I recently read a post by fellow Methodist blogger Talbot Davis critiquing the pursuit of “inclusivity” in United Methodism, which he interprets to be a strategy for church growth. Davis shares that his church has achieved a large, inclusively diverse population because of the exclusivity of their doctrine. Well I wanted to raise the ante on Davis’s claim. I don’t think churches should have inclusivity as a goal at all; I think faithful kingdom living requires that we exist exclusively for the excluded.
When Jesus tells us to take up our crosses and follow Him, He’s not just telling us to “sacrifice” a certain quota of our money and time doing nice things for people; to take up your cross means to join the procession of condemned prisoners to Golgotha to be crucified of all worldly dignity. It is an utter renunciation of respectability. It is an embracing of the filthy lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, and others in the Golgotha procession who are entirely outside the domain of the normal majority.
The problem is that church in our day has become a means of middle class self-validation instead of a place where people gain the freedom of being crucified to the world. The churches that are the best at channeling the values of suburbia as their gospel are the most successful at drawing suburbanites. I recognize that there’s legitimate Spirit-derived fruit going on simultaneously, but the most popular form of “conservativism” in the suburban church is not faithfulness to the Bible so much as it is nostalgia for the world of Eisenhower era sitcoms, a world which was a lot less confusing because everyone had good traditional Judeo-Christian values (except when they were throwing bricks at the black kids trying to integrate the schools).
The most important expression of this nostalgia is the valorization of traditional sexuality that has superseded every other moral consideration of social “conservatism” to the point of becoming synonymous with “morality” itself. This makes sense because the most disorienting change that has happened in our culture in the last fifty years has been the shattering of traditional sexuality. There’s no question that sexual promiscuity has been a cultural disaster (whose flames have been fanned every step of the way by our capitalist economy which has never found a better marketing tool for selling its products than sex).
There are important reasons to pursue sexual holiness. If I am compromised sexually, it creates circumstances in which people get hurt and it sabotages my ability to pursue the kingdom work to which I am called. But sexual normality itself can be made into an idol with self-justifying purposes that masquerades as a legitimate concern for holiness. People who are genuinely seeking sexual holiness don’t talk about other people’s sexuality in the abstract; it is a matter of their personal discipleship and accountability.
Sexual normality has become an idol when it’s the basis for our soapboxes about what other people deserve and what behavior our tax dollars shouldn’t enable or subsidize (i.e. those “welfare mamas” who wouldn’t be poor if they could have kept their legs closed until they got married). Sexual normality is an idol when we congratulate ourselves and measure our moral fortitude according to the “stances” we take on other peoples’ sexual otherness.
Moralizing normality is not a particularly Christian phenomenon. It’s something for which religions has always been co-opted by the normal majority of cultures throughout history. What makes Christianity unique is the way that it pushes specifically against this innate cultural tendency. Christianity is the movement in which God chooses the foolish to shame the wise, the weak to shame the strong, and the despised ones (illegal aliens, gang-bangers, white trash, towel-heads, or even [gasp!] homosexuals) to bring to nothing the things that are (1 Cor 1:27-28).
The church is not supposed to be the place where the most important people in the worldly community (business leaders, political movers and shakers, etc) get to be the most important people in God’s community (since they’re the big donors). It is supposed to be the place where the despised ones are seated as judges (1 Cor 6:4; the NIV and NRSV are both wrong in how they translate this verse from the Greek). The last are supposed to be first. Jesus Himself said that one. How do our churches today exemplify that in any way at all?
There should be two categories of people in a church: the marginalized outsiders Jesus championed and their allies who have taken up their crosses to emulate Jesus’ solidarity. We should exist exclusively for the excluded, meaning not that others are unwelcome per se but that they are welcome only under terms that do not unwelcome the outsiders whom Jesus made His people. The guests of honor at the banquet are those whom the world has dishonored (1 Cor 12:24). The best illustration of this hospitality that must exclude the excluders for the sake of the excluded is manifested in Jesus’ humiliation of Simon the Pharisee in solidarity with the sinful woman who gave his feet an erotic massage in Simon’s home (Like 7:36-50).
Importantly, to exist for the excluded does not at all imply an “anything goes” lackadaisical attitude about holiness. It’s actually a lot easier to be lackadaisical about your personal holiness when it’s measured according to your stances on other people’s abnormalities. To exist for the sake of the excluded requires a much more intensive level of spiritual discipline, because as long as our sinful flesh owns us, we cannot direct our energy towards loving and exalting the lowly. The fake holiness of worshiping my own normality becomes an obvious farce when measured against the actual holiness required of those who take up their crosses to walk with the crucified.
It’s also worth recognizing that “social justice” can be an abstract self-justifying idol the same way that sexual normality can. People who get on a soapbox about “social justice” but lack personal holiness often show their true colors when they have to interact directly with the poor people whose cause they champion in theory. A commitment to “justice” means nothing until it is personally lived.
In any case, I completely agree with Talbot Davis regarding the need for a compelling, precise gospel rather than a loosy-goosey “tolerance” that has no substance. However I don’t think that having commissions to monitor the inclusivity of gender and race in our denomination is part of a slippery slope that leads to the “anything goes” seminary at Claremont (a common trope in the critique of Methodist inclusivity which Davis’ article seems to insinuate). But clearly inclusivity for inclusivity’s sake is an inadequate goal.
A gospel which plays to the cultural nostalgia constitutive of suburbia is going to generate more church growth than one which is faithful to what Jesus actually said and did. Note that this is completely different than an easy sounding gospel of inclusivity and tolerance. If it sounds too easy, suburbanites won’t like it because that violates their need for meritocracy. But just because a gospel attracts people by making itself sound hard and exclusive doesn’t mean it’s necessarily faithful to Jesus.
The real gospel is hard and exclusive in a way that doesn’t allow suburbanites to say this is what we’ve already been doing right all along (as with the gospel of moralized normality). I would rather be in a much smaller church that actually looks like Jesus’ ministry in which people are included and taken seriously precisely to the degree to which they have renounced their worldly acceptability in order to exist exclusively for the excluded.