By Corey Fields
A young woman described her experience of moving to a new community and finding a new church home. She wrote of how the church made an inspiring first impression on her:
“Everybody was super-accommodating, bending over backward to lend a hand. They were the most welcoming, organized bunch of people I had ever met. They started helping us unload the trailer and the truck, and they had everything inside and unpacked in less than two hours. They had already stocked the refrigerator and the pantry with all kinds of dry goods and supplies…. I soon found out the kids and teens did all the landscaping and garden work. In two hours, we could mow, blow and bag the entire communal property and all the yards. No one complained. Kids were expected to help; it was part of the discipline the church instilled. The sense of community was really impressive. When someone needed something, everybody was always there at a minute’s notice.”
Wow! What a church! Any church that welcomes a newcomer like that and has that kind of internal structure must be doing something right. Well, not so fast. I haven’t told you what church it is yet.
The writer of the above quote is Lauren Drain, and the church she speaks of is the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan.
That’s right, the Phelps gang. The “God hates…” church. That’s a sneak peak of how they work on the inside from Lauren’s recent book, Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church. Lauren’s family, unlike most others in the church, were transplants, not related to the Phelps by blood or marriage. The above quote is her describing how they welcomed her family. What she reveals was a shock to my system: the infamous church of hate has the internal Christian community thing down better than most of us.
To be fair, there are a handful of disturbing stories from within the church that have come from former members like Lauren. Fred Phelps’ son, Nate, has alleged physical abuse, and Lauren later describes a strong culture of guilt and shame within the group. But when you first come to be a part of their church, you are apparently welcomed with love and care, and the culture of service is so strong that everyone knows their part and enjoys doing it.
Of course, we all know how horrible and hateful the group is, but if they are doing some aspects of Christian community better than the rest of us, what is it that sets us apart? What is it that can make us completely antithetical to the Phelps and help us know we’re on the right track?
Loving the outsider. Namely, the outsider that has never been to our church and perhaps never will. That’s something the Phelps have never done, and what represents our high calling as the body of Christ.
Jesus said, ““If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that” (Luke 6:32-33). If you’ll pardon me a little interpretation and perhaps putting words in Jesus’ mouth, I can almost hear him also say, “If you welcome church visitors with special parking spaces and goodie bags, what credit is that to you? Even sinners can welcome those who come on their turf. And if you enjoy meals together and help each other out from time to time, what credit is that to you? Even the Phelps do that.”
“Love your neighbor” is too familiar a phrase that has lost the punch it should pack. When the expert in the law asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor,” Jesus proceeded to tell a story that featured a Samaritan – one who would have been reviled and distrusted by Jesus’ listeners – doing something unheard of: risking his reputation and even his safety for a person that would reap him no benefit (Luke 10:25-37).
This is what it means to love, and this is what it means to be “missional” (another word that may have already lost its punch). Missional doesn’t mean adding a few more service projects to the church calendar or doing other drive-by ministries that don’t require the uncomfortable work of crossing cultural and socio-economic boundaries. To love our neighbor is to be the visitor on their turf, ready to hear and learn what their struggles are and what God is already doing in their lives. It pushes us beyond the “every man for himself” mentality that made Jesus ask, “What credit is that to you?”
In my own community, an unprecedented partnership has formed between a church, the public schools, our Community Resources Council, and the local Rescue Mission (a homeless shelter). These four entities have come together to transform a closed school into a community center that will serve and enrich one of our city’s more impoverished neighborhoods. It has even been reported to me that a staff member from the church is relocating his family to this neighborhood. Such a move, I would think, requires genuine care and concern for the community. You wouldn’t see that if the church was just trying to get good PR.
In my own work with a new justice ministry in our community, I’ve quickly discovered that one of the keys to making it work is people must be willing to concern themselves with problems that may not directly affect them. That’s love of neighbor. That’s missional. That’s how not to be like the Phelps, and how to do something that might just be worthy of “credit” in the eyes of Jesus.