It’s easy for those of us who’ve been Christians for a while to forget how big a deal it is for someone to walk into church for the first time. Thousands of families live within a mile of the church building, when realistically it’s as far away from them as Timbuktu. When Paul described the Gentiles as “far off” (Eph 2:13), he wasn’t talking geographically, but culturally. Even if people travel far enough to make it through the front door, there’s still a far greater distance for them to travel to actually join the church. That’s why we’re (legitimately) keen to find ways to make it easier for people who aren’t from Christian backgrounds to join us.
But Paul uses a picture in Romans 11 that suggests Christianity should feel foreign. He tells Gentile believers:
“you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree”.
This cultivated olive tree is the church. In the context, it’s particularly the Old Testament church, with its roots in the patriarchs (v.17-18). But Paul uses striking language to describe the act of admitting them to the church. They were “grafted, contrary to nature”! In other words, for a Gentile to join the church felt deeply unnatural. It was alien. It went against all their instincts, and what they were used to.
In our desire to introduce all people to Jesus Christ and his church, the olive tree picture reminds us that Christ has only planted one church. It’s been around for donkey’s years. And quite simply, this church will feel foreign to those who’ve never been part of it before. That doesn’t mean we should make it more foreign than it needs to be! But neither should we be apologetic or embarrassed of that foreign-ness. It’s simply a fact that what God has been doing by his Holy Spirit in the church down through the millennia is creating a group of people that is fundamentally different to all other groups of people, so that when someone joins us it will inevitably feel “contrary to nature”. Rather than trying to play down that difference, it’s actually part of our glory!