Sitting in church the other night, I thought about Jackson Helms.
Helms, a 12-year-old who suffers from a form of cerebral palsy, made news this month when his mother revealed that he was removed from Elevation Church's Easter service for "disrupting" the service by making a noise at the conclusion of a prayer. A few seconds after making the noise (which Jackson can't help), both he and his mother found themselves being escorted out of the service into an adjoining room. In a statement about the situation, the Matthews, North Carolina church avoided apology and said they removed Jackson because they aim to create a "distraction-free worship environment."
Distraction-free, huh? Interesting concept. Not biblical in the least, but certainly interesting. I wonder what Elevation Church would have done with the woman in John 12 who interrupted a dinner honoring Jesus with her intimate foot-washing ceremony? Or how might they have reacted to, say, a distraction such as tongues of fire appearing over the heads of everyone in attendance (hypothetically speaking, of course)? Or what might the congregational ushers have done with Jesus, himself, if he interrupted their church yard sale with his trademark whipping and table flipping?
I thought about all this last night at a church my family visited. We were checking it out for the third time because we're thinking about going there. But boy were there a number of distractions. During a discussion time, announcements, and a group prayer, a man spoke who we could hardly understand because of a severe speech impediment. Another man, presumably homeless, offered a couple rambling exhortations during the service, easily surpassing the time allotment widely accepted as appropriate for talking in church. And toward the end of the service, a wasted, homeless man stumbled into the service, muttering loud nonsense and even demanding to give his testimony to the group. It'd be enough to make first-time visitors decide to "shop elsewhere."
Far from a turnoff, though, these "distractions" actually endeared us to this little faith community. That's because it demonstrated the kind of radical welcome Jesus' church practices -- a welcome that allows "distractions" so that the dignity and humanity of the offender may be retained. (After the service concluded last night, I watched as three men took the disruptive homeless man aside, sat down around him, and listened eagerly to his story.) It was the kind of welcome that embraces humans from all walks of life -- not least the poor, the marginalized, the nonsensical -- collectively saying, "You matter to God, and also to us."
I agree with Rachel Held Evans, who recently wrote on her blog that rather than attending a slick, perfectly choreographed church full of "normal" people, she longs for the un-cool church -- one "that includes fussy kids, old liturgy, bad sound, weird congregants, and