Several months ago, I was invited to a panel discussion at Dallas Theological Seminary with three other small groups pastors. During the class, the pastor to my right answered a question about on-campus meetings. He said his church discouraged them because they wanted parishioners to meet in their neighborhoods, not in steepled cloisters. That made sense. He was describing a neighborhood-based philosophy that works for his church. Then he said, “We push people away from our building. In fact, the building is locked and empty all week.”
On Thursday, I experienced that policy first-hand. I attended a luncheon for pastors at a local church I had never visited before. When I arrived, in the cold and rain, it wasn’t clear where the front door was. That didn’t bother me, though. The building where I pastor has several entrances as well. I just parked in a convenient spot near some other cars, covered my head against the rain, and sloshed to the nearest door.
It was locked.
So I hustled around the corner to another set of doors.
I got back into my car and drove around the building. A car was idling at a pull-through entrance which made it seem like that was the right door to try, but there was no parking there. So I drove around the building until I found a place to park, still looking for something that looked like an open door. Then I sloshed back to the pull-through and tried one of the doors.
Then I tried another and met a woman coming out of the building. She opened the door and I walked through, out of the rain, under her worried gaze. She said, “Can I help you?"
“I’m here for the small group pastors’ luncheon?”
“Yes, up these stairs and down the hallway."
The lights were off in the hallway. In fact, they were off in most of the building. I found my meeting in a windowless classroom at the end of the hall, and enjoyed the chat with some of my fellow pastors. After lunch on the way out of the building, I spotted a restroom in the darkened hallway. I had needed to go before lunch but hadn’t had time to stop. I pushed on the door.
There’s nothing wrong with locking doors, of course. But these two experiences have made me all the more grateful for the doors at my church. We not only unlock doors, we decorate with them. Our lobby has a constellation of old, wooden doors hanging from the ceiling. They’re there to symbolize the unity of Christian heritage despite its various rooms (an idea we took from C.S. Lewis’s book Mere Christianity). But they might as easily represent our approach to doors. We like them open.
Our building is part house of worship, part community center. Children play on our indoor playground when school is out. Telecommuters use the coffee shop on weekdays. On Wednesday evenings, we welcome neighbors to a free medical clinic, ESL classes, citizenship classes, job placement assistance, and a hot meal. And once a month, we host overnight guests as our part of a traveling homeless shelter. In 15 years of attending here, I have never heard anyone ask, “When is the church unlocked?” A more common question is, “Does the church ever close?”
There are drawbacks to this approach. The building is showing more signs of wear than its one-day-a-week peers. Our facilities team has a full docket of minor repairs. Our security guy gets nervous about exposure. And my office is in what used to be a storage closet. But we endure the drawbacks for the sake of a larger mission — to demonstrate the presence of Jesus in our city.
There’s an old cliché that says the church ought to be a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. I understand the values of stewardship, security and neighborhood impact that lead other churches to lock up and turn off the lights. And I don’t disparage their decisions. The churches I alluded to above are doing great work and their philosophy of ministry is making an impact in their neighborhoods. But I’m also proud to represent a different philosophy — one that is a little more risky, a little more work, and a little more like a hospital.
One that doesn’t require a key.