When we include, who do we exclude?

I had a conversation with someone recently who had considered being active in our church. I would have been THRILLED to have that person’s gifts and real-life experience in the congregation, but it never quite clicked. Then that person told me they appreciated that my church worked with people with addictions and unsheltered folks, but because we were meeting those needs (and we’re a TINY church), it was pretty clear that person’s more regular “vital worship and strong Sunday School and youth ministries” needs weren’t going to get met unless our church expanded a whole bunch.

First Christian Church’s slogan is “A Church for All People, because God’s Love is for All People.” And when you include all people, you end up excluding folks.

The “experts” say that people will go to a church of a higher socio-economic makeup than their own, but almost never a lower socio-economic make-up. We’ve obviously got folks in our church that defy that rule, but it means they have to have a higher tolerance for chaos and looseness, because the world that is imposed on poor folks makes for chaos and looseness that we can’t always control. We’re getting a children’s program together, but parents will have to be willing to put their kids in a program with children whose parenting has been different and who have been exposed to different things than their own kids, if that program ends up including children from the neighborhood.

A couple of years ago, I sat up straight in my chair and said to a radical preacher friend of mine whose crazy church was making him crazy, “You know, I used to think it was charming that Jesus said he came not for the well but for the sick. I thought it was a joke on the privileged people who thought they weren’t sick even though they were among the sickest. But d***it, he’s left US with the sick, too, and that’s not what I signed on for.” Because ministry to everybody means loving the brokenness and sometimes drawing the brokenness, because it’s our brokenness that draws us to a community that HAS to love us through our trials and struggles and messiness. It’s why we’re a family, not a membership organization–because you can create membership criteria, but not family criteria.

I’ve watched phenomenal, progressive middle class folks join our congregation because they know what we’re doing is right and good and in keeping with Jesus’ ministry to everyone. And I’ve seen many of them, over time, drift to phenomenal, progressive middle class congregations that have a consistency to them. I mourn the loss of those folks, because they would bring such richness and life to our congregants. (And we do have middle class folks who feel called to be in this congregation, because they know what it means to live on the margins in some other way, and I am grateful for them as I am grateful for every single member of my beautiful flock.) But I acknowledge that because we are trying to be a church for everyone, really everyone, we are not likely to be able to be a church for them.

The reason I was able to have that conversation with the person I mentioned at the beginning of this piece is because when they hit a point of struggle, they didn’t necessarily think I would know what to do or have words of wisdom or help, but they knew I would love them fiercely and pray for them and not judge or be uncomfortable, because no matter what, we know each other and love each other as part of one family. On a good day, that’s what my church is, too. And I don’t think that will be reason enough for my sibling in Christ to join the church, but it reminds me we’re on track. It’s just a hard track on which to be.

Comments (9)

  1. Bill Shive

    Well-said, Sandhya!

  2. David Cobb

    You’ve hit on something really important and given me an ah-ha moment. So now I’m wondering: what is my tolerance for chaos and looseness? I tend to think it’s pretty high. But is it? This may be more of a bellwether than socio-economics. It seems here you’ve touched on the mystery of the unimaginable and certainly unmanagable (by us) creative power of God.

