As the doors to the subway elevator opened, I looked up to discover a large gang of youths handing out flyers. Several shouted out “God loves you!” as they shoved the cards into our hands as we pushed our way by. Me, being curious, took one from a young teenage girl. The small flyers said, in big, 1990s grunge inspired letters, “come as you are.” Surrounding that phrase were stock images from a variety of websites showing pictures of hispanics of various skin tones (mostly pale), men with tattoos, a young family, a guy with a piercing, and a young punk rocker with a spiked collar. It is not everyday that you see a punk rocker on a church flyer anymore and it made me a little nostalgic. I mean, he is obviously not a real punk because he looks too clean – that jacket didn’t look slept in at all. And it is obvious that this church actually doesn’t truly accept people “as they are.” What they really mean is “come and we’ll change you.” How do I know that? First, they quote James 4:8 (not sure the translation) that says “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” Secondly, the name of the church is “Narrow Door Church.” The advertising does two things – it tries to pretend that they are a welcoming, inclusive community while, at the same time, imply that there is something wrong with you that they can provide. It’s very subtle but it is there. The idea is not that God finds you important now but, rather, by attending their church, God will find you even more important later. You’re important in your potential rather than in your current identity. And even how the people are displayed on the card – the “hardcore” on the left with the clean-cut on the “right,” buy into the argument that, if you attend, God will open you up, change you, and make you “better.” It is brilliant marketing and totally silly at the same time because, if you visit their website, you do not see any ‘hardcore’ people in their chairs. They subtitle the ad with “whoever you are and however you feel, you are important to God” and I agree with them – but not in the way they mean it. It brings to mind a saying that I picked up from a website I read that said “the more hip a church tries to appear to be, the more fundamentalist they really are.” Any church that has their youth traveling in herds to accost people on the subway is, from first impressions, exactly that.
The name of the church comes for Luke 13:24 where Jesus, in answering the question “Lord, will only a few be saved?” says “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.” Now, when I look at this passage, the first thing I want to ask is who is Jesus talking to. Luke defines the asker as “someone” (Luke 13:23) implying that this “someone” could be anyone in a crowd. The question, then, seems directed towards the general audience and with a wide scope. However, Jesus’s answer doesn’t seem to match up with that idea entirely. As Jesus continues, the someone evolves into a person who ate, drank, and listened to Jesus (or God) as he taught in the streets. They will, on their face, appear to be disciples who came too late to the open door and that door has been shut on them. They will be left on the outside while the followers of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and then the Gentiles, will enter the kingdom of God (Luke 13:28-29). Jesus then ends with his wonderful saying that “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (Luke 13:30). Now, the question seems to be is when will the door be shut. Is that a reference to the apocalypse or is it a reference to Jesus’ ministry? Is Jesus accusing the “someone” to not be Jewish and a follower of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the prophets of God? Or are only those named people living in the kingdom of God? I see a lot of questions here and some ambiguity but I also think this passage throws a wrench in the Narrow Door Church’s marketing campaign. They are trying to claim that they are the Narrow Door to the Kingdom of God but Luke 13:30 is an indictment not only on “the someone” who asked the question but also on anyone who claims to have access to that Narrow Door. Those who claim to be the door keepers aren’t. In fact, it is God who opens the door and closes it. The text, as I read it, is an indictment against those who claim to have a privileged position in the Kingdom of God. They do not get to make the claim on whether they open the door. Rather, it is God who opens and closes it. The church’s flyer is making an apocalyptic claim of judgement on the people in the stock photos and those who receive the flyers. They are, in many ways, claiming to be the door keepers because if you were on the right side of the door, you’d be handing out flyers, not receiving them! Now, if that is true, does the statement on the flyer make any sense? Of course not. Worth, then, is added if you enter the door – a door that the church is claiming to have access too. The claim is fine but the judgement that I feel is reserved for God is not part of the Lucan passage. “Come as you are” is a fake marketing phrase that I think people no longer believe when they see it. It has lost it’s flavor because it is an overused phrase for a dishonest form of ministry. And that’s a problem for us Lutherans who truly try to be an inclusive church. We end up using the same language and phrases that others have used and we seem a tad shocked that no one enters our doors or believes anything we say. We’ll even claim that we’re not using “church” language not realizing that church language is bigger than just Trinity, Grace, Salvation, etc. We’ve already lost a lot of our language! Our drive to be relevant has missed its mark because others have already used it and taken it in directions that we don’t agree with. Our words, in many ways, have become meaningless – and that is dangerous for the Lutheran tradition that takes the Word (scripture and preaching) to be a sacrament! Our “words” matter. So what do we do when they no longer have meaning even when we try to be “relevant” and incarnational? I don’t know but we need to change what we say…somehow. But how? I’m not sure yet.