This is the third installment in a planned 10-part series of commentaries on traditions and customs which, in my opinion, are doing great harm to the missional purpose of what is commonly referred to as the “Black Church”. The objective of this series is not to denigrate any particular denomination, church or individual, but to humbly address what I personally view as doctrines and practices that are harmful to black churches institutionally and detrimental to the advancement of the Gospel in general.
Please note that the order in which these commentaries are presented do not necessarily reflect a certain priority or significance of the topics addressed.
Image credit: lohud.com
“And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” – Acts 4:12 (NASB)
3. “The Doors of the Church are Open”
One of the earliest recollections I have of going to church is as a child of about six or seven years old.
The church was called the Universal House of Prayer and it was located on Rankin Street in the don’t-mess-around southeast side of Atlanta. The Universal House of Prayer was not your typical brick-and-mortar building, but an actual house with a front porch and a rusted metal swing of which my two siblings and I never hesitated to avail ourselves once the worship service, which seemed to last an eternity, was (finally) over.
My father (who passed away in 2002 of a heart attack) worked at least two, and sometimes three, jobs which meant the responsibility of getting my older brother (who died in 1994 from complications of HIV/AIDS), younger sister, and me to church fell to my mother whom, I can assure you, was more than capable of the task.
Of all the years I spent at the Universal House of Prayer, what remains with me to this day is the moment near the end of each worship service when the pastor would reverently state that, “the doors of the church are open.”
It was at the sound of those exact words that a designated deacon would position a small wooden folding chair front-and-center of the church, and with arms open wide, his hands, which were adorned with the whitest gloves I’d ever seen, would invite the unsaved among the congregation to come forward and “give your heart to Jesus.”
Or, did it?
You see, being the immature young boy that I was, like any other child my age, I wanted sincerely to please my mother and, vicariously, to please the God about whom she had diligently taught me up to that point in my life.
With this as my motive, and despite my ignorance of the spiritual implications of what I was about to do, I responded to the pastor’s invitation one Sunday and walked down the aisle, fully realizing that each step I took was motivated primarily out of a sense of obligation to what I had assumed were the expectations of my mother than of a genuine conviction of my own sinfulness and my need to personally “repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
“Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile.” – Billy Sunday
Over time, by God’s grace, I came to realize that my naive though well-intentioned response to that “opened door” wasn’t salvific at all. No real spiritual transformation had taken place within my heart as a result of walking down the aisle that Sunday morning. In taking those few nervous steps from pew to pulpit, the only thing I’d accomplished was emulate outwardly what many others before me had done whenever that small wooden chair was placed in front of the church for all to see.
The gesturing of the deacon’s white-gloved hands compelled me to present the outward appearance of regeneration though, inwardly, I had no concept whatsoever of what the Gospel was or, for that matter, who Jesus Christ was. The reality is that I was just as spiritually lost after walking the aisle as I was before. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I hadn’t “given my heart to Jesus” at all (whatever that means.)
All I’d really done was join a church.
And therein lies the danger of “opening the doors of the church” as a proxy for genuine spiritual conversion.
“…that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses resulting in salvation.” – Romans 10:9-10 (NASB)
The tradition of “opening the doors of the church” risks producing a false sense of confidence by fostering in the mind of the person a mirage of spiritual transformation, despite the absence of any evidence that genuine repentance has taken place within the heart of the individual.
“Some ministers preach a gospel with a very wide door to it, but there is nothing to be had when you get inside.” – Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Eternal Security: The Security of Believers (or Sheep Who Will Never Perish), September 5, 1889
We must constantly remind ourselves that the Church exists because people need to know that our sinfulness has eternally separated us from God; and that the only remedy for such spiritual estrangement is to turn from our life of sin and trust – from the heart – in what Jesus Christ alone has done on behalf of unworthy sinners like you and me.
Yet many local churches, regardless the racial or ethnic composition of its congregations, do not seem to take the responsibility of declaring this message as seriously as they once did. Even in my spiritual naivety as a child, a key impetus for me to walk the aisle those years ago was the conviction that what I had heard, that I was a sinner deserving of God’s wrath, was in fact the truth.
“He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” – John 3:36 (NASB)
Though it is rarely, if ever, preached in the pulpits of evangelical churches today, the aforementioned text in John 3:36 is still in the Bible (check yours now and see for yourself.)
The sad reality is that in far too many churches, particularly black churches, “opening the doors of the church” seems to have less to do with a commitment to sound biblical hermeneutics, particularly as it relates to the doctrines of sin and salvation, and more to do with expanding the membership rolls or enhancing its financial position through tithes and offerings or promoting the pastor’s personal brand and image by attaching his name and logo to the church and the “ministries” it conducts.
If the hamartiology of your church consists of waiting until a certain point in the pastor’s sermon before mentioning the word “sin”, you might want to revisit why the Gospel exists and what it actually means.
If the soteriology of your church is primarily centered around someone walking an aisle, filling out a card and being voted on for membership, then, it doesn’t need to open its doors but, to the contrary, may want to consider closing them.
If the pneumatology of your church is reliant on its traditions and customs to bring about the kind of genuine heart change in a person that only the Holy Spirit can achieve, it has lost sight of its divinely ordained mission and rendered itself impotent in producing lasting fruit for the kingdom of God.
“No one is excluded from calling upon God; the gate of salvation is set open unto all men. Neither is there any other thing that keeps us back from entering in, save only our own unbelief.” – John Calvin
Walking the aisle in response to the doors of the church being open should never be confused with or perceived as tantamount to being truly born again.
The pulpits of today’s churches must be unambiguous in declaring to those who would feel compelled to respond to such an invitation that they are not being invited to join a church but, instead, are being called to “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” – John 1:29 (NASB)
Humbly in Christ,
Can I Be Sure I’m Saved? – R.C. Sproul
The Power of God for Salvation – Ligonier Ministries
Where Do We See Church Membership in the New Testament? – 9Marks
Raising Your Kids to Love Jesus and Impact Their World – The Front Porch
Good Works and the Christian Life – Ligonier Ministries