There were complications. You see, Matt was listed on the Internet as a sexual offender. Matt knew the problems this would pose for a church. That is why he very graciously and unselfishly told the elders, if he created problems in any way, then he did not want to place membership.
The elders asked me to check with other churches, which had similar circumstances and see how they handled it. I did so.
I found the way they handled them was one of two. Some leaders told their church they were going to welcome this sexual offender, only to have families rise up and threaten to leave the church. The leaders would then back down and inform the sexual offender that he was not welcome.
Other leaders would welcome the sexual offender but admonish him to keep his status a secret. Thus, he was a potential time bomb, posing terrible problems in the future for the churches.
Neither one of these solutions were acceptable for Shiloh. We never found a church, who welcomed a sexual offender in a holistic, authentic, truthful, Christ-like way, so we had to prayerfully ask God to lead us and try to find a way.
The elders spent a great deal of time trying to decide what to do. Ultimately, what they decided was this, Shiloh Road needed to offer forgiveness and reconciliation, but also, discipleship and responsibility. We needed to offer a chance for redemption, but also, let Matt know we were going to hold him accountable. Gradually, a new policy took shape.
Meanwhile, we debated how best to process this with the church. We knew it was a high-risk endeavor. I never will forget the night J. B. Berry, one of our shepherds, said to the rest of the elders and to the staff, “We may lose families over this, but it is the right thing to do.”
Never was I more proud of an eldership. Finally, we conceived a strategy for communicating to the rest of our church leadership, and, ultimately, to the church, we were welcoming Matt into our midst.
We decided to do so in an assembly, where the whole focus would be on God, the saving work of Jesus, and our response to Matt. That service took place on Sunday, July 15, 2007.
During the assembly, our elders shared how they formulated their decision, items of the new policy, and relevant parameters concerning Matt’s accountability.
I began my sermon time, by playing a clip from a passage that I had preached on from the book of Luke the year before. The passage was from Luke 14 and the sermon was on the parable of the great banquet, where Jesus talks about the master sending the steward into the highways and byways to bring in people because those who had been invited to the banquet did not want to participate.
I had asked the church who the present day people were from the highways and byways. Likewise, I had told them about hearing a program on the radio from Focus On the Family, where James Dobson interviewed a former sexual offender. The sexual offender had talked about how he had become a Christian but how no church would welcome him, and so he was living his Christian life in isolation and in exile. On that day in 2006, I had asked the church the rhetorical question, “Were this man to come to Shiloh Road, would we accept him?”
After playing the clip, I arose and preached out of the same passage again. I told the church, I believed God had led a man to come to our church so that we might have the chance to live out the gospel. I told the church about Matt. I alluded to the communication made by the elders, to the new policy, to how there would be areas of the building, where Matt would not go. I told the congregation that Matt would have to earn our trust. We would hold him accountable, but we would also forgive him and offer him reconciliation and hospitality.
I concluded my sermon by doing something we always do for new members to Shiloh, albeit typically in a different part of our assembly. Normally, we have new members stand, so the church may know who they are. We usually welcome them with our cultural affirmation, which is applause.
At the end of my sermon, I asked Matt to stand and welcomed him to Shiloh. The audience not only applauded him, but they gave him a standing ovation.
After the service, the line of those waiting patiently to welcome Matt to Shiloh Road extended out into the foyer. Most poignantly, I saw a sister in Christ, who was wheelchair bound, asking her husband to wheel her to the back of the line so she too could welcome Matt into the Shiloh family.
We did not lose one individual over this decision. Still, there are complications. There are areas in the building where Matt cannot go, just like in our society there are places Matt cannot go. We have a loop, a freeway, that circles Tyler. Matt cannot drive on it because of a state law. He has to drive through other streets and neighborhoods. (Don’t get me started on the idiotic nature of some of our state laws.)
We also have to tell new members, for liability sake, about Matt. Actually, this has become a positive. Every couple of weeks, we have a conversation with potential members in a session we call, Tell Me About Shiloh. There, we recount Matt’s story and give them a DVD of the worship service. Typically, the response we receive sounds like this, “I want to be a part of a church that welcomes people in this way.”
Incidentally, the policy our elders constructed has helped us in other areas. A couple of times, we have had other former sexual offenders visit us. Each time, the elders have met with them and explained our policy. The individuals then rejected becoming a part of our church. Perhaps they had ulterior motives and the elders, in their wisdom, have protected the flock.
Late in the spring of 2008, Matt began bringing a young woman named Samantha to our services. They had begun dating. Samantha had known heartache in her life. She entered rehab and Alcoholics Anonymous at age 15. Her life had known brokenness.
We shared the gospel with Samantha and she became a Christian. We baptized her into Christ in June of 2008. Since then, we had opportunity to fellowship with Matt and Sam and study with them in various venues; most recently, Matt and some other guys in their 20s have been studying the Bible with me in my home. Moreover, Matt and Sam, and another couple, have been working through the Song of Solomon with Judy and me on Tuesday nights.
Tomorrow, June 27, 2009, Matt and Sam will be married and I will have the privilege of performing the marriage ceremony. You can fly me to the moon, send me to the Super Bowl, vote me the Heisman Trophy, but I don’t think anything will top this in terms of offering contentment, satisfaction, and happiness.
Initially, when Matt came to us, we were thinking God had brought Matt so that we could bless him. Now we realize, Matt is the one who has blessed us.
Five things I think I think
(a tip of the hat to Peter King for this idea)
1. Many years ago, a guy I knew told me of his experiences when he worked for Bob Hope. One of the things that stuck in my mind was the superstition in the entertainment world that entertainers die in threes. I don’t believe in superstition; however, it has been strange how many times I have seen three members of the entertainment world die within a short time of each other. This week, they are Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson.
2. Gratitude is a powerful motivator. One advantage that entertainers have is the cultivation of gratitude from their audience. The audience, feeling that it owes a debt, will overlook a lot of strange, odd, or inappropriate behavior. I am not saying this is good or bad, but it is reality. (The same thing goes for politicians and their constituents.) I will be watching with interest over the next few years the world’s response to Michael Jackson.
3. The past couple of weeks I’ve been arising between five and six in the morning to play full-court basketball with my firstborn. This experience is making me feel like a teen-ager again. More specific, it is making me feel like I did when I began two-a-days every summer before football season—incredibly sore in certain muscle groups. The good news is that I do, evidently, have muscles.
4. My family joined my sister and her family for a day at the Canton water park this week. Having gone there the past two summers, I have totally reformulated my views on modest apparel. Lust is no longer the problem for Christian males that it once was. We live in a very unfit world. Most females wearing bikinis are suited for the category that I would be were I to wear a Speedo—crimes against humanity.
5. I’m easing my way back into the pulpit. I preach Sunday morning. Thanks to Henry Holub for preaching this Sunday night.
Have a great weekend!