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….
There are a few churches where the community continues to be inclusive vs exclusive. Several years ago my church was becoming mostly white seniors. We did not reflect the neighborhood at all. The one glimmer of hope was the Spanish congregation (where I spend most of my time), with families and many young people. In 2016 a new pastor came, with a vision for reaching our neighborhood. It took flyers, community events, and a lot of creativity, but our church is now about 1/3 people of other ethnicities besides white, and the Spanish congregation is twice as big. We still need a bigger push to reach our Vietnamese neighbors, and I continue to pray it happens. But, I am very happy with the changes and the pastor who pushed to change us (we did lose a few of the older people, but it really was for a greater good).
The older folks who remained have been encouraged to reach out, help with after school tutoring in a low-income apartment complex nearby (where we also have ESL classes one evening a week-my little project), help in a school Bible club, welcome new seniors who are not white, etc. The changes were never projected as “replacement” but rather as healthy change and growth. Another key piece is that the elder board reflects the change in the congregational population. That is key, I think, to helping new people feel comfortable.
What a great testimony! It can still happen, but it has to be intentional. So glad your church has followed that course!
Good comments Duane. Perhaps your hindsight of your time pastoring a Calvary Chapel is influenced by your many years within Anglicanism, or they were markers that you were destined to move on from CC.
I think our church is an outlier of your description of the present state of inclusive or exclusive thinking that I would agree, is pervasive within the church. Most in our church are very conservative, too far right IMO, and I am the moderate within the group. So far we have been able to stay a church community (with some exceptions, of course), but I find it hard to stay in the mix not only because of their politics, but my sense that my time is short with them. Where I am troubled is that there are few that I can actually have a good conversation with. Most who hold a more extreme view (not everyone in the church holds these views) are convinced—and they have their latest shock jock commentator to source as their authority for why they believe what would otherwise be considered ridiculous.
We are in a bad way, and I wonder if there is any turning back, at least in the short term. I don’t think so. Perhaps the only way forward is to find kindred spirits and develop more of a contemporary form of monasticism, but that in itself can create its own problems. Just ask the critics of Rod Dreher. Apparently, the Benedict Option really wasn’t……….
I don’t wish for any more upheaval in our society, but i think that may be what it takes to bring us back to our senses. I’ve always believed that responsible spirituality (example: loving my neighbor) will affect the way I vote or respond to news information, but I never, ever thought I would cite a news commentator/YouTube “influencer” chapter and verse. I come from the generation of the most esteemed Walter Cronkite, but I never remember anyone I knew who thought he was always right. Our idols have become our favorite newscasters, radio commentators, and politicians who think they “speak” for America.
In 1978, I would be willing to bet that we were the only Calvary Chapel that made use of the Book of Common Prayer!
What you described as taking place in your own church is, I believe, endemic. It is taking place not only on the right but on the left as well. For instance, I am pretty well convinced that if I presented myself for ordination within the Episcopal Church today, I would be rejected as a candidate. I’m not sure what the answer is apart from trying to push back against the tribalism that has developed. I have spent close to 50 years in this journey and it saddens me beyond words when I see what has taken place. We have imbibed so deeply of politics and culture that the cure may be beyond us at this point…
“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….”
Whatever happened to “Live and Let Live”?
I have been listening to a podcast on Church History by Monsignor Michael Witt that I find thoroughly enjoyable. It was interesting as he set the cultural and political context around the fall of Jerusalem there seemed to be a great many parallels to our current divisions. Some of the accounts were horrific. While we are thankfully not there yet one can easily see how close we are.
According to some accounts at the time Jerusalem was seiged they had enough grain to fight off starvation for years. Yet, the factions inside the walls of a dying nation were too busy fighting with each other and destroying each other’s food supplies. The sad part is it was often over petty political grievances.
How foolish and short-sighted is the church to baptize itself in partisanship? The obvious answer is very. Do we really think the cycles of history will be any less cruel?
Oh well. Good article. Sometimes I secretly wish for the more simple days of when I first came to faith but when I pull off the rose colored shades the hysterical eschatology that led to the Y2K foolishness set the stage, in part, for our current nonsense, in my not so humble opinion. Lol.
I cannot help but agree…
What are you talking about?