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Sacred Agents #103
He was a lefty environmentalist. She was a Pauline Hanson sympathiser. And they were talking politics over coffee after church – what could possibly go wrong? I felt it my pastoral responsibility to eaves-drop, just in case I needed to throw myself on a conversational hand-grenade. (But also, I was just curious. I grabbed my imaginary popcorn.)
To my delight and to their great credit, they showed enormous love and respect to each other, each listening carefully and making their points gently. I came away thinking ‘Where else but a church would that happen?’ And I was so glad to be part of a church that was intentionally non-tribal.
In a world of increasing polarisation and retreat into safe bubbles, it’s as vital as ever that our worship gatherings mirror that Revelation 7 vision of united diversity: people from every tribe, tongue and nation gathered before the Lamb. It’s worth each church thinking through: Is everyone really welcome to come and meet Jesus? Lefties and Righties? Intellectuals and Practicals? Rich and Poor? Women and Men? Able-Bodied and Disabled? Old, Young and In-Between? All shapes, sizes and skin colour? And of course, Single, Married, Divorced, Widowed, Same- and Other-sex Attracted?
It may be easy to answer a quick Yes based on ‘If any of those people turned, up we would welcome them and certainly not turn them away.’ But that scores your church 1 point, not 10, on the welcoming scale. To wrestle with this further, ask not only who would be admitted/turned away, but who is actively invited? Consider four groups: ‘Friends’ (personal contacts), ‘Neighbours’ (strangers but local residents), ‘Kids’ (our kids and their friends), and ‘VIPs’ (the poor, marginalised, disabled, widows, orphans). Is there a place for each at the table? And have they received their invitation? (A church could do worse than to appoint four leaders to pave a smooth way for each of them into following Jesus with us. Each entails quite different work!)
The next item to audit is our liturgy and habits – are there subtle ways that we are screening out certain types of people? If your gathering includes a lot of energetic singing, who can’t cope? Does a complex, 40-minute lecture sift out the non-philosophers, and those whose English is basic? If you need to be a spiritual athlete and long-time Bible-reader to follow along, are you surprised at the lack of enquirers and new believers among you?
At Crossover, our motto is Helping Australian Baptists Share Jesus, and the share often refers to living openly his way and telling others about him. But right now let’s think about who owns Jesus and who gets a share of him. Madness, I know. But of all the types of people I’ve mentioned, who does Jesus invite to his table, or refuse to eat with? And if we’re putting up filters and barriers (even passive ones by not inviting others), are we not attempting to keep him to ourselves and for ourselves? And potentially eating and drinking judgement on ourselves?
I sympathise greatly with preachers and worship leaders. It is impossible to keep everyone happy. And the more diverse a group, the more challenging it is to cater. (I sympathise with caterers, too.) How do you serve up plenty of meat for the strong but also milk for the weak, let alone kale for the vegans? How do you hold out the bread of life and keep everything gluten-free?
The key, I think, is this: We’ve been trying to pack a whole week’s worth of Christianity into 90 minutes, so we can get it over and done with. We should give that up. If you’re needing to feed the ‘strong’ for a week with your teaching, they’re not strong. They should be feeding themselves through the week and then coming ready to serve, not starving! (And more power to all readers actively doing just that.)
For many churches, our patterns of gathering have been disrupted, giving opportunity now for reinvention. What would it look like if our main gatherings were the icing on the cake (the bit you eat first!) and not the whole cake? A shorter, accessible gathering that simply proclaims Jesus and centres around his table? Around that gathering and through the week could be ministries focused on particular groups – the kids, the deep-thinkers, the enquirers/baptism candidates, the chronically musical, the retirees. Many churches already do. But who gets Jesus? When one group tries to keep exclusively, they sooner or later find they don’t have him at all.
Please support the Crossover Spring Appeal. Crossover is funded entirely by donations from Australian Baptists who care about sharing Jesus. We’re praying and working towards seeing twice as many baptisms each year in our movement by the end of the decade – more and more Australians coming to know and follow Jesus. If that excites you like it excites us, then please add your support at crossover.org.au
Andrew Turner is the Director of Crossover for ABM and author of Fruitful Church and Taking the Plunge