The day I gave my life over to God and then later accepted the call to ministry were two of the most important moments in my life. Like so many others, the people and ministries of the church have changed my life for the better. But over the years, as I became more familiar with churches and church culture through my work as an organizing consultant, I began to notice some striking and unhealthy similarities between some congregations and groups outside the church. I've noticed that these behaviors and cultures often make outsiders feel unwelcome and separate the church from being a part of the broader community, thus having a negative impact on the church's ability to reach those outside its walls. When exhibited, they lead to negative opinions of what it truly means to be a Christian.
As a youth I was gang-affiliated. Like many kids in my neighborhood who lacked mentors, positive role models, and parental guidance, we looked up to the Crips. We wanted to either join them or emulate them because they were respected or feared. During those years I learned a lot about how gangs function, thrive, and protect themselves from being infiltrated by people who are not welcome or who are deemed threats. Some churches share these seems fears and opinion about outsiders.
Obviously I am not suggesting that churches are similar to Crips when it comes to violence and the harm they do to communities and children. But what I have noticed is that in some situations they are similar in terms of their attitudes about outsiders and caring for their own. My purpose in making these observations is for those of us within the Christian community to think about how our attitudes and actions might be interpreted by those outside the walls of the church -- in the broader community, particularly young people.
When the church is at its best, God uses it to change lives and impact life beyond the walls of the institution. But when it is not at its best, the mentality on display is sometimes similar to the mentality of gangs like the Crips. When Christians act like Crips they become an insular community concerned only about those within their membership and inside the walls of the church. In some situations these congregations feel as if they have to protect themselves from the surrounding community rather than seek to redeem the community and change lives.
When Christians act like Crips, we focus our attention on taking care of our own. Anyone who is not a member cannot benefit from our resources or be in relationship with our church. I have heard stories of people who have sought assistance from Christian communities but were told, "Our resources are only for our members." The assumption is that if you want to get anything from us you have to become one of us. Crips call that being jumped in; Christians who act like Crips call it becoming a member and being baptized. Sadly, there are situations when people join the church not because they have heard the gospel preached or witnessed the gospel in the lives of the people and want to experience the love of God, but because membership has its privileges. Like kids who join the Crips, some people join churches because of its name recognition and the prestige of being associated with a house of worship on a certain corner. Baptism is an outward expression of an inward faith. If name recognition is of any value at all, that value lies in being able to call ourselves Christians and not about bragging rights because of the church we attend. This is why Paul said, "Let him who boast, boast in the Lord" (1st. Corinthians 1:31).
When Christians act like Crips, we boast about the size of our church and the prestige of our leaders, and the building becomes a sign of power and influence. Smaller churches are deemed less powerful and prestigious. In some churches we have our own colors and wear them proudly, much like gang members. And just as gangs don't partner with other gangs, we do not partner with other churches around us. We compete with other churches, and yet all of us bear the name Christian.
Crips are similar in this way: you can have several different gangs that gather on different corners, all calling themselves Crips but never coming together because the other gangs bearing the same name are considered a threat or competition for membership. When Christians act like Crips, the name of the church we attend and the corner where we reside is more important than the Christ we serve.
In a healthy context Christian communities should bear no negative similarities to Crips; rather, they should act more like Christ. When Christians act like Christ instead of Crips, emphasis is not placed on the size of the church but on the needs of the masses.
When Christians act like Christ, they are not only focused on protecting the congregation but on transforming the community. When Christians act like Christ instead of Crips, people join not because of the church's "street cred" and name recognition but because they want to embrace the love of a God that loves them unconditionally.
The Apostle Paul said, "I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some" (1st Corinthians 9:22, NIV). That means that when we act like Christ instead of Crips, we meet people where they are instead of expecting them to come inside our church to become like us. We show them the love of Christ and let God draw them to Himself when they see a reflection of God's love in how they are treated. We meet them outside and God's love draws them inside. Perhaps this is why the Apostle Paul instructed the church to "be wise in the way you act toward outsiders. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone" (Colossians 4:5-7).