Towards a fuller ecclesiology: why inclusiveness is something the church should strive for.
There has long been a debate over the wisdom and benefit of homogeneity in church services. This is where the church consciously and deliberately seeks to reach a certain ‘target’ group. This can be done through various means, from the timing of meeting, to style of service (with music, dress style, sermon length all varying) and even language and location.
Whilst we know that all believers are one in Christ (e.g. Ephesians 4:4), and that Christ has broken down all the human barriers we have (e.g. Galatians 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”), the way this is worked out in practise, on a local church level, requires a degree of choice as to how the gathering is run.
A church which decides to start a Spanish-speaking congregation on a Saturday evening is saying: “We think there are Latin Americans who might be working on a Sunday and whose English may not be sufficient to understand a church service in English. Let’s encourage them in the Lord, especially as they might invite friends with some church background who would appreciate the community”. Similar specific ministries are being repeated with other nationalities across our country: may the Lord add his blessing to each one.
We might add that there are some cities in this country where churches run dedicated ‘student ministry’. To greater or lesser extents, students are nurtured in their own eco-system of discipleship. There are clear benefits to this, which do not need to be rehearsed here (as someone converted halfway through university, I benefitted hugely from this).
To what extent, however, should such pursuit of homogeneity be progressed where barriers between people groups are not so stark? Where should the church consciously not seek to divide the local body, in spite of the challenges this may bring in terms of the involvement, even understanding, of those who gather?
The question is valid because Paul’s argument in Ephesians 2 is that it is in the very act of unity between Jew and Gentile being shown that God’s glory is shown. In spite – in fact because – of the obvious differences, it is as people from different nations, different classes, different age groups and all other human differences gather as one in Christ, that the glory of God is shown through what he has done for every human on the cross.
In a former diocese and decade, I remember hearing a platform speaker at a meeting of evangelical ministers being asked how he would recommend a church full of elderly people to reach young families in the area. The answer was explicit: encourage your elderly congregation to pray for and fund a families’ worker, so that you can then start a special service just for the young mums/families.
The advantages were meant to be manifold: ‘young’ people like different music, and different service formats, and it was assumed that the elderly wouldn’t appreciate children running about disturbing the regular church service. Variations of this kind have, I perceive, been run across our country too. The below is a response which seeks to argue that the pursuit of homogeneity can have a significant impact on the maturity of any people reached for the sake of Christ.
There is a reason that Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 12 that God equips each church with gifts of the Spirit, as he chooses. Implicit in this is that he gives the whole body what He wants his church to have. We therefore deny God’s gift to us if we neglect the whole body of Christ, even if that means not everything is to our liking. So, it is healthy that a congregation be taught that not every hymn or song will be their favourite, or even of their generation. We learn to bear with one another in love.
In our church, we have seen a weekly Youth Bible study greatly enriched by people sixty or more years older than the teenagers gathering. The sense of ‘learning together’ is immense. It is also powerful to see children teaching older folk, as well as learning from them.
Whilst it is clear that the “presenting issue life concerns” for each age group and generation are vastly different, the core concern may be quite similar. Anxiety may be seen in teenagers (new school, exams, the future), young adults (jobs, life partners), middle aged (finances and family), retired (health and families), the elderly (health for themselves and friends), but the key question is: how does Christ speak into our anxiety? What is it about Jesus that gives us peace and security, hope and confidence?
Teasing out what it looks like for Christ to “dwell in our hearts through faith” (Ephesians 3:17) is deeply enriched as we see that done across the generations, however different we may seem at the start. How can the body of Christ be built up (Ephesians 4:12) if the leadership has consciously sought to separate it from the start?
This is not to say there is not a place for ‘people groups’ being targeted. Every local church is, by definition, a people group (located in a particular area). It does, however, seek to encourage us to build the whole body of Christ, with all that God has given us.
In the next article, we'll address how this might apply to communities which are predominantly of one kind (eg a village in the UK which is almost wholly white) and how cultural differences between us might need to be addressed (eg where hand waving is the norm for some, and never done by others).