Why I’m not a fan of inclusive church

First of all, don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of the organisation Inclusive Church. If you’re not familiar with their work, check them out here: http://www.inclusive-church.org.uk/ They’re brilliant, really they are, and they’re doing wonderful, Godly work.

What I’m not a fan of is the habit of churches describing themselves as inclusive of a particular group: “at St N’s we’re inclusive of children/women/LGBT people”. Undoubtedly this is well meant. But it inherently sets up an uneven power dynamic: one party (“us”) is doing the including; the other (“them”) is having the including done to them, as it were. One is active, one is passive. And the power, the decision making, the choice to be inclusive (or not) is all with one party, the “us”.

So when I see something about a church (or any other group of people, really) being inclusive, I want to ask myself three questions:

1.  Who is doing the including?

2. Who is being included?

3. Is the relationship between the two a relationship of equals, with an equal balance of power?

The answer to question 3 is, almost inevitably, “No”.

So am I saying that the church can’t be inclusive? Absolutely not! Because there is One who can do the including, who can and already does include everyone: God.

God already includes everyone, already invites everyone to the table. Our job is simply to pass the invitation on. God’s church is sometimes a bit slow (or more than a bit!) to catch up with the absolute, boundless, radical inclusiveness of God.

But we have to keep on trying.

“Become like one of these little ones” – towards a vision for child-centred ministry

A wise friend recently asked me whether I see my calling to ministry as being exclusively focused on children. I hesitated. I am at heart a children’s minister. I believe that’s what God has called me to and equipped me for. But to focus exclusively on children? That didn’t sound quite right (the word “exclusively” never should in the church).

“No,” I replied, “I see it as child-centred. I mean really, truly centred on children. Intergenerational, but putting children first.”

Because let’s face it, the church, even in really “good”, “child-friendly” churches, is adult-centred. We all, however much we try not to, have a bias towards the needs of people a bit like us. And, for the leaders of churches, that means adults. So, intentionally or not, children are treated as second-best.

I don’t mean people are intentionally marginalising children in our churches (although that does happen in too many places). It’s the unconscious bias that plans the adult worship first and then fits in children around the edges, either figuratively or literally. It’s the assumption that “proper” worship must involve words and reading, that all decision-makers in the church must be adults, that furniture should be the right size to be comfortable for adults, that notice boards should be at adult head-height.

Some of these might seem like trivial things (some of them definitely aren’t) but they combine to give the impression of a church which puts adults at the centre. Even the phrase “we are inclusive of children” isn’t as great as it sounds. It’s setting up two distinct groups – “we” and “children” – and the power to include (or otherwise) clearly lies with the “we”.

Of course, when I talk about my ministry being “child-centred”, the person I really want at the centre of my ministry is Jesus. So, what does a “Jesus-centred” ministry have to say about the place of children?

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Matthew 18.3-5)

Pretty clear really, isn’t it? And that’s before you even get to the dire warnings about stumbling blocks and millstones.

Notice that word “change”. “Unless you change…” says Jesus. Shifting from adult-centred ministry to child-centred ministry requires a seismic change in world view – shifting the focus from the centre to the margins always does.. The whole of our culture says “adults matter more”. It takes guts to say “No” to that, and keep on saying it. But then, nobody said this would be easy. And isn’t the Jesus-centred option so often the one that flies in the face of received wisdom?

So what would a child-centred church look like? I don’t know, but I want to find out. I suspect it would be more honest, more messy, more lively, more chaotic than even I might be comfortable with. But that’s a step outside my comfort zone that I long to take.

“You are the witnesses of these things” – sermon for Easter 3, year B

Acts 3.12-19, Luke 24.36b-48

“You are the witnesses of these things”, Jesus tells his disciples, when they have seen him risen. “To this we are witnesses” says Peter, speaking about the healing, resurrecting power of Christ.

I wonder what it means to be a witness? A witness is one who has seen for themselves. But not just one who has seen – one who is ready to tell others what they have seen.

I wonder what difference it makes to see something for yourself, rather than just to hear about it? Let’s try something to help us explore that.

[Blindfold vicar.

Give ‘mystery object’ to children.

             Ask some children to start drawing ‘mystery object’, if not done earlier.]

Hugh can’t see what we’ve got here. And we’re not going to tell him exactly what it is. What clues can we give him to help him know more about it?

[Clues and guessing. Shape, colour, size, heavy/light, rough/smooth, hot/cold, etc.]

 I wonder how else we could help Hugh find out more about this thing? We could let him touch it. [Try that.] We could show him pictures of it. [Try that.] But the very best thing we could do is bring him over here to see it for himself.

Now how does that translate into how we witness to the Good News of the gospel, the Good News that Jesus has died and is risen for us, that God loves us more than we can imagine and always will – how do we witness to that?

Maybe we associate the idea of ‘witnessing’ with telling people, with using words. That’s certainly part of it, but there are so many other ways to witness to what God has done and, by the Holy Spirit, continues to do in the world. We could show people in pictures or music or drama or sculpture. We could tell the story of what we ourselves have experienced, in our own lives.

Better still, we can look for ways to see for themselves, to touch and taste for themselves, the presence of the risen Jesus in the here-and-now. We can do that by the example of our own lives: when we follow Jesus’ teaching; when we love unconditionally, as he has loved us; when we stand as he did with the poor and marginalised and oppressed; when we live as people filled with the Spirit of God.

We can also do it when we invite people in. Invite them into our lives, into the church, into our life together, into the communion we share with the risen Christ. Really, that invitation isn’t ours to give – and it certainly isn’t ours to withhold – Jesus has already invited everyone, we are just passing the invitation on. That’s why we always say here “all are welcome to receive the bread and wine of communion”.

These are just some suggestions to get us thinking about how we witness. I’m sure you will have other ideas to add. However we do it, the important thing is that we do it – however and wherever and whenever we can. That is the task Jesus gives to his disciples, to us. We who are witnesses must tell others, and bring others to see for themselves.

We need to make use of every means at our disposal to witness to the saving power of God’s love for everyone, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are Easter people, resurrection people. We are witnesses to the Good News. Let us tell and show and share that Good News everywhere, to everyone, in every way we can.

Now in a moment of quiet, let us reflect on what we, individually and as a church, can do to witness to our experience of God, and to the Good News of Jesus.