Towards a fuller ecclesiology: why inclusiveness is something the church should strive for - part 2
This article seeks to consider biblical inclusivity, particularly in communities which are predominantly of one kind, and how differences (cultural and otherwise) between us might be addressed.
Our diocesan bishop was addressing clergy at a Maundy Thursday service during my curacy. His text was from Luke 15 and his message was refreshingly clear, citing the rejoicing in heaven for the sake of one sinner who repents. He urged the clergy to leave behind the ninety-nine in our churches and go looking for the lost.
My neighbour and I commented on how encouraging that was: “he’s just told us to prioritise evangelism, even at the expense of our churches” we said.
This focus on the lost, the outsider, the individual who was not part of the system, is rooted in the mission of our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s a message we see throughout scripture: perhaps that’s one reason why the genealogy of Jesus includes the four wonderful women of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, and Mary.
As we consider how to be more inclusive when a congregation is predominantly monochrome (in colour, class or any other aspect of composition), our concern for the individual outsider should be a driving principle.
Ephesians 2 describes the wonder – and spiritual power – of God uniting Jews and Gentiles as the church. We should focus on how he continues to build us, despite our differences, into one who is the Lord Jesus.
Just as a teacher will make extra efforts to ensure that a new child is welcomed and helped to settle in class, so the church should take extra concern for those ‘on the edge’. They’ll seek to avoid favouritism, whilst being particularly observant and affirming of those most in need of encouragement and inclusion.
A church full of people without children needs to be highly attentive, as to how to welcome a family with young ones. Some things may well need to change, lest younger people feel alienated (and not change too quickly, lest the existing congregation is also alienated!).
Similarly, a church full of families needs to ensure that those without a family do not become isolated through being left out. Most churches need regular encouragement to remember those who are on their own. All churches will benefit greatly from the blessing of walking with those on their own.
But differences go much further than family composition.
Who joins the bloke having a cigarette outside before and after the church service, or is he left on his own because no one smokes? Who puts the sugar into a bowl every single week, with several teaspoons, to show that we expect many to want to put sugar in their tea? Who deliberately leaves the back rows empty so those who regularly arrive late aren’t always having to walk to the empty front rows?
Where is the explanation of words we assume people know the meaning of? Or explanation of why we do things? At theological college, there were students from the US who would stand to pray and sit to sing! That may not sound a big deal, but it can play out in the local congregation.
At the risk of stereotyping (itself something that is hugely presumptive and unhelpful), a Latin American or African Christian will be typically far more demonstrative in their singing of hymns than your average Brit, who may be more moved by a resounding organ than a more spontaneous guitar. Understanding and enjoying such tensions can produce real maturity; failure to do so, division and the risk of alienation. I remember a church culture when I was first converted which was very suspicious of anyone raising their hands during a hymn; it took visits to churches in Latin America for me to realise that you can be utterly faithful and express emotions appropriately. Even now I notice than unchurched people wonder why people raise their hands during the singing of some songs: this is an opportunity to embrace our differences in a positive way, by talking about it, rather than allowing suspicion or misunderstanding (or ignorance) to continue.
Cultural differences may be harder to address, but the heart of the question is the same: how do we make someone feel welcome? The more the potential or actual difference, the harder we need to work. Nothing beats talking about it, whether outright or by asking people’s experience of church previously (that’s a pertinent question for pretty much anyone visiting a church these days). Hospitality is an important factor: many cultures have a greater appreciation of the home than we do, so a home visit – to yours or theirs – can have a substantial impact (again, this is true for pretty much anyone these days).
Perhaps the hardest thing is not so much finding the ones and twos who are very different to most of the church (they may visit once) but bending over backwards, with integrity as well as immense kindness, to ensure they know more than just a superficial welcome.
To read the first instalment of this article click here