Rev. Paul M. Turner, Founding and Senior Pastor, Gentle Spirit Christian Church

The Road to Irrelevance

Since the earliest days of Christianity, one thing we Christians have proven ourselves great at is splintering ourselves seven ways to Sunday, so to speak. We profess to follow Jesus the Christ, who wanted to draw the world to him – but in our day-to-day practice, at best we seem to be sending mixed signals to the stranger in our midst. At our worst, we look downright stuck up.

We put all sorts of words on the marquee out front – open, welcoming, inclusive – but let a neighbor present themselves and we send a million overt and subtle signals about what we’d like to see if they intend to stick around beyond a single Sunday.

Let’s be honest with ourselves: Is the average congregation – the average Christian – truly open to the disruption posed by someone whose dress, manner, career, socioeconomic status and life choices might be worlds apart from the norms in play in the church building we call our spiritual home?

We say we’re inclusive, but is there an actual behavior behind the preaching? Or is that practice so practiced that it leaves no room for the real?

Are we the two salespeople in the Rodeo Drive boutique in the movie “Pretty Woman” who are so convinced they can spot a good customer that when Julia Roberts’ character shows up ready to spend (lots of) money, they shoo her away because she doesn’t fit their preconceptions?

Change Rodeo Drive to the average neighborhood church and that boutique to a front-row pew, and those two salespeople could just as easily be two Baptist ladies in their Sunday finery, clutching their pearls and shooing away an Anglican who has clearly stumbled into the wrong building. Or vice versa.

After all, we’ve got centuries of splintering to preserve here. The Baptist denomination owes its very existence to pivotal (I’m joking here) early questions of how Christians should be baptized: Should they be dunked? Sprinkled? Half-drowned? And part of the Anglican church’s founding included a fight with the Roman Catholic church over divorce.

If that’s how we are to each other, can you imagine what we must feel like to a stranger? The word inclusive doesn’t exactly come to mind.

Contrast this family bickering with the approach of Jesus, who was interested in all seekers, not just those who agreed with him. The examples of his radical inclusivity are myriad:

  • There is the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, whose people were despised by the Jews of the day for their ways of worship and their ancestry.
  • The story of the tax collector, shunned from his society because of his overbearing collections and swindling.
  • The story of the Roman centurion, a symbol of the foreign domination of Israel.
  • The story of the adulterous woman, unclean and despised in her own society because of her acts.
  • The story of the unclean woman, who Jesus healed in an instant by acknowledging the depth of her faith.

What all these people have in common is that they were despised in their own societies. But Jesus, without hesitation, ministered to them or healed them outright. They were outcasts to everyone but Jesus, who roundly condemned the snobbery of those who couldn’t be bothered to see their humanity.

By the way, these snobby pearl-clutchers weren’t limited to the folks you might call the “in” crowd of their day – they included the Pharisees, whose disdain for the lower classes was (and I am not making this up) part of their religious practice – which to me is all the more despicable, because as people of God they should have known better.

Jesus had no patience with it all – the Rodeo Drive types, the Pharisees and their ilk. One of my favorite stories comes from Jesus simply making an observation about who is blessed and who, on the other hand, might have a problem:

He told his next story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people: “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man. The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’

Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’ ”

Jesus commented, “This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.” Luke 18:9-14

Jesus saved some of his strongest words for the complacently pleased ones, calling them vipers and whitewashed sepulchers – implying a pretty outer image but an inner death.

Today it does not seem that much has changed except the labels we use to exclude rather than include.

We’re oh-so-willing to point out the speck in another’s eye while ignoring the plank in our own. We pounce on the transgressions committed by followers of other religions and conveniently ignore the ones done in the name of our own. We’re institutionally conformist when we should be transforming. We’re exclusive rather than inclusive.

And these are all just way stations on the road to irrelevance – all of it leaving us blind to the beauty of the diversity of God’s creation.

Need proof? Decades after MLK spoke of “the most segregated hour in America”, not much has changed about late Sunday mornings. In fact, it’s not just the most ethnically un-diverse hour in America, it’s also the most sexist. Not only do we struggle more often than not with the role of women in the church, but our very language continues to subjugate the feminine. We also still prefer that the homeless and hungry line up at the back door for a handout rather than come in the front door and join us as prodigals.

Sexual minorities feel uncomfortable/unwelcome in cis/hetero-normative mainline congregations, and straight folk feel uncomfortable in the pews of queer churches.

The price of non-inclusivity being non-diversity, we miss out on differing viewpoints, and we risk having a skewed perception of the world. We lose the ability to meet the needs of the world because we’re disconnected from the actual lives of those most in need. Not knowing the stories of the people we profess to care about, we make up stories of our own, and we make up ministries based on those stories.

We self-congratulate while not knowing the actual truth. We become people of words, not deeds.

Perhaps a level-set for us might be to remember that to God, each soul is utterly equal to the next soul. Each life is equally sacred and worth saving. Each person is equally beautiful and worthy of love. God doesn’t focus on our shortcomings; God focuses on our potential.

Not only are we more alike than different, but our differences provide perspective more than discord. It’s harmony we should fear; it’s artificial and its sibling is complacency. And what exactly was complacent about Jesus’ ministry?

The irony of all this is that these values – diversity and inclusion – come to us from corporate America. It’s in that world of cutthroat competition that leaders promote inclusivity because they know that not having a diversity of viewpoints could cost them their bottom line.

I’ve often said that the institutional church of today, with its power-grab for souls branded by denomination, can feel uncomfortably like a corporation. I used to think the church and the corporation were hard to tell apart in their behaviors. Now it seems to me that the average job interview might be a more inclusive experience than the average Sunday service.

So what does inclusion look like? For starters, we’re given the example of the shepherd, who isn’t focused on the sheep in plain sight, contentedly grazing; instead, the shepherd’s concern is with the one that’s gone astray and must be coaxed back into the fold.

Every. Soul. Matters.

If you walk into church this Sunday and what you see doesn’t match that vision, then you know what to do.

Rev. Paul M. Turner

About Rev. Paul M. Turner

Founding and Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church, Rev. Paul M. Turner grew up in suburban Chicago and was ordained by the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1989. He and his husband Bill have lived in metro Atlanta since 1994. He is the editor of the Seeds of Hope blog whose posts from 1999-2005 are at http://whosoever.org/seeds/ -- and which now resides at http://gentlespirit.org/topics/blog/seeds-of-hope/.

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