“All are welcome!” “Wherever you are on your journey, you are welcome here!” “Open and affirming!” “Come as you are, believing as you do!”
These are just a few of the phrases communities of faith use in their (mostly) sincere attempts to welcome diverse groups of people to their communities. I say “mostly” because I think it is fair to say some congregations use these phrases primarily as marketing tools. That is, facing declining numbers, some conservative and liberal religious groups are tweaking not only their orders of worship, music, “clerical drag” and programming; they are also tweaking their advertising techniques to boost attendance numbers and financial support. I understand this desire for survival. Still, the challenge is, after people arrive–if they haven’t given up on religion altogether already–they eventually learn there is often some “fine print” attached to those messages. In other words, there are some exclusions in the inclusive message.
For example, one friend of mine started attending a large non-denominational Christian church that proclaimed everyone without exception was welcome there. This group had amazing music and programming as well as positive and uplifting messages. There was a lot of Jesus–just without all that annoying discipleship business–well, with perhaps the exception of financial discipleship, that is. He attended a membership class and liked what he heard. Then my friend spoke with the facilitator after the class. He told the facilitator he is gay and asked if that would be a problem.
The facilitator of the class was obviously flustered and said, “Well, yes. I mean, you can come here and all, but you would have to commit to celibacy or repent and convert to heterosexuality before you could be a member.” Then, to add insult to injury, he placed his hand on my friend’s shoulder and said, “I don’t have a problem with homosexuals personally. See? If I did, I wouldn’t be touching you like this.” I’ve lost touch with this friend over the past few years; so I don’t know if he ever darkened the door of any church ever again. I can’t say I would blame him if he didn’t.
Now, not all churches that claim to be inclusive and welcoming are like the one I’ve described here. And sexual orientation is just one example of the “fine print” in some welcoming congregations. Another example is women (“Of course you can serve–just not in leadership that includes supervising or teaching men.”). I’m sure you can think of other examples, too. At the same time, there are many, many communities of faith that strive to be as welcoming and inclusive as possible. I know because I am honored to be the pastor of one such group.
The challenge remains, however, that there is always fine print–either spoken or implied. You could call this fine print “boundaries,” too. Some are healthy; some are not.
I’ll use the congregation I serve as an example. In our Inquirer’s classes I now identify as a Unitarian Universalist Christian at this point in my life journey. I go on to explain that while this is how I identify, no one is required to share that identification in order to be a member of our church. People can be as creedal, conservative, born again, “washed in the blood of the Lamb” as they choose–or not. At the same time, they aren’t going to hear creedal, conservative, born again, “washed in the blood of the Lamb” music in our worship services or that theology in my reflections. So, if they absolutely need to hear affirmations of things like virgin birth, bodily resurrection, Jesus as God, blood atonement, hell, the bible as literal word of God and the like, they may not be comfortable at our church.
Again, I emphasize everyone is welcome at Holy Covenant and–like our Unitarian Universalist sisters and brothers–we affirm every person’s free and responsible search for truth. Yet I can see how a moderate to conservative Trinitarian Christian (straight or gay) could feel excluded at our church. And people who aren’t “Jesus-centric” probably wouldn’t be too comfortable with our focus on the teachings of Jesus and other biblical teachings, either. In other words, our church has “fine print,” too. And while I believe our fine print represents some healthy boundaries for what people can expect to see and hear at our church, others might see us as “exclusive.”
So the more I consider what I call “the illusion of inclusion,” the more I think some of us in “church world” stress out far too much over who we’re not, rather than celebrating–and not just affirming–the wonderful parts of who we are. Every religious community has a culture of its own; and while every community of faith has room for healthy growth, challenge and change, rarely does everything about those communities need an overhaul. Besides, when we try too hard to be something we’re not in any area of our lives, we can cause more hurt and pain to others and ourselves than any good we hoped to accomplish.
In the end, perhaps the best we can do is take the advice of St. Francis de Sales who was quoted as saying, “Be who you are and be that well.” That “who” may very well evolve and change over time, too. Besides, organisms (including churches and religions) that don’t evolve usually die anyway. Still, healthy change (boundary shifting)–either individual or communal–cannot be forced, even with the best of intentions and advertising campaigns. Healthy change takes time, “prodding” from the Divine within each of us, and our willingness to listen to and act upon that prodding.
After all, we cannot be all things to all people. So, “be who you are and be that well.”
And be at peace.