A Matthew 18 church

A Matthew 18 church is one where welcome is practiced, conflict is named, grace is extended, and God is present, writes Eliza Jaremko.

Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

Whenever I’m asked to describe the mid-sized-ish, small-town-ish, genuinely welcoming, quirky, traditional, yet informal church I serve, I often tell a story. (Jesus also had a habit of telling stories instead of giving direct answers). This incident happened over a decade ago when I was new to this congregation. It was a typical Sunday morning — the kids’ choir practicing in one room, the adult choir practicing in another. In the room between, I taught adult Sunday school. As joyful voices emanated through the thin walls, the voices in our room were growing tense. Our scriptural discussion had led to a heated argument about a politically divisive current event. Tempers rose. An argument between two people led to one leaving the room in anger. When the class ended, I went to check on the person who had left. However, someone else had found them first — the person with whom they’d been arguing. They were apologizing and had made lunch plans for later in the week.

In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), we have a lot of “buzz words” that help us define our church’s identity: welcoming, Bible-believing, affirming, traditional, innovative, friendly, Spirit-led, missional, relevant, a Mathew 25 congregation, a purple church, etc. Some terms come with official designations, while others are proclamations contained in mission statements. Often, the terms are used to place a congregation in one camp or another: left or right?

The congregation I serve – alongside many others – walks the delicate balance of in-between. We do not have yard signs, website banners or official votes that proclaim us as any of the above. Yet we quietly live out the values expressed in these terms. We stand on the biblical belief that the Spirit leads us to welcome all people, to care for one another and serve the least of these. I often say that if you come inside our doors, you must be prepared to be loved and loving, understood and understanding, forgiven and forgiving. This is a place where people come before politics, where grace is a verb, where the welcome is genuine, and where people find joy in each other.

Our family of faith is not homogeneous. On any Sunday morning, you’ll find liberal progressives worshiping with far-right conservatives. We are young and old, established members and visitors, spiritually mature and seekers. And all have a place in this sanctuary, in church leadership and in the heart of God.

We do not all agree about politics or other divisive issues, but we have all vowed to be in Christian community together. Instead of steering clear of divisive political topics, we engage in them, discuss them, and we allow Christ to define us, not politics. Being a genuinely welcoming faith family means appreciating each other as beloved children of God.

Genuine welcome is hard work. Everyone must give a lot, bend a little, practice grace. Everyone must get curious about others, be vulnerable and listen well. In our life together, we might be uncomfortable, angry, befuddled and even hurt; yet with God’s help, we will be loved and accepted (even if we’re the cause of the discomfort or anger). This is the messy, beloved, broken, beautiful church of Jesus Christ.

It’s the kind of community Jesus describes in his famous verse from Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” We often cite this verse as a confidence booster for smaller worship gatherings, but this is not a verse about church attendance. Matthew’s 18th chapter is about the centrality of forgiveness in faith communities. Jesus says that he is among us when we are gathered to welcome children, hold each other accountable and listen to one another. Jesus says he is among us when we gather to seek lost sheep and forgive one another as God has forgiven us. A Matthew 18 church is one where welcome is practiced, conflict is named, grace is extended, and God is present.

Last week, the chair of a committee dropped by my office in the wake of a meeting that had brought angst and disagreements. They came not to sway me or ask for help in swaying others, but to express concern: Why were folks upset? Was something happening we could help them through? Could energy be directed to another ministry? Could we find a way to honor each voice, yet find a way forward?

No matter how your church defines itself, may you also seek out the Matthew 18 way: where voices of discord sit in the middle of voices of joy, as God’s voice breaks down the thin walls in between.