I was the pastor of my first church before I attended Bible College or seminary. I was a young and inexperienced person and now I marvel at the patience of the people in that church. I believe that God wanted me there because he had worked a miracle to get me there but there was so much that I didn’t know.
The first time that I preached there I was a last minute fill-in for the regular speaker. In addition to speaking at the Sunday morning service, I had to speak at the Senior’s Home in the afternoon. I will never forget that experience.
I walked into the crowded chapel at the home and boldly marched down the center aisle. I had never spoken to a group of seniors before and the boldness of my stride was partly to cover up the nervousness in my stomach.
I got half way down the aisle when to my surprise someone grabbed hold of my arm. I looked down into the face of a somewhat disheveled woman who I realized was talking to me. She had suffered a stroke which caused her speech to be badly slurred. As a result I couldn’t understand anything that she was saying.
As kindly as I could, I asked her if she would mind repeating what she had said. To my horror, she burst into tears still holding on to my arm as if her very life depended on never letting go. There I stood in a room full of strangers being held prisoner by this woman whom I couldn’t understand and having no idea what to do next. If it had been possible I would have sunk through the floor never to return. Without question it was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life.
Not only couldn’t I disappear, I had to go back there many times to visit people from the church who were residents there. Every time that I returned she would be waiting in the lobby right inside the only doors into the building. Every time that I entered she would grab hold of me and try to talk.
She always looked like she had just got out of bed. Her hair was a mess. Her clothes didn’t match. Worst of all she didn’t smell very nice.
To be honest I had no desire to talk to her but she never gave me any choice. For someone in a wheel chair she was incredibly fast at grabbing my arm and once she had a hold on it, she didn’t let go.
I learned something from her that has helped me in almost forty years of ministry. God sometimes brings some not very lovable people across our paths and then he asks us to love them. It is never easy but some times it can be rewarding.
The end of the story
Over the nine month period that I was at that church, I built a beautiful friendship with this lady. I got so that I could understand most of what she said to me and she sort of forgave me the parts that I couldn’t understand.
I actually got to the point at which I would look for her when I came into the building and if she wasn’t right there at the door I would go looking for her.
I learned that she had family but none of them ever came to visit her.
I learned that the other people in the home didn’t spend a lot of time with her.
I learned that no one else came to see her which meant that I was her only visitor.
I learned that not only had the stroke affected her speech but it had affected other functions that most of us just take for granted. Life was tough for her.
After eight months as pastor, I made the decision that it was time to move on. I enrolled at Bible college and moved to Toronto where the college was located.
The most difficult thing that I did in that move was to say goodbye to my friend at the seniors’ home. I can still remember going to visit her and breaking the news that I was leaving. I can still see the tears rolling down her cheek and if I remember right there were a few tears on my cheeks as well.
This person, who I would have gladly avoided eight months before, had become a friend whom I hated to leave.
She had taught me a lot over those eight months about how to love unlovable people and for that I will be grateful because over the subsequent years of my ministry I had a few more “unlovables” cross my path.
The main lesson that I learned was that, given time for a relationship to build, “unlovables” can some times become pretty lovable.
Unlovables and the small church
As I write this, my mind is wandering to other small churches in which “special” people have found a home.
I think of a young, single mother with a somewhat disruptive child who was asked to leave another church because of her child’s behaviour who found a home in the small church her sister attended.
I think of two young autistic men who found a home in another small church that was willing to set up a special program just for them so that not only could they have a church home but their parents could participate in the service knowing that their boys were well cared for. I overheard a conversation between one of those young men and a member of the church in which the member assured the young man that he was still her best friend and I saw the young man’s face light up in the knowledge that he was accepted there.
I think about a small church in Northern Ontario to which a number of special needs people attended. Christian Horizons had established a home for special needs people in that town and many of the residents found their church home there. One of those residents attended that church for about forty years bringing his special qualities to the church family.
The world is full of people who for one reason or another are more challenging to love than other people. It is my experience that those folks are often attracted to small churches. They come in all shapes and sizes but they are a little bit different than most other folk and with the differences comes the challenge to love and accept them.
My experience is that the greatest strength of a small church is relationships and the greatest need for most “unlovables” is to find a place where relationships are possible.
It is to find a group of people willing to love the unlovable because they truly have grasped the fact that that is who Jesus loved when he died on the cross.
You may have an “unlovable” already in your church. It may take a special portion of grace to reach out and embrace her but that is what God has called us to do.
If you are one of the fortunate ones and your church is made up of nothing but people who are easy to love, just wait. Your unlovable is probably on his way.
One of the special ministries that I believe small churches can do really well is to love the unlovable and give them a family that accepts them as they are.
David Hansen wrote a book that I believe every leader in a small church should read. It is entitled The Power of Loving Your Church: Leading Through Acceptance and Grace. I want to close with a quote from that book
“Sure, its better if teachers, doctors, and artists love the people they work with. But they can perform their work without love and they can even do it well. The bind we face is that we can’t do pastoral ministry with0ut love. It isn’t a series of tasks we do with love – rather, pastoral ministry is love, which we apply with a series of tasks. Preaching, teaching, calling, praying, even church administration are nothing but the consistent application of God’s love to the church. God’s love is the oil that the lampstand burns to produce the light of the world, and we are the bearers of that love.” p. 43
In a small church those words are never truer than when God brings someone who falls into the “unlovable” category but you never know. That unlovable person just might turn out to be a friend.