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Choosing the Underdog

Growing up, I was short and stocky, which made me a less-than-prime candidate for athletics.

In seventh grade, I wanted to play football like my friends. I was too small to be a lineman and too slow to be in a skill position, but everyone who was willing to endure two-a-day practice in the 100-plus degree Texas heat made the team. So I was second string on the B team (that is technically fourth string).

The coach did not know what to do with me, so he put me at cornerback. Yep! The short, stocky, slow kid played corner, but on the B team. More importantly, my job was to give the running back (on the A team) practice in scrimmages bursting through the defense in a power run offensive system. So over and over again in practice, the football was handed off to the running back, oftentimes a guard would pull to block the linebacker, and it was just me, one-on-one with a wrecking ball. I ate a lot of turf.

I finished out my seventh-grade football season and retired my jersey in the laundry room; I was done playing football. I went on to other things (the no-contact sport of tennis and playing trumpet in the marching band). However, that year of pigskin taught me a lot of lessons about life. I learned the importance of getting back up when you have been knocked down, that life is more than football, that everyone is good at something but not everything, and much more.

Failing to fit in

One of the most impactful lessons that I learned was that sometimes you fail to fit in.

I think it was then that I started a journey I am still on. This journey is to cheer for the underdog, to seek to befriend people who are left out, to choose the ones overlooked by others to be on my team.

The Bible is full of examples of God choosing the least likely. Jacob became the father of the 12 tribes of Israel rather than his older brother, Esau. David was selected to be king, even though he was the youngest son of Jesse out tending sheep. Moses, a wanted murderer, was God’s pick to deliver the Hebrews from pharaoh’s slavery. Mary birthed the Messiah. Phoebe curried and preached what is perhaps the greatest theological treatise ever written — the book of Romans. There are examples too numerous to count. God chose the ones who oftentimes were left out to be on his team.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus did not just tolerate but prioritized interacting with those who were ostracized by the majority. He touched the sick even though they were “unclean.” He sat and visited empathetically with a Samaritan woman at a well. He chose uneducated commoners to be his inner circle of disciples. He personally spent time in the homes of tax collectors, much to the scrutiny of the religious elite. Jesus chose to befriend those who barely made the team and who were being bulldozed by leading and respected religious and political officials.

So, let me ask you: Should everyone have a church to go to? Do all people benefit from having a community to help them grow in their understanding of God? Would it be helpful for each person in the world to have a pastor?

A church for everyone?

I presume most of us would answer these questions with a resounding, “Yes!” However, the practices of many, if not most, churches in America do not seem to comply with this inclusivity. We say the gospel is for all people, but many of our activities and practices fail to demonstrate open acceptance, and for the most part we cannot even see it because we are on the A team.

In practicality, the way many churches get around this inconsistency is through “manipulative repentance.” We tell people they can come to our church and be a part of us, if they will turn from their former lifestyle and become like us (I am not suggesting repentance is an inappropriate or unnecessary response to the gospel; on the contrary, I would say it is a regular practice of our ever-growing understanding of God, ourselves and the grace of Jesus for all of us.).

When we make transformation a prerequisite to being on the “team,” we manipulate people into trying to conform to fit in with us rather than to embrace the love and acceptance of Jesus just as they are.

Let me ask you to consider honestly whether the following would be welcomed in the doors of your church without first “repenting” and conforming to a set standard of morality, statement of faith or unwritten code of ethics:

  • A struggling alcoholic

  • A same-sex couple

  • A person who got an abortion

  • A politically liberal-leaning person

  • An unkept homeless man

  • A prostitute

  • A biracial couple

  • A drug addict

  • A transgender teen

  • A newly released criminal

Imagine if a third of your congregation was made up of the list above. What if it were greater than half of the congregation? Would you be more concerned about personal safety? Would it be beneficial to start looking at relocating the church into a different part of the community? Would it be time for your family to find a different church where you “fit in” better?

This is why we do not see a lot of churches reaching the marginalized. We will go on a mission trip or have a block party and then return to our homes feeling good about what we have done without ever making lasting change. We will send money and pray for ministries that aid those who are left out, while blaming our culture and stereotyping people’s choices for the degradation of society.

However, many, if not most, churches and pastors are unwilling to listen to the stories and get to know the people who are viewed as social outcasts. Such people are seen as encumbrances on our time and our important ministry schedule to care for “God’s people” and to prepare God’s message for Sunday.

Repelling religion

For decades, churches have been filled with people who claim the name of Jesus and who condemn and even demonize the people who live across the street. This country club mentality keeps people like us in the church family and those who are not like us on the outside.

