. It’s why the leaders said things like: “We can’t do that. If we did such and such, we’d lose lots of members.”
I remember listening to a conversation between my mother and a longtime member of the church. She said to my mother, “There were just too many non-members at church today. I couldn’t sit in my normal pew.”
My mother answered, “Well, isn’t that what’s suppose to happen?” The woman did not appreciate my mother’s question.
I knew and trusted all the people when I was inside the church, but when I walked outside the building, that was a different story.
Nobody in the community seemed to be anything like the people inside of the church. And because they were different, I wasn’t comfortable around them. I was suspicious of them. So I avoided them.
One time I remember watching my pastor yell at a few kids from the community who were playing on the church’s playground. “Hey you, get outta here! Go on! Git!” He did that right in front of me. He was sending me a clear message: This place is for members only.
Don’t get me wrong. It was my church and I loved it. I heard the gospel there. My pastor loved the Bible and preached with conviction. I wanted to be like him and preach the Word too. In fact, I remember the time when during a sermon I became convinced that Jesus loved me and I was actually going to heaven.
And yet, I knew that the church culture I grew up in was not completely healthy.
From pew to pulpit
After college and seminary, I became a pastor in Orlando, FL. I was called to serve the people I considered “outsiders”, those people that I was conditioned to avoid.
It was a Spanish-speaking congregation, and I quickly realized that I had a hard time translating those insider terms that I was so comfortable with. I started asking myself, Does anyone understand what a “synodo” really is? They didn’t know where Wisconsin was (our church’s Mecca) and they didn’t really care. I had no legalistic leverage to force them to come or stay at my church.
But when I told them about Jesus, they smiled. Their tense shoulders dropped. They even cried. They were broken people, as broken as I was, and they wanted to hear that God still loved them. They wanted to know that they were still children of God. They wanted to know that they were on the path to life, even eternal life.
The church is a hospital for sinners
After serving in Florida for about 3 1/2 years, I was called back to the Midwest to serve at Goodview Trinity Lutheran Church in Winona, MN. At first, I felt like I had gone back to my old country club. There was the same insider language. And most of the people seemed to grow up in this church.
Yet, there was something different about this church. There was a culture of openness. They loved God’s Word. And they loved people. They really wanted to reach the community. I just needed to figure out how that actually happened. But first, we all needed to find out what God wanted to say to us.
In one of my first sermons, I said, “The church is not a museum of saints, but a hospital for sinners.” I didn’t think much of it at first. In fact, I actually stole that line from one of my seminary professors. But for whatever reason, the idea stuck. “Hospital for sinners” started coming up at council meetings and Bible studies. I believe it has actually become our functional mission statement.
I can see why this idea has taken off. Jesus was not called the Great Golf Pro but the Great Physician. He said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:12,13).
That means Jesus only came for those who will finally admit that they need healing. He came for those who were honest about their sin and their brokenness. On the other hand, Jesus rejected the country club culture of the religious leaders who believed they were already “well”.
When I started to preach this message, I could see God’s people in the pews let out a sigh of relief, as if to say, “Finally… Now I can stop pretending that I have it all together.”
Where do we go from here?
If I’m not careful, I will automatically go back to my default setting: a country-club-styled church. But I don’t want to go back there, and I don’t think our congregation wants to either. We want to be a hospital for sinners, because:
- that is what Jesus has called us to be,
- that is what we desperately need,
- and that is what our community is craving.
So we need to constantly ask ourselves: Is our money, our energy, and our plans moving us closer to being a hospital for sinners or are we regressing to a country club mentality? Do we believe that all people, insiders and outsiders, are in need of the Great Physician? Are we ready to embrace the messiness of a hospital to serve our community?
These questions must be answered. And the answers must be put into practice. We can say, “We are a hospital for sinners,” but we actually need to devise and implement strategies that shape the culture of our congregation. And members of the community must be able to recognize that the Great Physician is among us.
The new year is just around the corner. It’s a time to dream about what we could be and make plans for our future. Personally, my dream and my prayer are that our congregation would continue to progress into the church that I, and many others, have always wanted to attend: A place where anyone from the community is welcomed and accepted so that they might receive healing for their soul.
I don’t just want to say we are a “hospital for sinners” I pray the Lord might move us to actually be a “hospital for sinners” in every aspect of our ministry.