Do you like Billy Graham? I like Billy Graham – even though he sometimes makes me uncomfortable. Graham's communication about his mission is clear and unvarnished. In all the years of his ministry, it has been the same. His mission as stated by himself is to lead people to Christ. He makes no apologies for this and even as his health declines, he vigorously pursues his mission.
I grew up in a small church in the foothills of The Great Smoky Mountains outside of Maryville, Tennessee. The people in that small Missionary Baptist Church were much of the same type and caliber of the Reverend Billy Graham. All would have felt comfortable in each other's company.
As a kid, I was treated well by the members of this church. Most of my friends at the time would probably say the same thing. The little church was the center of our social activity. Our leaders took us places and gave us opportunities that other rural children in the community –frankly - missed. The moral message implanted has lasted me most of my life. One of the things I most remember is how we participated, and were encouraged to reach out to others through a process called witnessing. I was not a great witness, but the process was instructional and years later, I discovered that witnessing takes different forms with none better than the witness we all give by the personal example of our lives.
As a kid, I had great examples. Some were hard to follow and I slipped a number of times along the way, but the examples of people such as Ralph and Alice Walker, Claude Whitehead, Thurman Arnold, Cecil Magaha, and Frank Hackney and many others have stayed with me most of my life even though most of those people are no longer with us except in spirit. The underlying message I received as a young person was that the church and its fellowship was open to all. This has been the same over the thirty years since I changed denominations and left that little church.
A sad story was recently brought to me about what some would call a minor incident – a tempest in a small teapot. The incident resulted not from actions of the church I've mentioned, but unfortunately from a vendor that the trusting church chose in its continuing mission of fellowship and community. The incident illustrates how little things can result in mission failure.
Three young people, all in their early teens, were extended the hand of fellowship by the church and became active participants in its various activities. All started attending services eight years earlier and became members of the church. All rode the church bus to services regularly. The church became their family - a family working hard for these young people to succeed in their lives.
Frequently many churches across this country go through a process of gathering their congregations together to do the church directory. Church directories send a powerful message: WE BELONG! A church directory gives the opportunity for members to connect faces with the names we sometimes forget. People get to know each other better and the fellowship aura that all churches desire is enhanced. Here is how the process generally works:
Companies in the directory business make themselves available to provide the service of photographing the congregation. They benefit financially not just from the directory photographs, but also from the family portraits that congregation members order in addition. There is a great deal of similarity between these companies and those you see working out of the major discount stores. This is no accident. In many cases, they are the same. They are part of corporate America. Their mission and the churches mission are inherently conflicted. The company's bottom line is money and the churches bottom line is developing fellowship.
In the case of the three young teens, they were scheduled for directory photographs and showed up, only to be told by the company representative that they could not be photographed. In the subsequent follow-up, the company explained that their policy was that these young minors could not be photographed without a family member present. One representative mumbled something about privacy considerations. I wouldn't want to say these young teens were excluded because the company failed to see any moneymaking family portrait potential – that wouldn't be fair. Nevertheless, the exclusion from the directory had a profound influence on these young people who wanted to BELONG.
Here's the sad part that transcends rules and regulations, red tape, and corporate gobbledygook: It was best expressed in the words of one of the crestfallen young teens who poignantly said, "I guess they just didn't like us..."
When the ice, water, food, and baby diapers didn't come to those waiting at the convention center in New Orleans just recently I imagine the same sentiments were felt if not spoken, I GUESS THEY JUST DIDN'T LIKE US.
The Reverend Billy Graham whom I've previously mentioned has a big boss who he is looking forward to seeing at some future date. Billy's boss has a well-known company policy that forbids exclusion of anyone. EVERYONE is welcome at the Boss's table. . . I sort of like that policy. How about you?