By Gene Appel
I’m fired up for this week’s 2017 North American Christian Convention in Kansas City, Missouri, as thousands of kingdom change makers unite together for three days of refreshment, encouragement, and inspiration. This year I have the privilege of leading this strategic gathering, and I’d like to share with you why our theme—This Is for EVERYONE—is so personally and biblically meaningful to me.
Different from Me
I grew up in a predominantly white, middle-class, Midwest, conservative, small-town pastor’s home, but when I was 25 years old I moved to Las Vegas and became pastor of a church there. I had no idea what to expect of church in Las Vegas. “Las Vegas church” sounds like an oxymoron! But I spent the next 18 years of my life there, and I discovered something I never knew in my growing up years—that the world I grew up in was a very narrow slice of the real world.
In the town I grew up in, I didn’t ever have to confront my feelings about people who were different than me religiously, racially, socially, economically, politically, sexually, or spiritually because I didn’t know very many people who were different from me. I had always assumed that people who were different from me were “out there” somewhere, and when I moved to Vegas I found out there they were.
Those years in Vegas were so good for me and redefined my life and ministry because I had to wrestle in a new way with Jesus’ words when he said, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 19:19).
To be honest with you, that was easier to do in my hometown, because most of my neighbors were a lot like me. But in Vegas that became a new challenge for me, because Jesus didn’t put any qualifiers with that statement. Jesus didn’t say, “Love your neighbor if he dresses like you, if she believes like you do, or doesn’t ever cheat on their spouse, or votes like you do, or lives a lifestyle just like yours.” He just said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Period.
One of the areas where I’ve had to grow in my life (and where I’m still growing) is in understanding that God’s Son and God’s heart and God’s house are for everyone. It’s all over the pages of Scripture:
• Peter stood up on the day of Pentecost before thousands of spiritually-wandering people and said, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:21).
• The apostle Paul wrote in Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.”
• Later Peter said, “The Lord . . . is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but EVERYONE to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
It’s not for some. It’s not for a few. It’s not for the privileged. This gospel is for everyone.
While Scripture is crystal clear that God’s heart and God’s house are for everyone, to be honest with you sometimes I forget that. I can be one of those kinds of people Jesus talked about when he said they love to judge and see the speck in the eye of others, while they have a plank in their own eye.
Maybe you struggle with this too. For some it’s the wall you build between people of different skin colors or nationalities. Maybe it’s political liberals that you can’t stand and for others it’s political conservatives that make your blood boil. Maybe it’s the body-pierced, tattoo-covered individual whose appearance is so different from yours or it’s the graying senior who seems so out of touch with a world of iPhones, iPads, and text messaging. For some it’s the person of a different religious school of thought.
My wife, Barbara, and I moved into a neighborhood in Las Vegas that forced us to deal with our own inclination to take our planks and build walls. Across the street from us was a Jewish family. Behind us, a Mormon family. On one side of us, a Hindu family. And on the other side was just a typical Las Vegas heathen family—he was an attorney, and she was a topless dancer in a Vegas show. Now what do you do with that?
Well we started getting to know our neighbors, especially the Jewish family across the street and the heathens next door. Our kids started playing together. Their kids were in our house, and our kids were in their house every day. They would go on vacation and ask us to get their newspaper and mail while they were gone. (Let me tell you, there were some interesting subscriptions in that stack of mail!) We would do birthday parties together in each other’s homes (and we met a lot of surgically enhanced people, if you know what I mean).
You know what we discovered about our neighbors that we were getting to know? We started to like them. In fact, we started to love them. We found ourselves with a renewed awareness of what was truly hanging in the balance for their lives spiritually. So we started praying every day that God would somehow use us in their lives to point them to Jesus. We thought it would be at least five years before we could even get them in the door of the church for the first time.
But a little over a year after becoming neighbors, 9/11 happened. The following weekend churches all across the country were packed. There was nothing else to do. All sporting events were cancelled. No airplanes were flying. Everybody was in church.
After our 9:00 service that morning, Barbara came into my office in tears and said, “You’ll never guess who I just sat with.” I asked, “Who?” She said the names of the heathens next door. I asked, “What?!” She said, “I was just walking into church, and they were walking through the door at the same time.” We hadn’t talked to them that week, and what we didn’t know was that the best man in their wedding had been killed in the collapse of one of the World Trade Center towers. They were grieving, they were hurting, and sensed a need for God, and we were the only church they knew.
That morning I had asked people who had been personally touched by the tragedies in that awful week to stand so we could pray for them. What I didn’t know was that my neighbors were standing for prayer. Barbara was reaching out with her hands on them and praying for them. Tears were coming down their faces. I couldn’t believe it.
Later that morning after the 11:00 service I was making my way through the hallways trying to encourage as many people as possible, and I looked down the hall and saw my Jewish neighbor from across the street. I thought, what is going on? She had tears in her eyes and she came up and gave me a big hug and she said, “Oh Gene, you have no idea what being here today has meant to me.”
I watched God use that horrible tragedy to be the catalyst and turning point for spiritual transformation in the lives of my neighbors.
For Anyone Anywhere
When we left Las Vegas we had so many difficult goodbyes—to our church family who meant everything to us; to our oldest son who stayed to finish college; and to Barbara’s family who lived there. But something that took us by complete surprise was that our most difficult goodbye was to our neighbors whom we used to think we didn’t have anything in common with, but whom God used to open our eyes to truly embrace the truth that his heart and his house are for everyone.
You see a gospel that isn’t for everyone everywhere isn’t a gospel for anyone anywhere. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have sincere disagreements, and it doesn’t give you permission to compromise truth, because we are to speak the truth in love. But it does mean that you don’t label, slam dunk, and write off other people, and make demeaning comments about them, in person or on social media. Because when we demean another human being, we are demeaning the very God in whose image they are made. And that’s sin.
Jesus made it clear in John 3:16 that God’s love is for the entire world. His love is for frat boys and girls gone wild. His love is for those with special needs and for victims of rape. His love is for Hells Angels bikers, gang members, for kids with two dads, and for people who are counting their days clean and sober. His love is for fire fighters, farmers, truck drivers, stockbrokers, single moms, rednecks, and seminary graduates. It’s for politicians, factory workers, tattoo parlor owners, foster kids, and meth dealers. It’s for families falling apart and families pretending they have it all together. His love is for everyone—including you!
So join me in Kansas City June 27-29 as we worship and shout from the rooftops that this gospel, this Savior, this amazing grace, this church of God’s is for EVERYONE.
Gene Appel is the senior pastor at Eastside Christian Church in Anaheim, California, and president of the 2017 North American Christian Convention.
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