The corporate gathering of believers serves many purposes: it is a family reunion. A time of mutual encouragement. A moment to join voices and minds and hands and hearts in order to proclaim the majesty of God. A regular reminder of the truth of the gospel and how it can be applied to every celebration and sorrow in our lives.
But those are the purposes for those on the inside. Believers…Christ followers…Christians gather to encourage each other, and worship, and remember the gospel. What, then, is the purpose of the corporate gathering for those who don’t yet know Jesus?
The weekend gathering points to something greater than the weekend gathering. The welcoming inclusion of church hospitality is not an end to itself, but it points to a sweeter welcome and a greater inclusion. The observable worship of gathered believers helps unbelievers see clearly the One who is being worshiped.
This “pointing” is important, especially for those who did not grow up in the church. Especially for those who have a broken view of the church. When we speak of church as family and God as Father, we use terminology that isn’t always received with the warm feelings that we intend. When we refer to each other as “brother” and “sister,” we risk being misunderstood by those whose relationship with their brother and sister of birth is full of toxicity.
If broken homes, broken marriages, and broken families have done anything, they have introduced a gap into our society. “Church as family” and “God as Father” carry a different weight. An incomplete meaning. A descriptor that’s accompanied by a heavy shadow.
Each weekend, the gathered church has the opportunity to bridge that gap. As we encounter adult children of divorce, we can point across the chasm of lost years and broken hearts and show them that God is a perfect Father who never leaves, never disappoints, never betrays.
As we encounter those who have been hurt by their brothers and sisters and children and spouses, we can stretch our arms out across ravines of despair and bitterness and introduce them to a new kind of community. Imperfect? Yes. Prone to sin? Yes. But a community that is slowly, certainly, intentionally walking together to create a new family. And a community that is proudly, without hesitation and with no reservation, pointing them to the one who sticks closer than a brother.
Sin creates gaps. The gospel bridges them. Broken relationships lead to hopelessness. The gospel restores real hope. 1 Corinthians 15 reminds us that not only have we been reconciled to God, but we have been given the ministry of reconciliation. We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.
We stand in the gap.
My friend Jonathan Edwards has helped me understand the gap. (Just so you’re clear, Jonathan is a 21st century writer and curriculum researcher, not an 18th century preacher and puritan.) Jonathan knows the gap. He’s felt it, lived it. He knows the sting of an absent father, knows what it’s like to grow up without an in-home hero to teach him to throw a ball or light a bottle rocket or tie a tie or prep for a job interview. He knows – first hand – what it’s like to hear the words “God as Father” and know that they ring hollow. That they hold a shadow. That they represent a gap.
He remembers churches and believers that reached him, loved him, stood up for him, and stood in the gap for him. He remembers a spiritual family that transcended an earthly one. He remembers grieving and grace, loss and love, shadow and substance.
He knows that part of his story was written because of churches that planned for him. And prayed for him. And prepared for him and welcomed him and pointed him to something bigger. Someone bigger. Someone to call Father. Daddy. Someone to call Brother. Savior.
Someone who bridged the gap.
You have Jonathans in your church. They’re walking up your sidewalk, walking in your doors, and sitting in your pews every weekend. Do you see them? Are you reaching them? Are you loving them, ministering reconciliation to them, and pointing them to Jesus? Do they see God as Father and the church as family? Do they see you standing in the gap for them?
By the way: Jonathan’s story? It’s beautifully, tenderly, painfully documented in Left: the Struggle to Make Sense of Life When a Parent Leaves. It’s a book for children of divorce. It’s a guide for churches who are called to love them. It’s a manual for those who are pointing broken people to something greater. If you’re in guest services, I’d encourage you to pick up a copy. It’ll help you minister to the Jonathans in your congregation, and it’ll help you stand in the gap.