  3. Dick Hamm

    Thanks for a thought provoking blog, Sandhya! I have a few minutes this morning, so I think I’ll play with this a bit.
    The English word “decide” comes from the Latin word, “dicidere”, which means to “cut off”. We typically think of deciding FOR something, but deciding FOR something also means deciding AGAINST something (“cutting off” other possibilities). We hope/wish that one does not have to make such choices within the Reign of God, and we ARE often able to hold the disparate possibilities together for a while, but it seems that in the long run we are cutting off some possibilities whenever we choose some. It is part of the human condition in which we find ourselves. This is not an argument against decision making (though people do often avoid decisions for exactly this reason – fear of loss of other possibilities – like “pack rats” who can throw nothing away and are soon living among piles of useless stuff), but it means we must be prepared for the unintended loss of possibilities that we inevitably experience. The better prepared we are for the inevitable losses (emotionally and spiritually), the longer we can sustain the possibility we have chosen and the longer we can hold the unchosen and the chosen possibilities together.
    For example, congregations often choose to have a second worship service without adequately preparing for it (and are thus unable to sustain it) but then find they cannot go back to one service withour creating huge conflict. All of this comes under the New Testament heading of “counting the cost”.
    The Good News is that we CAN hold the disparate possibilities together for a while (long enough for them to do each other some good) AND that there is GRACE, which means we don’t have to commit ourselves to being personally in charge of unsustainable tensions forever (that’s God’s job). The better prepared we are (that is, both ministers and lay people), the longer we can hold it together. And once in a while we get to see a miracle happen: when the unsustainable tension is overcome and the several possibilities become one (“holy” fusion) – which energizes us to sustain the unsustainable for a while longer.
    I give thanks that you, friend, have managed to sustain the tension for a long time now. May you see more of those occasional “holy fusions” that can sustain you personally as a leader, but may you also not be burdened by the notion that you have to do that hard hard work forever. Free of that notion, you will actually be able to sustain the effort longer! Blessings!

  4. Christine Tomascheski

    I am right there with you sister!

  5. Nancy Brookhart

    I am a member of Broadway Christian Church, Council Bluffs, IA. We too are a middle class church that is finding our mission with the poor, homeless, addicted, mentally ill…..etc. Those folks on the margins. And yes, it is a struggle to have programming that meets the needs of all.

    You’ve written a wonderful piece that I’d like to share, if I may. You especially struck a chord with me by saying that we can create membership criteria but not family criteria. So true, so true. (Altho somedays I wish we could get crazy aunt Ethel to try the church down the street.)

    Blessings to you as you share the love of Christ — as you are the hands, feet and voice of God to a world that is broken and hurting. May your actions bring wholeness and healing.

  6. Ed

    Sandhya, thank you for this word. You’ve hit it on the head, it’s not always easy being there for everyone, because someone is going to feel left out. Lots of food for thought…

  7. Sandhya (Post author)

    Thanks to all of you for such deep and reflective posts! The whole idea behind spending Lent blogging on complex issues was to invite conversation that might challenge as well as support me, and I’m really grateful for your input. And I want to note that Dick is the former head of our denomination who currently wrestles with this issue for a living, so I am grateful for his taking the time to unpack this. And I am grateful to all of you who posted and help me wrestle with this issue in many different ways!

  8. Jeffrey Ishmael

    Really great post! I hear the challenge in it. As a parent now my comfort level with the chaos has shifted. I feel called to both expose my daughters to the realities of brokenness and to protect them from it too. They were born into that brokenness and their first couple years of life it was the water in which they swam. Since they have been with Henry and me, we have struggled with wanting to foster a narriative of their life that does not deny their past and yet shields them from it too. I love my church family and I love family and sometimes the tension of how those to families blend (or don’t) is not so easy to stand in.

  9. Paul Freeman

    I’ve experienced what your church is now advocating when I was a member of University Place Christian Church in Enid, Oklahoma. At one point, in the life of that church it had in attendance well over 100 every Sunday and was alive and active, being near Phillips University. It began to reach out in various ways, including the least among the people of Enid. They started, what was referred to a “Mamre” group – look up the story of Abraham and Sarah with the 3 visitors. A weekly meal, food pantry and clothing bank was available, plus support groups were also part of it.

    But when some of those folks were drawn into the worship service there seemed to be a resentment and feelings of fear from well established members that they were threatened by these people’s presence. By the time I joined, the attendance and membership dwindled down to less than 40 for worship. Not only because of the different people but due to Phillips’ closing.

    The church still struggles for lack of members, but continue to be a “beacon” to the community and area who now extend their outreach to include University Place.

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