Re-imagining Church: Who’s In and Who’s Out?

April 13, 2008

Opening Prayer (from Psalm 63:1-4) “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name. Amen”

Old Testament Reading:
Numbers 15:15-16 “The community is to have the same rules for you and for the alien living among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You and the alien shall be the same before the LORD: The same laws and regulations will apply both to you and to the alien living among you.”

New Testament Reading:
Galatians 3:23-29 “Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law. You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

Last week we saw that one of the helpful ways to envision Scripture and the ongoing narrative of God’s people is as a meandering river – one full of twists and turns, yet one that is heading in a specific direction overall. A second helpful way of thinking about Scripture is as an invitation, an invitation to enter the river and to participate in the journey towards its destination.

In the world today, people have a wide range of relationships to the river and a wide range of responses to the invitation. Some are standing on the river bank, unsure about the water, some are wading in the shallow water, getting their feet wet and some are swimming downstream. Today though, let us focus on the people who are walking away from the river, heading in a totally different direction. It seems there are two main reasons why people do this. Some people are simply unaware that the river is there. They are not rejecting the invitation, they are simply unaware that they have been invited to come and swim. That can hardly be their fault; if we have not invited them and helped them find the river, surely the responsibility must lie with us.

A second group of people are walking away from the river because they have tried to get in – tried to respond to the invitation – but have discovered that the people already in the river have not welcomed them. They have sensed that they are not welcome – they are not invited. Once again, the responsibility must surely lie with those in the river who have failed to live into the narrative of what it means to be “church” and have made these people feel unwelcome.

When we first envisioned The University Church, as we discussed last week, we constructed a set of core values to describe what the community could look like in a way that was faithful to the flow of the river and to the destination towards which it is headed. The first of these core values is: “A community reaching out to all of God’s people, seeking peace and justice”.

We spend many, many hours talking about one word in this statement. And the word is “all”. Is everyone really invited to be part of the journey? Do we really mean that? Who is “in” and who is “out”?

We thought about the issues that are used to divide and separate people. The list is very long but some representative examples include:

• Race and ethnicity
• Language
• Age
• Gender
• Socioeconomic status
• Physical and mental abilities
• Health
• Sexual orientation
• Belief, theology and worldview

We have worked to overcome these potential barriers but it is important to realize that inclusiveness does not happen by accident. It is hard work and often makes people feel uncomfortable. Some are more difficult than others. For example, the very fact that we conduct our worship in English excludes a significant sector of the Hispanic community. The least we can is to acknowledge this and to include facets of worship that remind us that not everyone communicates the same way. Last week we saw our opening song presented in American Sign Language for exactly this reason.

A big question that results from inclusiveness is this: If everyone (really everyone) is invited, then what is the difference between a church and a club, where anyone can join? Surely there must be a difference, but what is it? Here we can first reflect back on the core values of the church as discerned from the flow of the narrative:

• A community reaching out to all of God’s people, seeking peace and justice
• Christ-centered and Spirit-led through prayer
• Teaching, mentoring and guiding through small group interactions
• Seeking to meet the needs of individuals and the community
• Transforming individuals, the church, the community and the world
• Worship that is relevant, vibrant and alive.
• Openness, honesty and integrity in all things

Second, we can understand the function of the church as a provider of opportunities to encounter God’s grace. Although God’s grace extends through all the created order, it is the church that can focus on the means of grace – those things that the long flow of the narrative has shown to be especially effective at facilitating people’s encounter with and experience of God. As a place that abounds in grace-filled opportunities, the church community becomes the living presence of Christ in the world. Taking a pro-active stance on inclusiveness makes certain demands on us as a community:

• Inclusiveness is hard work
• Inclusiveness may make people uncomfortable
• Inclusiveness means being intentional
• Inclusiveness recognizes differences
• Inclusiveness is our responsibility
• Inclusiveness will only happen if you make it happen

The last point is especially important and so let’s end with that: Inclusiveness will only happen if you make it happen!

Thanks for visiting!