Churches, sinners and the hall of fame

September 15th, 2015

I have to start with a confession.

At the age of 34, I still thoroughly enjoy (and follow) the sports entertainment industry that is World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).

Yes, I know it’s fake. But as fake as it is, it’s still a lot more real than some of the other reality TV shows out there.

Recently, one of my childhood heroes was caught on tape saying some horrific things. That led to him being dropped by WWE and completely scrubbed out of the WWE history books, including taking him out of the WWE Hall of Fame.

I was driving to church listening to sports radio and they started talking about the controversy and how this wrestler was being erased from the history of WWE, despite the fact that WWE rose to its prominence on his back.

Then one of the talk show hosts said, “A hall of fame is history. It’s not a church.”

He went on to say that halls of fame are for achievements in a sport and that’s all that they’re for. They’re not supposed to levy moral judgment on anything outside of the particular sport. Then he ended with the statement, “And since it’s not a church, sinners should be allowed in.”

A lot of us like to say and claim that churches are for the broken and those who aren’t perfect. But in practice, we often say the exact opposite.

Whether intentionally or unintentionally, we contradict our message that you don’t have to be “perfect” to be part of our church.

One of the most widely read posts on my blog is about Sunday attire with a number of reader comments saying that we need to wear our very best to church.

Sometimes we make people feel extremely judged by our reactions to their lifestyle or life choices.

Sometimes we shame people by telling them they don’t have enough faith or they’re not praying hard enough when they’re struggling to grasp some theological stuff.

I once visited a church that didn’t meet in a traditional church, but a night club. During the announcement the staff person said, “By the way, I know this next sentence might sound weird. But please make sure you keep an eye on your belongings. We’ve been getting reports that purses and wallets and phones have been stolen during worship.”

My initial reaction was, “What in the world … What kind of church am I at right now? Who steals stuff during worship?”

Whenever I tell this story to people, usually their initial reaction is similar to mine: surprise, followed by a bit of scoffing, which brings about a bit of discomfort at the idea that the sanctuary doesn’t provide sanctuary, succeeded by a thought along the lines of, “What kind of church is that,” then followed by a revelation — a lightbulb switching on.

After I went through that gamut of emotions and asked the question, “What kind of church am I at?” it was followed by the thought, “A church where actual broken people gather.”

Not that I’m saying all churches should be like that, but I was surprised by how uncomfortable I was at the thought that my personal belongings aren’t really safe at church. I was uncomfortable with the idea that people at a church would have the audacity to steal someone else’s stuff. But really, I was unnerved at the fact that the people there didn’t have their life together or at the least do what many of us churchgoers do: keep up the facade by pretending everything is fine and dandy, and that we feel blessed just by being here.

The ESPN host isn’t the only who thinks that a church is not a place for sinners. I’ve run into many people who’ve said things like: “Oh you wouldn’t want me to come to your church. You have no idea the things I’ve done.” “The church building would collapse on someone like me.” “God wouldn’t want anything to do with a person like me.”

And I know I’m not the only one who’s heard these things.

For those of us who claim that “all are welcome” perhaps we should step back and see how our words and actions may have contradicted that statement.

Perhaps many of our churches need some new PR by not only saying that the church is a place for sinners, but allowing those who are sinners to feel like that they belong — that they have a place at the table.

I mean, really, what is a church if it’s not a place for sinners?

Joseph Yoo is pastor of St. Mark United Methodist Church in Santa Barbara, California. He is the author of Practical Prayer and Encountering Grace from the Converge Bible Studies series. He blogs at

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