At Oak Ridge, we say, “come as you are,” but please, don’t stay that way.
Our church is an incredibly accepting church filled with messy people. Sunday mornings often look like a scene from the Star Wars Cantina, and we like it that way.
We are a people in progress.
Today, many churches want to communicate that they are open to receiving people right where they are but find themselves quickly confused when people take them up on it.
Here are a few comments I’ve heard from real people over the years:
“Pastor, we’re not divorced from our spouses yet, but we know God brought us together (as in we’re living together)!”
“We’re a gay couple. Can we host a small group?”
“I know I’m listed on the Sex Offender Registry, but I feel called to work with youth.”
“The church shouldn’t be in my business.”
“Pastor, we’ve been together for 12 years, and we have four kids. We don’t need a piece of paper to tell us we’re a couple!”
“I don’t believe in tithing. I read an article from (name that famous preacher), and I agree with them that it’s unnecessary.”
“I don’t sign covenants; my word is my bond.”
“We both prayed about it and knew God led us to get divorced. It’s better for everyone.”
I could go on and on, but you get the picture.
So if the church’s mission is to transform people into fully devoted followers of Jesus, how do we handle people in the church who are openly declaring lifestyle decisions counter to the teachings of the Bible?
This is definitely a thorny issue, but pastors must dive in for the sake of the gospel.
Here’s how our church handles this. It’s not perfect, and we don’t always get it right, but we’re trying to help people move from where they are to where God wants them.
1. Decide who gets in.
Years ago, I personally interviewed every person in the membership class and could have corrective conversations before membership.
As the church grew, that became impossible.
During a fiery conversation between our pastoral staff, we decided that we would allow people to join the church “as they are” since our membership covenant states that the person agrees to our faith statements and affirms that their desire is to align their life with the teachings of the Bible and that they are placing themselves under the authority of the leadership.
We found that Jesus received people right where they were and then worked on the clean-up process one day at a time.
So, as long as the person says, “Yes, I realize I’m not all that I should be, but I want to get there,” they can become a member.
2. Be clear.
For many years we pointed people to the Baptist Faith and Message.
Today we include an addendum in the membership class materials.
We don’t go over every doctrinal teaching in the class; we simply summarize it by saying, “We are a people of the Book. If the Bible teaches it, we believe it. If you have specific questions, please refer to the handout or ask a pastor.“
The important point is to have your beliefs easily accessible.
Ever played a new game with someone who seemed to keep making up the rules as they went along?
We want to be as clear as possible without becoming legalistic.
We believe that membership is the doorway to discipleship. I can’t start discipling them until they become a member. Then, the process begins.
3. Decide where corrective conversations should occur.
Since we don’t filter people at membership, when is the time to have those uncomfortable conversations?
Many of these conversations occur organically as the individual does life with other Jesus followers.
The Apostle Paul tells the Corinthian believers, “I’m not responsible for what the outsiders do, but don’t we have some responsibility for those within our community of believers? God decides on the outsiders, but we need to decide when our brothers and sisters are out of line and, if necessary, clean house.” (1 Corinthians 5:12–13, The Message)
At our Oak Ridge, corrective conversations occur in three contexts:
- Small Groups – believer to believer or small group leader to participant (one-on-one).
- Ministry Teams – our ministry connection process has intentional application questions that lead to lifestyle conversations; we also empower ministry leaders to have corrective conversations.
- Pastoral Followup – Our pastors are made aware of situations constantly. Often, members share information that begs for a follow-up conversation by using our weekly Connect Card or by their social media posts.
The point here is that correction best occurs in the environment of loving discipleship.
4. Determine the difference between correction, confrontation, and ex-communication.
Nobody gets it all at once.
Everyone is coming from a different starting point in the journey.
Some people come to us literally off the street (yes, we have former prostitutes as members). Handling lifestyle issues must always be on a case-by-case basis.
There is no one size fits all.
When we have a pastoral conversation with someone regarding a sinful lifestyle, we look for attitude over offense.
I’m more interested in their future than in their failure.
I want to know where we are headed and how we can get in alignment with scripture. If the person genuinely wants to live for Jesus, then their response will be one of humility and submission.
I can’t tell you how many people have said, “Thank you for loving me enough to talk with me about this issue.”
However, if the person is unresponsive, we work very hard to proceed with grace as much as possible, but we exercise discipline. This could be getting them on a plan, temporarily removing them from their small group or ministry, to even, in a worst-case scenario, bringing them before the church elders.
Interestingly, the only time we’ve ever actually excommunicated someone from membership was due to rebellion against the pastoral leadership, not some lifestyle issue.
If you want to be the kind of church that is truly in the life change business, then we’ve found that the church God blesses is the one that deals with messes!
I wouldn’t have it any other way.