Serious theologians of all sorts like to go through the list of other personae that people use for images of God. The Santa Claus image is particularly popular. Miroslav Volf uses this as a primary motif in his book Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. Volf contends that while the part about Santa being an indiscriminate giver (despite parental warnings that Santa only gives gifts to good children) is a positive image, the difference is that Santa doesn't demand anything back from people whereas God does. Santa just gives. God demands that we become givers ourselves. And I agree.
Volf also retells a little story written by Ernest Hemingway (called "The Capital of the World"), about how many boys named Paco (a diminutive of Francisco) there are in Madrid. Hemingway wrote that once a man put an ad in the newspaper saying something like "Paco, all is forgiven, meet me at the (something) Hotel at noon on Tuesday, Papa" and that 800 young boys showed up. Volf here contends that even if the story was meant to be a joke about the ubiquity of the name Paco in Spain, it shows the great longing we all have for forgiveness. I would add acceptance, hospitality, welcome. We all crave belonging, of being home.
I agree that God makes demands on us. But I also think that many of us at one time or another in our lives just need to go home and lay down our burdens and surrender, and that church needs to be a place where we can do that. At some point we will know that our surrender is to God, we will accept that Christ accepts our burdens as well as our gifts at the altar, but the beginning act is just to come in and sit down and let ourselves be.
I wrote a sermon about this, here. Several people approached me after church that day to tell me how much that sermon meant to them. One person just hugged me for a long time and said, "Thank you, thank you, thank you; I'm in that place. Thank you for saying something about it."
And I continue to think about it as I talk with colleagues about topics like "church growth" and "newcomer assimilation." There's a lot of anxiety out there among church leaders (clergy and lay) about growth. Numbers are declining and funding declines, too. This makes everybody nervous - church staff worry about their salaries, the leadership worries about how to keep from cutting into funding for mission when the need is so great. There is a sense of urgency about attracting new members and inviting members to be more involved and invested. And of course the ultimate goal is to equip the church to be a healing presence in the world.
These are good things to talk about but I want to always reserve a spot in the church for the one who has come home and who needs to sit and cry and get warm and lay down burdens first. This is not necessarily a "down and out" person. In my experience, it usually isn't. And of course as I always say, this is not an either/or situation. Our churches will have people who need healing and people who are called to look outside to act for those who need healing in the community. There are many in the church who are, to quote Henri Nouwen, wounded healers. What I don't want to do is make this person into a "target" for church growth.
Broken people need healing. Getting them involved and putting them to work may be the way to help them heal. But let us first just welcome, without demand.