James and his wife Jeanette (not their real names) live in our rural Mennonite neighborhood. For the past year, church members have been picking up their three kids and bringing them to Sunday worship and Wednesday night activities, but James and Jeanette have mostly stayed away from the church. The first time I met James I was a little unnerved – he had a long pony tail, thick black beard, rough face, and reeked of smoke. I tried to be friendly but we didn’t talk too much. To say the least, he didn’t look at all like anyone from our church.
In October I was finishing up a new fence I was building for my cattle and I needed help. I had heard that James was only part time with a local farmer and needed some work. I decided to call him up and he agreed to help that day. For the next four hours, James told me his entire life story, and it literally took four hours. Among the things I learned was that he was from Quebec, grew up Catholic, played semi-pro hockey, and used to be a French-Canadian country singer – his music played on the radio for a number of years. I was intrigued, especially when he revealed that he could play guitar and sing. So I asked him if he would be interested in singing and playing with me in a couple of Sundays, as I was scheduled to do special music. He agreed, though he was a bit nervous that people wouldn’t be ready for his bar-style approach to singing. I told him not to worry.
When we were done building fence, James left our farm and off-handedly remarked that he hoped I wouldn’t expect him in church all the time now that I knew him, and I told him not to worry. He also refused to let me pay him.
Sunday finally arrived and James was nervous. He had on old jeans, a simple polo shirt, and his smoky fragrance filled the sanctuary. I had put our music at the very end of the service as a closing song. When the time came to go up front, James was ready and did he ever put on a show. We sang a Dwight Yoakum song about coal miners that wasn’t too churchy, but the tune was great, and James was singing like he was back in the old bars he used to play in. And much to his (and my) surprise the congregation cheered! And after I had dismissed them, dozens of people swarmed the front and surrounded James, thanking him for playing and telling him how much they liked the song. James was overwhelmed, but in a good way, and I was so proud of my congregation. I had been afraid that they wouldn’t welcome James, but they stepped up gave him a welcome that I couldn’t have anticipated.
James and his family have missed church twice in the last six months, a better record that most of our congregation, including myself. In a short time James and Jeanette have become active church members, pitching in on projects, attending Sunday school, and of course, James has been singing. And to top it all off, this past month James sold his long hair at the Nebraska MCC sale, the winner getting to cut it, the hair going to Locks of Love. His hair brought a staggering $550 and the following day in church the winner cut his hair on stage – and again everyone cheered
This past week I announced that I would be offering a membership class this summer. James was the first to approach me and told me that although he already felt like a member, he and Jeanette wanted to take the class. He also mentioned how interested he was in Mennonite theology.
I grew up with an understanding that the process of making disciples began with believing the right things, then behaving the right way, and finally belonging to the church. For some reason this has been impressed into my mind and I have a hard time seeing it any other way. But James has blown my theory of discipleship apart. For him it took a strong sense of belonging to convince him that the church had something to say to him, and the crazy thing is that he wants to behave and believe like us!
It seems so backwards to me. Yet when I think back on my childhood, growing up in a church where I belonged long before I believed, I guess I also progressed the same way. Sometimes I wonder if we become so protective of our theology and culture that we are afraid to let anyone in who doesn’t already agree to our standards. But allowing someone to belong first is the only way to be able to let go of that control and let God do the work.
Lord knows I have been afraid of what James might do in church, or how the church might respond to him, but my anxiety has been for nothing. I thank God that I have been able to see this play out first hand, because if I hadn’t, I don’t know if I would have believed it.