The challenge to be true to the love of Christ
What a delight it is to know that 71 per cent of Uniting Church people who completed the National Church life Survey indicated that “inclusion” was the characteristic of our church that they most valued.
This tells me that we are now clear that the hospitable love of Christ for all is a central feature of our ethos. We could probably safely add that most of us see this as applying especially to those who are in the margins or minorities of our society.
The fact that hospitality is a key theme of the Christian Bible means that, in holding this as a primary value, the people of God “on the way” are on the right track.
Before, however, we get too carried away with self-congratulation and overwhelmed with pride, it is worth asking to what extent what we say we believe is actually lived out in our worship and witness.
In my long experience of congregational life, and with recent wide exposure to a variety of congregations across New South Wales and the ACT I have yet to come across one which did not describe itself as warm and welcoming. Yet such gracious openness does not always result in growing numbers of appreciative people who are irresistibly drawn to the community of faith by the magnetic attraction of open welcome.
We might sing “Come as you are” with gusto, but do we really, really mean it? And, if we do, what changes might we have to make, what new and risky paths might we have to take to convince those who venture in that they are truly welcome “as they are”?
For example, how gender-inclusive is our worship?
The hymnal Together in Song, which strongly expresses our inclusive ethos, is by and large gender-inclusive in its language, as are most contemporary songs in resources such as Seasons of the Spirit, As One Voice, and NCYC. Recent translations of the scriptures such as the NRSV version also use inclusive language.
Some might say “it makes no difference to me” but that in itself is not an inclusive statement.
We should be aware and sensitive to the fact that many who are in church as newcomers or those who have returned after a long absence will notice when we use “he”, “him”, “his”, “man”, “men”, “brother” and so on to talk about men and women. The society in which they live has moved on from this.
And what of our witness in mission and service?
In his book A Public Faith, Miroslav Volf addresses the question of how followers of Christ should serve the Common Good. He notes a shift in the late 20th century: “Human flourishing came increasingly to be defined as experiential satisfaction.” Under this influence, “benevolence and beneficence mutate into the pursuit of self-interest.”
It seems to me that as a self-proclaiming inclusive church we have a huge challenge to be true to the self-giving, all-embracing love of Christ; to not only promote love and hope to all but also to free ourselves from the dominant, pervasive and seductive power of self-interest.
“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35 NRSV).
The Rev. Dr Brian Brown, Moderator of the Synod of New South Wales and the ACT.
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