I grew up in New Hope Baptist Church, Route 2, Wauchula, Florida. Like many a Southerner, white and black, the walls of church were a comfort to me.
For starters, the church was air-conditioned; our house was not. To step into the sanctuary from the blazing Florida heat was like stepping into grace. As a squirmy 4-year-old, I heard the preacher thunder that hell was hot, and I believed him; I had already survived four Florida summers. I made the connection early: Heaven was air-conditioned, just like church.
Church was not just like family, it was family. Just about everyone within those walls could trace their lineage back to where it crossed (or at least brushed up against) everyone else's. Out of boredom one Sunday, I decided to figure out who in the choir I wasn't related to. There was one person: the preacher's wife.
I loved the hymns we sang. "Love Lifted Me" was my favorite, maybe because of the chorus: "When nothing else could help, love lifted me!" Back then, people sang out, even people who couldn't carry a tune. A 150 voices bouncing off those walls lifted your soul.
I remember sermons on missions. When Valda Long, a missionary to Nigeria - a native of our county - came to speak, everyone dug a little deeper in their pockets and pocketbooks to support her. However, we didn't have any sermons on witnessing that I remember. I guess we thought we didn't need them. We knew everyone who didn't go to church in the great Popash - Lemon Grove area. We figured they knew where the church was and what time we started (11 a.m., of course). Besides, we would pray for them during revival time and invite them to hear the guest preacher. We didn't see much need to go beyond the walls.
That world I grew up in is gone, even in Wauchula. I'm not sure it ever really existed. We could pretend it did when the United States had a "churched" culture. A "churched" culture is when everyone knows they are supposed to be in church, whether they go or not. A "churched" culture is when people believe the Bible is true ("The Bible says "), even if they don't live by it. A "churched" culture is when everyone agrees on "right" and "wrong." All we had to do was stay in the walls of church and let people come to us.
There are still churches that try to live behind their walls. They build their own schools and their own fitness centers so people are able to stay in a church bubble. I know of some churches that even have their own restaurants. This is church as a fortress, inviting people to come and do life together, away from the dirt of the world.
Jesus, the one who is the head of the church, didn't spend a lot of time behind the walls. He was out with people. The more non-religious the people, the more he seemed to like them. Messy people didn't scare him. The religious establishment, the people behind the walls, were threatened by him. Ultimately, they killed him. No wonder Jesus went beyond the walls.
After Jesus' death and resurrection, he gave his disciples one final instruction: Go. He did not tell them to build walls to huddle behind. He did not even tell them to be a family. He told them to go.
New Hope Church, which I love, is still a place of comfort for me. The people of that church did and still do many things right. What we did not do in those days was "go." We wanted to stay behind the walls.
Church isn't church if it stays behind the walls, Jesus told us to go beyond them. Out beyond the walls, there are people who need to hear some good news. Out beyond the walls, there are people who need hope. Out beyond the walls, there are people who need to know that when nothing else will help, love will lift them. Out beyond the walls, there are people who need Jesus.
It is time for the church to go beyond the walls. Will you go?
Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter.
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