Recently I participated in a discussion with a group of theologians who participated in an event hosted by an organization that works for full inclusion of all people in all churches. One person made a comment, meant to be encouraging at the time, that with changes in society and stories in the press, we had won. The idea, and language, of “winning church” stuck with me for the rest of the day as it bulldozed its way through my thinking and most of my individual conversations the rest of the day.
Wouldn’t we all be very happy if everyone else’s theology came into perfect alignment with our own? I have never met anyone who did not like the idea of winning, and “winning church” probably ranks as the biggest.
Deep inside, I think we all desire an end to conflict between the faiths so that the most contentious argument in Church is whether to serve regular, whole-wheat, or gluten-free communion wafers. Sadly, within major religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam most of the divisions, denominations, or sects agree on the big concepts of the religion. The minutia and practice around those concepts, though create schisms large enough to dwarf the Grand Canyon. To cement the “rightness” of each point, they become so enshrined in ritual across generations that if the Torah/Bible/Koran did not say it, it should have.
Truthfully, though, I do not want another denomination or, for that matter, another individual to come into sync with my personal theology: it would diminish my personal, individual, relationship with God. I came to where I am in faith through my life experiences and my encounters with God. They are uniquely mine and have shaped nuances of faith no one else can have. The big ideas align to my faith tradition but have been buffed and polished by my experiences with God. The biggest idea in Christianity is having a personal relationship with God.
Similarly, congregational experience grows the same way through corporate worship and shared experiences. Each congregation develops its its history and tradition around those experiences. Some use the history as a guide for future work. Some get stuck in the history.
While it the idea of winning sounds nice, it does not support the value of welcoming all in the church. For someone to win, someone else loses - becoming disenfranchised and feeling unwelcome in the church. The welcoming and affirming movements within the different denominations have to recognize that we have not been successful until every child of God is welcome in every congregation. As more congregations and religious organizations adjust rules and statements of faith the more we will encounter individuals and groups who opposed those changes. They are as worthy or our love and gracious welcome as the previously excluded populations.
Welcoming is not a value extended only toward historically marginalized individuals and groups. Welcoming is a value extended to everyone. Christ left no ambiguity about who could be his follower. He traveled amongst the sinners and unclean while engaging the religious elite. He welcomed everyone.
Society may proclaim winners and losers on various issues, but we who seek justice for all cannot let ourselves adapt this kind of thinking. We have long worked to develop a kingdom view of people that welcomes everyone and affirms their value.
I admit that I am encouraged by the increase in congregations and organizations who are recognizing that Christ welcomed and affirmed all people and are seeking to become more Christlike by following his example. Meanwhile other congregations reinforce their theology that defines who can worship with them. As long as the dichotomy exists there are no winners. The best we can do is to practice grace and demonstrate the love of God.