I was in choirs when I was a kid. I loved to sing, and I thought I was pretty good at it. Along with my cousins or youth group friends, I’d even perform “Special Music” (a phenomenon of 1990s West Michigan church culture) at night services, and was always among the first to try out for solos at school.
But sometime around the end of middle school, I realized that my performances weren’t so cute anymore. No one cringes at a slightly out-of-tune 3rd grader, but the judgement — or awareness of judgement — sets in around the age of 12, 13. As I grew older and more self conscious, I quit all choirs, and started to sing quietly in church, making sure my voice wasn’t heard outside of the crowd, outside of the other muted voices.
During a recent Sunday morning during worship, an adult with some cognitive impairments stood a few rows behind me, singing over the crowd. Her voice was out of tune and out of rhythm — and beautiful. It was raw. It was real. With this voice behind me, I dared raise my own voice a bit. Add into the chorus the sounds of a baby babbling nearby, and I really felt free to air my own imperfection.
Maybe this is more of what our churches need, more of what I need. We need to welcome more out-of-tune voices, more babies crying, more messes in the pews, and through the doors.
I recently had the chance to interview Gregg Taylor. Gregg is a friend of my church, and currently serves as the President of the Board of the National Association of Christian Recovery. He’s also works with Houston reVision, an organization that helps gang-effected youth and kids on the edge to revise the stories of their lives toward a hope-filled future. Prior to joining reVision, Gregg was the pastor of Mercy Street, a church in Houston that creates a safe place for the hurt, the lost, and the seeking to experience radical grace.
Gregg told me the story of how he ended up working at Mercy Street after spending 17 years in campus ministry. The experience is best shared in his own words from an interview we did together:
I’m an adult child of an alcoholic. My dad was a child of an alcoholic. My mother was a child of alcoholic. Our family could be a case study. (Laughs.)
A friend of mine, the founding pastor of Mercy Street, was transitioning out, and he called to see if I would talk with him. And I said no; I like it where I am. But he pushed and pushed, and I finally relented. He said, ‘Just talk?” And I said, ‘Fine. I’ll talk.”
I knew of Mercy Street, but I’d never been there. As I sat down in that service, I thought, ‘Wow. This is the kind of church where Jesus would show up.” It was raw, it was celebratory, it was broken, it was a mess. There was an energy of palpable grace and connection.
But the kicker for me…My dad passed away right before I accepted the job, and he was sick during this entire conversation. My dad was 10 years sober when he passed away, and those last 10 years had been great, lots of reconciliation. When I was explaining to my dad about the possibility of coming to Mercy Street, I said, “Dad, there’s a bunch of drunks in this church and people in AA. And he goes, “That sounds like the kind of church I could go to.” And I said, “Yeah, dad, that’s the kind of church that would welcome you with open arms.”
You see, he grew up in a hellfire/damnation, shame-based, fear-filled church. His Dad made sure he was at church on Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, Wednesday nights — every time the doors were open — but then at home, his dad would beat the hell out of him. And my grandfather would beat my grandmother. This spiritual toxicity had seeped into his soul, and he didn’t want anything to do with God. There was a lot of fear and shame; he was beat down, but AA helped him recover from that and return to himself and God. AA became his fellowship of faith. By the time he died, he was no longer atheist or agnostic, but the God of his understanding was compassionate, grace-filled, and loving. My sense was that if Jesus could show up at Mercy Street, and this was a place where my dad could show up and be welcomed with radical hospitality, I could say, “Yes.” And so I went.
Gregg went on to share stories with me — stories of a homeless woman with no teeth learning to serve and smile, stories of bringing his own son to rehab and feeling love and compassion rather than whispering gossip about a preacher’s kid who needed help.
Gregg said a church that welcomes recovery “creates a space where brokenness is not a problem — whatever brokenness we bring is actually a pathway to grace. God doesn’t turn his head to that, but it actually becomes the conduit to where compassion, restoration, and grace flow.”
The truth is that we’re all in recovery. We’re all dealing with junk. We’re all cracked and broken. And grace is available to all of us. But those who are willing to admit when they’re broken soak up that grace a little more easily.
As a rule-following, oldest child with a history of trying too hard, of trying to control situations and manage the people around me, I’m not always being very good at admitting when I need help or when things aren’t going well.
In his book, The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out, Brennan Manning writes, “Our huffing and puffing to impress God, our scrambling for brownie points, our thrashing about trying to fix ourselves while hiding our pettiness and wallowing in guilt are nauseating to God and are a flat denial of the gospel of grace. Our approach to the Christian life is as absurd as the enthusiastic young man who had just received his plumber’s license and was taken to see Niagara Falls. He studied it for a minute and then said, ‘I think I can fix this.'”
Showing up real and vulnerable to God — or anyone else — is impossible when it becomes all about trying to have it all together, all about performing. Especially because we’re out of tune much of the time.
I stopped singing loudly for the same reason many people never want to step a foot through a church’s door again. It’s hard to pretend you’re good when you’re not. It’s hard to show up and be a mess. So often, we get very good at pretending or we shut up, we stay away. And too often, grace and love — radical hospitality — aren’t the first thing people feel when they walk inside a church.
We can learn a lot from our friends in recovery. We could learn a lot by admitting we all are in recovery. It isn’t a place for pretending to be perfect or whispering quietly — it’s a place to be honest and broken enough to be fully present, fully known, and fully loved. It’s not only about showing radical hospitality, but accepting that gift, too.
Gregg Taylor blogs at meditate-this.org. Visit him there. You’ll be glad you did.