Thursday, January 12, 2012

Judgment Free Zone

It's January, and everybody is going to the gym on the weekends. Since December, I have seen the number of people at my gym on Saturday mornings easily double. My gym is Planet Fitness, and they have a couple of slogans prominently posted that always catch my eye:

 This sign greets me every time I check in. Pic is mine.
Apparently they use the British spelling of judgment.

What a powerful message. Pic is also mine.

Every time I see these signs, I think, "I wish the Church could be a judgment-free zone!" Of course, a lot of people say that church really is that way, and certainly the church should be a place in which all people are welcomed and not judged. The UMC, in fact, has a slogan to that effect:

This JPEG courtesy of some of our friends over in West Ohio. :o)

The problem with our slogan isn't with the slogan. It's that we don't actually live up to it. We judge each other, we judge our pastors, we judge visitors... and we're not afraid to voice those judgments to those being judged. And it isn't just a "laity problem." One time in Ashland, a retired pastor's wife criticized a current UMC pastor for the service running 15 minutes long. The service included a baptism.

What would it take for the Church to become a "judgment free zone"? Is that too tall an order for the people of God? Are we going to resign ourselves and chalk it up to sin nature, or are we going to decide that this is one sin it's time to stop committing? The church has a credibility problem, and part of the issue is that folks see us as hypocritical and judgmental. The truth hurts, but it's important to hear the truth. When teens and young adults perceive us that way, we know we have a problem. While some may feel that hypocrisy is the fall-back excuse for leaving church, it's true that we say one thing and do another. We say we welcome everyone as they are, and then we judge who they are from the moment they step in the door.

I don't think that dropping judgmental habits is too tall an order, but it entails a lot of work and a complete change in the culture of a local church. Becoming a judgment free zone requires a lot of tolerance of difference between ourselves and others. This can be difficult when we want to view church as a second home and family. In churches where I am in New England, folks prize a family-like atmosphere in church, in which everybody knows everybody. When we're at home, with family, we can relax. We think we know what to expect. But when we welcome folks who are different from us, we don't know what to expect. We become nervous and uncomfortable. Somewhere deep inside, a part of us wishes that people who are different would just go away so we can be comfortable again (even if we're ashamed to admit it).

The thing is, being a Christian isn't about being comfortable. We're not called to be nice or called to keep up appearances. We're called to be God's people, sent in mission to the world (John 20:21). Early Christians distinguished themselves from the surrounding Roman culture by extending hospitality to widows, orphans (including baby girls abandoned by parents who wanted boys), slaves, and people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Dr. Christine Pohl calls us to revive the ancient art of hospitality as mission in her book Making Room. I think this is a great place to start, because almost every church has coffee hour. Even small tweaks to coffee hour routines can make any local church a more open, welcoming place. Maybe we can't be as radical as the Early Church right away, but it's a step in the right direction. And maybe one day, when we've really made the Church a judgment free zone, we can put up a sign like the one Planet Fitness has.

Have you ever felt unwelcome or judged in church? What would you change about that experience?

Have you ever caught yourself judging someone in church, at work, or on the street? How can you respond differently next time?

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