Things Change: Duane W.H. Arnold
It is amazing how things change. I can remember a discussion at the little Calvary Chapel Church that I pastored in Ohio many years ago. We had started an early morning service, but we only had an attendance of about 20, so we took it off the schedule in favor of a Sunday evening service that had a regular attendance 50+ and was growing. Part of our rationale behind this change was that we didn’t want one service to become the province of an exclusive group. The goal was to be inclusive, that is, to attract a diverse group of worshipers that, by and large, reflected the community around us. While the coffee house on Saturday nights attracted those in their teens and 20s, church on Sunday morning and Sunday evening would see an age range from teenagers to those in their 60s. As in the town in which we were located, the economic status of those in the church reflected the normal bell curve that one would expect in the community at large. The parishioners were single and married and we made a conscious choice not to have a “young married group” in the church. Again, the goal of the church was to be inclusive where anyone could find that they were welcomed. It almost goes without saying that politics simply did not form any part of normal discourse in the church. Looking back on it, I can remember Kenny, a staunch right-wing Republican, working alongside Thom, who had hair down to the middle of his back and was a roadie for a rock ‘n’ roll band.
We were diverse and inclusive without ever meaning to be…
As I think back, I can also see that the dividing line between church and social life was really indistinct. This is to say, there was no border between worship and community. Each was a part of the other. Although we did not know it, in many ways we functioned as a traditional parish church, as though everyone in our community had access to what we offered. It didn’t matter if people came to church to pray and learn or if they merely came because of the social life offered in the coffee hour. Some, I’m sure, only came for the music. Everyone was welcome. There were those whom we knew we probably wouldn’t see again after their daughter’s wedding, just as there were those whom we would only see on the street after their grandmother’s funeral.
Many years later, while on staff of a church in Midtown Manhattan, I saw this repeated. With an average Sunday attendance of almost 1800, it was hard to keep track of the various people one would see in the course of four services on Sunday, much less the other 18 services that took place throughout the rest of the week. The goal, however, was the same, that is, to be inclusive and welcoming. In such a large congregation, we recognized that people were at different places in their faith journey. Additionally, we realized that in addition to mere tourists, some came simply to hear the men and boys choir or to marvel at the improvisations of our organist. Although they would not say it in this way, many came to find an accepting and inclusive community in the midst of a city that could be disorienting and overwhelming. The loneliness of a single man or woman living in a sixth floor walk up was not merely the script for countless movies, it was a reality.
Although we did not use the word, we provided a community for many.
These are ideals that are effectively now lost as a dwindling church ironically finds it harder to be inclusive. On the left inclusivity is almost solely equated with sexual orientation. On the right inclusivity is equated with a particular political stance. We have exchanged true inclusivity and community for tribalism with its battery of litmus tests to see if you really belong. It is no longer that you must be liberal, you must be my kind of liberal. It is not enough that you call yourself conservative, you must be my kind of conservative.
C.S. Lewis once wrote that, “Two friends delight to be joined by a third, and three by a fourth, if only the newcomer is qualified to become a real friend…” Much the same could be said of community and what it means to be inclusive. Unfortunately, it appears as though many churches on the right and the left have made a choice to exchange community and true inclusivity for the bullying posture of tribalism (yes, there are bullies on the right and the left) which carries in itself its own seeds of destruction….