The Unlocked Church

More than 120 tornadoes battered the Midwest last April 13-15. One of them hit Thurman, Iowa the night of April 14. It damaged ninety percent of the town’s buildings including Thurman United Methodist Church, the community’s only church. A young mother, her husband, and their three children had taken shelter in the church basement. It offered more protection than their modular home. The tornado destroyed their modular home, but that young family walked out of the church basement unscathed. They were not members of the church, but they knew the church basement would be unlocked. Thurman UMC’s building is always unlocked.

What kind of madness is that??? Every church I served in 43 years of ministry constantly struggled to keep its doors locked. Periodically the Trustees would find too many doors left unlocked too frequently. If repeated warnings/scoldings didn’t change things, the Trustees would call in the keys, rekey the building (at considerable expense), devise a more restrictive policy, and issue new keys to “authorized users”. The effect of this excruciating process in every case was to lock out some folks who deserved and wanted to be included. Some found the new policy burdensome or confusing, so they dropped out of whatever task or group they’d been involved in. They gave up trying to get through those locked doors. Others were denied keys in the name of “security” because they did not meet the new policy’s stricter criteria. Typically the issue arose again within a few years and the same people applied the same solution–with the same result!

Thurman UMC’s basement wasn’t open because too many people had keys, or because the Trustees had given up on maintainng proper security. The church was open because–it’s always open. Three years ago the people decided to leave the church doors unlocked–all the time. Word spread quickly among the town’s 229 residents. When that family needed shelter from the oncoming tornado, they knew they could find a safe place in the church.

“We decided we are a community church,” explained TUMC’s pastor, the Rev. Jaye Johnson. “We are open to our community and we are not going to lock our doors…today that decision may have saved lives…If they would have found the doors locked…we could have been looking at casualties, no doubt. We are quite grateful they found their way into the church.”

I am well aware that rural Iowa’s wide-open-doors policy won’t work everywhere. My 43 yeas of ministry included a few church burglaries–all of locked buildings–and one small fire in an unlocked chapel open to the public. We Christians are sinful people living in a sinful world. That means that locks, alarms, and more sophisticated security solutions have a legitimate place in church facilities. But we dare not let reasonable and prudent security keep us from being “a community church…open to our community…” It happens before we realize it. Our focus shifts from opening doors to welcome all within reach to “locking up”, maintaining security, and making sure our perimeter isn’t breached without authorization.

Even when we sing the Lord’s Song: “we’re…a community church…open to the community”, we haven’t truly unlocked that death-grip on “our church”. We lock people out through clear but often unspoken expectations: “Dress nicely–like we do. Watch us and do what we do. Here we sing only these songs that sound nothing like the music on your IPod. You’ll have to learn to speak ” church” so we don’t have to translate the Gospel into words that fit your everyday life. Please cover up the tattoos–and the piercings. They scare us. And make your life fit our schedule. It works for us. Make it work for you too. We don’t like to change.”

Unlocking the church is more about getting God’s people outside than getting people inside. Jesus didn’t wait for people to come to him. He went wherever people worked, played, and lived. He sent his followers “to the ends of the earth” to share Good News. Only a tiny fraction of real “church” action happens inside the church building. Most of it happens “on the road” as God’s people follow their Risen Lord. It happens wherever folks discover that the church community is a great place to take refuge from life’s storms. “We are the only church in town,” explained Rev. Johnson, “so a lot of people claim us as their church.” TUMC’s not “their church” just because it’s the only game in town. TUMC’s “their church” because it’s Unlocked–in spirit as well as in fact.




8 Responses to “The Unlocked Church”

  1. 1 Betsey Heavner June 16, 2012 at 11:53 AM

    May I link to this post in an e-letter I produce? Would like to give more info than about you than I can find on your blog … please email me. Thx for the post.


  2. 3 Brianna Higgs ( your favorite grandchild) June 18, 2012 at 9:20 AM

    these are the highlight of my weeks !
    no matter what i find something enjoyable in these.
    we should have more open-minded pastors like you !
    love you guys! ❤


  3. 5 Cynthia Astle June 18, 2012 at 3:10 PM

    United Methodist Insight has published a link to “The Unlocked Church” under its “Changing the World” sprocket at


  4. 6 Terry June 25, 2012 at 7:27 PM

    What a wonderful idea, a church with open doors. Such a shame to be so fearful that someone might come in to damage or steal something. What a bummer to do something wrong with the alarm system and have the police come…..been there, done that!


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