“This country club mentality keeps people like us in the church family and those who are not like us on the outside.”

Less and less of our society want to have anything to do with this kind of religion. Can we blame them? While heinous sin runs rampant in our churches and among our clergy, many have elected to ignore it and even cover it up. Meanwhile, the world is watching and is sickened by the unrepentance of evil among those who hypocritically claim moral superiority. In order to turn the tide, pastors, churches and denominations must address the sin inside the camp and silence the self-righteous condemnation of the world outside.

Moreover, we are going to have to be intentional to walk a mile (maybe many) in the shoes of those in our communities. If we fail to be missional in the coming years, our pews will be increasingly empty and more churches will close their doors.

Pastors and church leaders no longer can afford to bank on the world coming to us. We must apply the Great Commission to our daily affairs, getting off campus and into the lives of the marginalized. Churches that thrive in the postmodern culture of today will be those who rethink how church and ministry should be done out in the world.

While churches are in decline, marginalized groups are growing rapidly. At some point soon, if not already, those who do not affiliate with organized religion but are spiritual (commonly referred to as “nones”) will outnumber those who attend church. Quests to align power between organized religion and political office will not provide a positive and lasting influence in our country. We must be willing to connect with people where they are.

Become apostles

This is how the church has been successful throughout the centuries. When those who claim the name of Jesus begin to follow him out into the harvest field of society, they find real, everyday people. If we will let go of our evangelistic fervor and simply befriend people like Jesus did, we will find that we cultivate an environment where we all can learn, seek understanding and grow in our journey of faith.

Church leaders and pastors, I challenge you to get out into your community and become “apostles.” I am not referring to the term as it is used in the strict sense of the 12 closest followers of Jesus but in the broader sense (I doubt that Peter, James and John were called apostolos when they were first following Jesus, anyway). Rather, the Greek term refers to someone who is sent out as a messenger to those who have not heard and understood the good news of Jesus.

Missional living is more than going on a mission trip or preaching evangelistically within the church; missional living is being the presence of Jesus in society, and for us to do that we have to be in the world and let all people enter into the doors of the church. We need to embrace the world rather than keep people at arm’s length.

We have to be willing to get out of the church building and interface with people, listen to their life stories with compassion and seek to understand their worldview better. We must avoid a mentality of needing to win the world for Christ and instead let God do his surgical work in our own hearts through those we encounter.

Our message is not an oversimplified Roman Road or set of spiritual laws of how others need to be saved but how we can journey together and learn from each other. We leave the outcomes to God, and we become his apostles of love and grace. Our focus needs to be on befriending others and cultivating a community of acceptance and belonging, leaving the crusades to the Holy Spirit.

Here are ways you might consider shifting your focus from being a pastor/leader to just the congregation and becoming an apostle to the broader community:

  • Help distribute food to the needy.

  • Cook and serve a meal to the homeless.

  • Meet for coffee or breakfast with church leaders of different ethnicities.

  • Get training to become a foster parent.

  • Become a volunteer chaplain for the hospital or police department.

  • Be a big brother/sister for a troubled teen.

  • Start a tutoring program for at-risk kids at the local school.

  • Volunteer in your community library.

  • Organize a community trash pick-up.

  • Attend an event hosted by a marginalized group you are not a part of.

  • Invite people of other world faiths into your home.

  • Become an ally who is safe for people to come out to.

Being ostracized by a local church hurts deeply. However, I can attest from my own personal experience that it also can birth in you a renewed passion for connection with others who have been wounded by the pious in the pews.

God does indeed work something “good” from the painful experiences of our lives, but that does not make it easy. In the discomfort of pain, we are drawn to the needs of others around us. When we embrace the uncomfortable space of engaging with the underprivileged, empathy wells up within us into a spring of peace, joy and fulfillment that we rarely discover in the sanctuary. Perhaps that is why God calls us to be a body — his body — that goes out into the world to be the presence of Jesus.

If the testimony of the Gospels is any indication, Jesus likes to hang out with those who are being trampled by others. If we are going to be his people, then we should spend a lot more time with people who are overlooked and ostracized.

Jesus trained his disciples to go out as apostles and to live with a missional and relational focus. Maybe if we chose the underdog more often, we would find the Spirit of Jesus is already in their midst.

Patrick Wilson has served as a pastor for 25 years in Dallas and Austin, Texas, and most recently in in Rolla, Mo., where he currently is starting a new community of faith, CrossRoads. He is a graduate of Baylor University, earned two master’s degrees at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctor of ministry degree from Logsdon Seminary.