The Problem of Wanting a Truly Inclusive Church

A reflection by Lindsey

Being and doing church together is hard. I can’t think of many things that are as demanding as trying to be the Body of Christ, built together for the purpose of reflecting God’s heart for the world. Some days I find myself wanting to give up all together.

I have certain scriptures that haunt my consciousness. They have for years. When I think about the Church, I hear John’s observation from Revelation ricocheting between my ears: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” I’ve wondered what exactly that verse indicates about the life in the hereafter, and I long to be a part of a church community where everyone is welcome with their diversities.

But there’s a problem with wanting a truly inclusive church. I find myself always leaving certain people out.

Over the last several months, I’ve been made painfully aware that I’m an ableist jerk. Attending church and coping with Sarah’s rapidly changing ability levels has been hard. I’ve realized that no matter what parish we attend, Sarah is frequently the only person with substantive hearing loss who needs support in accessing the service. But I’ve realized that there are more people who are absent. I’ve attended church in so many different communities. Across all of those communities, I recall only ever seeing one blind individual, one hard-of-hearing person, and maybe four wheelchair users. That’s really pathetic.

But what strikes me as even more pathetic is my own response. I have it in my head that these people pass through church. They come to church, they get prayer, and God heals them. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work? There are countless stories of Jesus healing in the Gospels, and there are all sorts of exhortations to pray for the sick in our efforts to manifest God’s Kingdom on earth. How many times have I laid hands on a person to say “Holy Spirit come and bring healing”? How many times have I decided that if a particular person isn’t interested in healing, then that person lacks faith?

It’s tough stuff, so I find myself wondering, “What does God’s vision for an inclusive church actually look like?”

I don’t have the foggiest clue. Lately, I’m wondering if God’s Church is full of people who make me really uncomfortable. I am a judgmental, arrogant jerk who asks the question, “What is that person doing here?” But every time I ask the question, I realize that I could very easily be on the wrong side of the line I’ve drawn around who is welcome. When it comes to drawing lines to divide us and them, there’s something in me crying out, “You know Lindsey, by that set of metrics, you’re among the them.” The more I try to wiggle and redefine the boundary so I’m on the “right” side, the louder that voice cries out. Drawing lines to divide people is hard.

The problem is especially pronounced in Christian communities because, as Christians, we have a sacred obligation to present Christ to the world. Over two thousand years, God has chosen to entrust this task to people with the promise that the Holy Spirit will guide us along the way. I can’t help but read the history of the Church without thinking about the Old Testament stories of the Israelites. Does anyone else read 1 and 2 Kings and start screaming at the Israelites to get it to together already? If the scriptures bear witness to anything, I think they tell us that we truly suck at being a people of God.

I live in this odd hope that the Kingdom of God is made manifest now. Here, on Earth, in real time. I wonder a lot about what the here and now is supposed to teach me about the Eschaton. I reflect on everything I think I know and how so many of those beliefs have changed as I’ve really given myself to the task of following Jesus.

I do my best to find my way through the fog. Thinking about how I approach these really hard questions, I keep coming back to, “What are we saying about Jesus if we say xy, or z?” I try really hard to listen for the Holy Spirit. Occasionally, I reach conclusions that x is likely incredibly dangerous and has amazing potential to do harm. I’ve dug into that those questions and have concluded that certain theological tenets are essential. I didn’t have a sense of belonging in a particular Christian tradition when I started asking these questions, but along the way I encountered my current Christian tradition where all of a sudden I had a way of saying, “This is what it means to be the Church.” Fast forward six years, and I find my spirit troubled that I’ve never been in any local church community in any tradition that invites everyone to encounter Christ.

So much of the problem of being a truly inclusive church is that gap between what I believe the church should be and my tendencies to squirm when I see someone who makes me feel uncomfortable. Lord, have mercy.

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