The month of June is crazy for me with a conference (InterGenerate 2023) and a long-overdue family trip. So, for the next month (except the week of June 5th with a practical ministry post by our own Elaine Seekon), I will be reusing a series I originally wrote in 2021 called “Insiders and Outsiders.” The theme of inclusion and exclusion is as relevant now as it was then.
In our congregations, we always run the danger of excluding those who are different from us, intentionally or unintentionally. We must consciously work to remove the boundary between insiders and outsiders as Jesus has done.
Welcome to summer! For many of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the school year is ending, and summer break is upon us. If you are new to this blog and my company, many (though not all) of our products are geared toward the Narrative Lectionary. As a newer and smaller lectionary, there are fewer resources, so I use this blog to reflect weekly on the upcoming Narrative Lectionary readings. My specific focus is faith formation, though my inner (outer?) Bible nerd generally spends a lot of time on the Bible text itself. During the summer, however, I tend to branch out and write about some of the topics and themes related to faith formation that come to mind.
Insiders and Outsiders
My first theme is about the inclusion and exclusion that we find within our churches. In its most obvious sense, any organization or community has insiders and outsiders. You are a member of a team or you aren’t. You reside within the city limits or you don’t. You agree with a political platform or you don’t.
This applies to our local congregations as well. We often have voting membership, so people have joined, or they haven’t. People attend worship, classes, or other activities, or they don’t. People affirm a faith statement, or they don’t. However, just because a phenomenon is natural doesn’t make it good.
Insiders, Outsiders, and the Bible
In addition to the organizational inevitability of an insider/outsider divide, this structure is also present in Scripture. God wants Israel to keep themselves separate from their neighbors. This led to the distinction between Jews and “the nations” (everyone else, eventually translated as Gentiles in English). In the New Testament, the rhetoric around the kingdom of God, the church, and eternal life are given as “in or out” propositions. Does this mean that this divide is good or bad? Neither, actually. The problem is not so much that there are boundaries, but more about who is making and enforcing boundaries—who is doing the judging.
Bounded and Centered Sets
One way to look at this is to use a model from mathematics: bounded or centered sets. I’m not even going to attempt to look into the actual math here, but I did find a helpful blog post on the topic, which looks back at the work of Dr. Paul G. Hiebert who is credited to introduce this concept into Christian missiology. The basic idea is simple:
- “A bounded set is a collection of all objects which possess the defining characteristic(s) which determine the membership of the set.”
- “A centered set is the collection of all objects moving towards a well-defined center.”
So, as the names indicate, the bounded set is concerned with a boundary and deciding whether the thing in question is inside or outside that particular boundary. A centered set is concerned with a designated point (center) and whether the thing in question is moving toward or away from that point.
When we are considering the church, the question is whether we are focused on a boundary or the center.
Where we can easily get into trouble with the church as a bounded set is that we erect, guard, and set ourselves to judge the boundary. We take it upon ourselves to judge who belongs and who doesn’t belong. We determine how high the wall is and what it takes for someone to cross it. When we do this, we take on the role of judge and “bouncer.” That’s a big problem.
We can even create and enforce a boundary without meaning to. We can structure the things we do such that it is difficult for someone who is “outside” our congregation to join in and feel welcome with a sense of belonging. This can happen even if we want to be open and welcoming.
How to Change?
How do we know if we are doing this, and if so, how do we change? Given the nature of humans and organizations, you probably are excluding people in some way. It’s impossible to remove all exclusionary boundaries. But we can always improve, right?
Here are some thoughts:
- Look around your sanctuary during worship or a church directory. Do you see any trends in the characteristics of the people represented? What characteristics of people are missing (related to the demographics of your area)? Consider age, socioeconomic class, race, nationality, political alignment, physical ability, and traditionally excluded groups (such as LGBT+ people).
- What might some barriers to participation be for this group?
- As best as you can, imagine how a person within a missing demographic might feel if they walked into your church. What are the chances that they would hear about your church in the first place? Better yet, ask a newer attendee/member their perspective.
- Are there barriers for someone who is different than your typical demographic in participating and engaging in worship (or other activity)?
Once you’ve identified some of the missing demographics and possible barriers, think through how you might reduce those barriers and make it easier for people who are different from you to participate fully in congregational life.
Sin and Grace
In our sinfulness, we are all outsiders. And, as sinners, we tend to exclude people who are different than us. However, God gives us unconditional, undeserved, unending love (grace) that makes us family as children of God. Through God’s gracious love, the division between insiders and outsiders is removed, and we all belong.
Thanks be to God!
In the peace of the risen Christ,
Gregory Rawn (Publisher)
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