There have been a number of incidents over the ten years of New City Church that will be forever etched into my memory. They are poignant markers of who we are as a church. One such incident happened a couple months ago. A young woman was visiting the church. She has visited a number of times over the previous few years. During our prayer time—that is, in our worship service—she asked for prayer for her drug addiction. After some time successfully fighting against it she had relapsed but was once again clean and sober—and fighting desperately.
I am always surprised when visitors are willing to share prayer requests, and I am always delighted that they feel comfortable doing so. This speaks volumes about the culture of our church. That this woman could share about her drug addiction in our worship service demonstrates where our hope is as a church. We gather, after all, to worship the Savior who died for the sins of his people. If we cannot confess our sins while worshiping him then there is no hope for any of us. We have hope, and so we can confess our sins, and she confessed her sin and requested prayer.
What happened after she made this request and someone prayed for her is what will be forever etched in my memory, but first, a bit of the backstory. On the Thursday before this my City Group met. I’m in the same City Group as Quiana. She was sharing with our group that she had been praying that God would cause our church to grow and that we would be a beacon of hope in a dark world. (Those aren’t her exact words, but that’s what she was saying.) She then said—quite prophetically it turns out—that one day our windows would be open and someone trapped in drug addiction would hear the music and come inside to hear the message of hope, the gospel of Jesus.
That “one day” came just four days later. Our visitor showed up and confessed her ongoing struggle with drug addiction and asked the church to pray for her. I forget who prayed but I remember quite clearly that after the prayer Quiana got up and walked over to her to address her publicly. I don’t remember her exact words but she expressed joy that this woman could share publicly, and, speaking as much to the church as to this woman, she said that we’re all sinners, even if our sin shows up differently. She said it doesn’t matter who it is or what sins he or she struggles with, we’ll make room. She said each one of us in the church would scootch over so there’s a place to sit. To say this another way, New City Church makes disciples…by scootching over.
It is difficult to have a judgmental attitude toward the sins of others when we understand the depth of our own sin—and the enormity of the mercy and grace given to us by God in Christ through his Spirit. The truth is that others in the church have already scootched over so that we might find a seat in the presence of God as we worship him together, and we have scootched over for them.
Recently I received a letter from a woman who is same-sex attracted. She wondered whether there were a place for her at New City. In my response to her I pointed her to 1 Corinthians 6:9–11, which most definitely does NOT exclude her, any more than it excludes any of us. Paul wrote these words:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.1 Corinthians 6:8–11 ESV
At first glance it might appear that these words exclude, but ask yourself this: why is Paul warning the Corinthians about these sins? Because they were still struggling with them! (Just read Paul’s letter!) Rather than excluding them for getting drunk or committing adultery, he’s telling them to stop doing these things because they are inappropriate for followers of Jesus. That is who the Corinthians once were, but that is no longer their identity. They are the people of God, those who have been washed clean and have been sanctified. They have been declared righteous in the name of the Lord Jesus who works in them by his Spirit. They must, therefore, live according to their true identity, which is found in Jesus Christ.
After receiving my letter in response, this woman graciously agreed to meet for breakfast so Erik and I joined her. She asked me quite directly why churches so often focus on this one sin while ignoring so many other sins. I told her that the gospel of Jesus prevents me from being able to focus on the sins of others, because the gospel of Jesus is the story of true justice.
I told her that when we think of justice we intuitively understand that the penalty must match the crime. If a person is convicted of a crime and sentenced to life in prison, you would expect the crime to be quite serious—that’s a hefty penalty. If you learned the crime was shoplifting, you would immediately recognize that life in prison is not justice. Six months of probation? Sure, that makes sense. If a murderer were sentenced to just six months of probation that’s not justice, either.
I told this woman that the just penalty for my sins against a holy God was this: the death of the Son of God. Whatever my sins are (and they are myriad), it took the death of the Son of God to achieve justice, that I might be forgiven them. How could I ever look at another person and think that his or her sins are too great for my God to save him or her? Whatever those sins are, it also took the death of the Son of God to reconcile that person to God.
Each one of us is involved in the struggle with sin. Some of us are proud and get angry at drivers who dare drive too slowly or who act as though they own the road. Okay; that one is me. Some of us are filled with envy or bitterness. Others struggle with pornography and lust. Still others struggle with greed or malice or laziness or gluttony or drug and alcohol addiction. Some cheat on their taxes and some are too self-righteous to even think of such a thing. Some are same-sex attracted. Some are filled with resentment or jealousy or have a divisive spirit. Wherever you are on the spectrum of sin we’ll make room for you. Here at New City we are all about making disciples, and one way we make disciples is by scootching over to make room for one more sinner.