A minister-friend of mine reports that the members like to refer to their congregation as “The Island of Misfit Toys.” I like it.
The phrase, of course, comes from the animated version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which gets lot of TV airtime every December. Crafting a half-hour program out of a song that lasts about 1.5 minutes, the writers had to add a lot of material. Part of the augmented plot has to do with a fictional island near the North Pole where toys that are all imperfect or defective in some way have apparently been dropped off to fend for themselves without the love of a child. In the end, Santa, aided by Rudolph, retrieves them for delivery on Christmas Eve to children who will appreciate them.
When I was a kid, the idea of a church billing itself as an “Island of Misfit Toys” was unheard of and nearly incomprehensible. Church was hardly for misfits of any kind. It was full of well-dressed, middle-class, successful people who sat in pews as happy families. I’m sure there are still a lot of churches like this. I am also sure that many churches want desperately to be that again.
But a lot of congregations just do not look like that any more. The church of Christendom, where powerful, successful, and contented people associated and made their gracious appearances, has downsized dramatically. And often the folks who show up now are those who really need the Lord Jesus and the communion of his disciples. Increasingly, the people who appear at church are those who do not fit in to the definitions of success rampant in our culture.
That is, the church is more and more populated by low-wage workers, the unemployed, the divorced, the physically or developmentally disabled, people in recovery from addiction, immigrants, cancer survivors, adoptive families, and singles, along with some more traditional families that are themselves, in the context of our society increasingly unusual.
Hence, some church people look around at their own congregation and notice, with some affection, how well the label, “island of misfit toys” seems to describe them. And this is actually a very hopeful sign. For these are exactly the types of people the Lord Jesus himself attracted and welcomed into his new community. As it turns out, there are far more “misfit toys” out there in our society than there are of the illusory “young families” that have become the Holy Grail of church growth. What if churches retooled their evangelism efforts specifically to welcome the misfits around us? What if we gave up trying to attract the attractive, and reached out to connect with those who need the good news of Jesus Christ?
I am waiting for the first church to actually, officially call itself “The Island of Misfit Toys” and put that on its sign. But for now, it will be enough for churches to start realizing that we were never supposed to be bastions of the successful in the first place. From the beginning, the gathering of Jesus’ followers was always mainly the failures, the losers, the rejects, the broken, and the struggling.
And the Lord’s example is a good thing because in our communities there are way more people like this than there are “successful” people. Indeed, these are the vast majority, limitless acres of fields ripe for the harvest, as Jesus says. We all know – or are – folks battling with something: debt, addiction, depression, grief, illness, aging, divorce, children in trouble, dead-end-jobs or no job at all, domestic abuse, sexual identity, personality disorders, incarceration, and so forth. To such as these God offers in Jesus Christ a community of acceptance and welcome, and a message of healing, liberation, and hope.
Indeed, even we who are already in the church have to realize that it is our weakness, brokenness, and confusion that God cherishes, because these are places where God’s truth may take root, unobstructed by our ego-centric, personality-driven delusions.
So the church of Jesus Christ, when it is being true to his vision, is a veritable archipelago of misfit toys, a broad and expansive network of losers and rejects, all ready to receive, and beginning to experience the joy and peace of life in God, and be sent into the world to share God’s love.