congregation

Practicing Inclusion

By Rev. Mindi

“Inclusive” has become a buzzword descriptor among churches these days. Perhaps you mean it to include LGBTQ individuals and families in your congregation. Perhaps you mean it to include people of different ethnic backgrounds. Maybe it means including people of different economic statuses.

Inclusion means including everyone. It doesn’t mean creating a special program for or a specific mission outreach to a certain group of people.  Inclusion means you actually include someone: you value, encourage participation, listen to and incorporate all people into your congregational life.

Inclusion is actually very difficult to accomplish. Most of us have the best of intentions but don’t actually follow through. Most of the time, our inclusion is actually under another buzzword, “Welcoming.” We throw together a welcoming statement and say we welcome all people. We might even go to the next level and say we welcome all persons regardless of age, gender expression, sexual orientation, racial or ethnic identity, economic status, ability, etc. etc. etc.  However, there are places where we specifically do not include people and we need to not only be aware but acknowledge this.

We often do not include children, whether it be in worship (though many churches do include children to a degree, but we still often send them out after the Children’s Message) or in church business. Sure, we might ask them their opinions or talk with them in children’s sermons about things happening in the life of the church, but rarely are they included in business meetings or given the right to vote (my current church is in the process of revamping its constitution and it still states that members have to be age 16 in order to vote).  We have our reasons—they are not old enough to understand, or they would just vote the way their parents did giving them twice the vote, or other reasons we pass off. We also don’t include homebound members (often still called “shut-ins” in the life of the church) because they are no longer able to attend.  Sure, we visit them now and then, but we don’t include them in the business of the church, or the worship, for that matter.

And we do not include people with differing abilities, usually. We assume persons who use a wheelchair or walker, or those who have long-term illness, mental or physical, cannot participate in the life of the church. Sure, we welcome them to worship and we may build ramps and make our restrooms accessible, but we often do not ask them about participating, assuming they cannot.

Can a person who uses a wheelchair still hand out bulletins and greet people? Can a child carry the offering plate? Can a person who is ill still help make decisions in the life of the church? Can a young teen have a mind-blowing idea that could change the church? Of course!

Look at your congregation’s practice of inclusion. First look at what you say about yourself. Then look to see what you are really doing. Who is in leadership? Who is involved in worship? Who is involved in outreach or other ministries? What is the diversity represented? Even if there is little ethnic diversity in your congregation, look for other diversities. Are people with differing abilities represented? Are people of different ages represented? Economic status? How do you include home-bound members and those who deal with long-term illness?

How are you practicing inclusion in the life of your church? Is it a matter of lip-service, or are you doing your best to include people from all areas of life?  If not, how could you improve?

Here are some recent examples from churches I have known that have made a change to practice inclusion better:

 

-Including a ramp for the choir loft so that singers of all abilities could participate.

-Moving the choir down to the sanctuary floor for the anthem so that others could participate who could not get to the choir loft.

-Inviting a young man using a wheelchair to collect the offering

-Including a teen with Asperger’s on the youth outreach committee

-Making all restrooms accessible and changing the signs to “Restroom” with no gender indication

 

What can you do to practice inclusion better as a church community?

What We Need Is Adventure

Growing up, Goonies was one of my favorite movies.

It had lots of things a 10 year old boy loved - pirate ships, skeletons, sparkling jewels, funny characters, ice cream, booby traps, mean villains, and water slides.

I realize that Goonies isn't the greatest example of cinema. Sure, it has a sense of fun and a handful of good moments, but the sets look like a cheap theme park ride, the acting is over the top, and Cyndi Lauper rarely makes my iTunes playlist.

But in my book, Goonies got something dead on - the dream of many of us youngsters who longed for a good, old fashioned adventure.

That’s the only reason Goonies has persisted in my imagination. I didn’t just like the film - I wanted that film to be my story. I wanted to discover buried treasure in my backyard.

As a youngster, I spent many of my summers exploring the beauty of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, an amazing stretch of rocky wilderness in southwest Oklahoma that was haunted by the legend of folks like mobster Al Capone and outlaw Jesse James. Somewhere and somehow, there had to be gold in those ancient hills. Those short expeditions were a break from the mundane and an entryway into a world of mystery and excitement. Even as a father and minister, that longing and thirst for adventure has stayed with me.

Rabbi Edwin Friedman, in his work about family systems theory, once taught that “the only way to get a system unstuck is to go on an adventure”.

Whether it is a political system that lacks any sense of moral imagination, a church that seems to bear more witness to judgmentalism than good news, an organization that fails to protect the very people it is designed to serve, or a declining congregation that gets keeps rearranging the deck chairs rather than engage in deep discernment about their calling, there are stuck systems all around us.

I often get to speak with members of other congregations and enjoy finding out what God is up to in their community. In particular, I love to hear what is the most unique about their community. The vast majority of the time, I hear how people love their church because it is warm and caring, like a “family”. I don’t often hear about daring ministry projects, unique efforts to reach out to their neighborhood, exciting initiatives to love others, or ongoing transformation through spiritual disciplines. I know how valuable warm and caring community is for each of us, but a church without a thirst for adventure is likely stuck.

Not all churches are like this. Sometimes, adventure happens without our choosing, whether it is a devastating hurricane that forces a congregation to turn its building into a mission center, the loss of a beloved pastor that moves a community to reexamine its vision, or a grim financial report that suggests only a few months of “normal” ministry remain before bills go unpaid.

But for the rest of us, our stuck system won’t change until someone (or a bunch of someones) does something radical, more than adding a worship service, hiring a new pastor, changing the style of music, or building a website. We have to have an adventure. As Helland and Hjalmarson say in Missional Spirituality, we long to be “freed to venture out on reconnaissance with Christ on mission in the wide open expanse of God’s cathedral in creation and culture.”

Or as Jesus so often does, we have to embrace the unexpected, rounding up people from the streets, “both good and bad”, for God’s banquet (Matthew 22:10), going two by two with nothing but the clothes on our back and a spring in our step (Luke 10:1), venturing into the rough part of town to be transformed by folks different than us (Mark 7:25), or partying with people of ill repute (Luke 5:27-32).

I suppose this huge theme of adventure that runs throughout the Bible, starting with Abram’s call to go to a distant land and continuing through the Great Commission and launch of the early church, continues to feed and prick the imagination of that 10 year old Goonie inside of me.

No, there may not be buried gold in my backyard, but there is an epic story unfolding all around, the work of Creator, Son, and Spirit reclaiming, renewing, and making whole.

May we join that adventure, and in the words of Shane Claiborne in Jesus for President, “live the contagious love of God.”