The odd and awkward deserve welcome into the fold, to save them from the wolves of the world.
“We are not one of those churches that you would think talks about prophecy enough — this would not be the right church for you, but I do hope your search for a church home goes well.” This is what a well-respected Southern Baptist pastor says he told a man who wanted to talk about biblical prophecy.
He called the man an “issue Christian.” These people make their pet issue the subject of every conversation and the criterion for every decision. The pastor was just not going to deal with it. And who can blame him? Issue Christians really, really annoy you.
Don’t let them loose inside
The story appeared on the weblog of the important Southern Baptist agency LifeWay Research, and I stumbled upon it looking for something else. The agency’s director Ed Stetzer, a biggie in the Evangelical world, explained that these people hurt the congregation if allowed to join. “You are not being a good steward of your church to let them loose inside,” he said, because they don’t “fit in well in a mission-focused congregation.”
In other words, the wise pastor sends such a man out the door right away. He’ll be a drain on the church. If I understand Stetzer correctly, the man fails the membership test. It’s not a test ever stated out loud, of course. He’s not good enough to join. He’ll take more from the church than he brings to it.
I was a little surprised to find Stetzer saying this out loud. It seems so callous and utilitarian. The “issue Christian” might be that 100th sheep who needs to be found, while the other 99 can be left in the fold. Part of the congregation’s mission should be to bring the odd and awkward into the fold and to save them from the world’s wolves.
He’s not alone in saying this kind of thing. Colleagues when I worked at a Protestant seminary said this as well. It’s all about “mission, not maintenance,” they’d say.
I bring this up because it gives us a good way to see something crucial about the Catholic understanding of the Church, and of the local parish in particular. Stetzer thinks a church should select its members according to personality and their usefulness to the mission-focused congregation. We don’t.
The Catholic understanding
I can’t imagine many Catholic priests responding to the man with a polite version of “You’re going to be really hard to deal with. Go away.” They must feel like saying it from time to time, because they’re sinners who have to deal with sinners.
The “issue Christian” — “Johnny one-note,” as my grandmother used to call such people — can annoy you hugely. He’s the one who calls at odd hours to pick apart a sermon or complain that you didn’t mention his pet issue at the Thursday morning Mass, or traps you after Mass when you need to ask Mrs. Smith how her husband is doing after the surgery. He does the same to other people in the church.
But few would ever say this, and not just because they’re trying to be good priests. They wouldn’t say it because the Catholic Church doesn’t think of herself like that. The Catholic view is that everyone belongs in his parish.
The Code of Canon Law goes on at length about this, defining where a person’s “domicile” is and what rights that gives him in his local parish. It doesn’t say, “You are a member of your local parish unless the pastor thinks you’ll be a pain in the neck.” You’re a member of the parish, he’s the pastor of the parish, and that’s that.
The Second Vatican Council’s Lumen Gentium explained that, “Fully incorporated into the society of the Church are those who, possessing the Spirit of Christ, accept all the means of salvation given to the Church together with her entire organization, and who — by the bonds constituted by the profession of faith, the sacraments, ecclesiastical government, and communion — are joined in the visible structure of the Church of Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops.” You’re a Catholic, this is the Catholic Church, and that’s that.
The Church requires a lot and very little. You have to agree to a lot and live that way, but you don’t have to be any sort of person. You can be the world’s most annoying “issue Christian” and you’re just as fully part of the Church as any saint. You don’t have to meet anyone’s standards but God’s.
We might say that the Catholic Church is about mission, not maintenance. It’s a good slogan. But maintaining her people is part of her mission. And it’s part of the mission the world might notice. “See how those Christians love each other, even that jerk” can be a greater witness than the actions usually called “evangelization.”
As the great Irish writer James Joyce is supposed to have said: in the Church, “here comes everybody.” He apparently didn’t say it about the Church, but it’s a great line anyway. “Everybody” includes the odd, eccentric, and difficult, the clueless, the awkward, the annoying, the frustrating and embarrassing. It might include you.