“The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.”
That is the second of “The Six Great Ends of the Church.”
I want to get to this through a story because quite honestly I think it gets to the core of the contradictions inherit in how we have lived out this particular great end.
In the mid-90’s I accepted a position to a church of 215 members that broadcasted the typical yearning of an aging congregation—“We want a pastor who can reach the families and young people of our community.” I was 33-years old at the time and felt like I was the perfect fit. I believed I had the pastoral sensitivity for the older members of the congregation while fitting the profile of one of those “families with young people” and, therefore, able to understand this underserved and under-represented demographic.
Over the next three years in a number of awkward fits and starts, I was able to lead the congregation to attracting about 90 new people, mostly young families to an evening Sunday worship service and gathering. I think it would be fair to say that the majority of the people had grown up in the church, but had abandoned it shortly after high school. Now, in their late 30’s and 40’s they thought of themselves more as “spiritual seekers.” In many ways, they represented the children of the older members of the church—grew up in the church and carried on the values of the church without the need to be in a church.
The short story is that my attempts were like mixing oil and water. It was an uncomfortable mix for many. When the group grew, it began to shift the perceived identity of the church in the community. It was said by many, “We are beginning to be seen as that church with the weird group on Sunday nights.” In order to avoid a church split the Session and I agreed to my resignation. With my resignation the ninety people also quit. And I left pastoral ministry.
Two years later leaders of this group approached me and asked if I would help them organize as some form of a church. A year later, they organized under the umbrella of the Unitarian Universalist denomination (UUCLC) and I spent three years voluntarily helping them charter the church while setting aside my ordination so as not to compete with the Presbyterian Church that had given birth to them. I grieved for years over the fact that the Presbyterian Church preferred that the group separate themselves than to go through the growing pains of including people very much like their own children.
The second great end of the PCUSA is “the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.”
There is clearly an uncomfortable tension between this great end and that experience. The church wanted families and young people, “but not those families and young people.” Were they not children of God also?
Most Presbyterians would support the idea that theologically we believe that all people are children of God. But it begs the question then, which children of God actually belong in the Presbyterian Church. How far does one stretch the boundaries of inclusion—Buddhists, agnostics, Muslims, skeptics, African-Americans, Baptists, LGBTQIA, spiritual seekers, etc.?
Is there a difference between whom we see as the children of God and those whom we welcome into our church buildings?
I wear a stole sometimes when I preach called the “Children of the World Stole.” Every color of child is represented on that stole. But I am struck by the irony that we are proud of promoting diversity for children of God on our stoles, t-shirts, bumper stickers, banners, etc. But in the pews? That seems to be another matter.
Why is there is such a big difference between our good theology and our actual practice?
Have at it.
Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades
Thanks for sharing your story. I wonder if there’s some implicit expectation of assimilation to the church community’s culture to really be considered a part of it, even if the theology is inclusive. Here’s my experience so far as someone who grew up in mostly Evangelical churches but has spent the last year and some change at a Presbyterian church. In general, it seems like Presbyterians have an inclusive theology but an exclusive practice, whereas the Evangelical churches I’ve been at have had a more exclusive theology but an inclusive practice. Of course this is an overgeneralization and based on my limited experience, and it’s likely influenced by what Evangelical church I’ve been drawn to in the past. But over the past year or so at a Presbyterian church it’s been amazing to feel the freedom of a more inclusive theology, which has been a key part of where my wife and I are at. But at the same time we’ve been gossiped about because of how we dress (more like the 20-somethings we are vs. traditional Sunday best), what our hairstyles are, how we talk, what music we like, and how we worship. And that’s definitely not everyone at the church, but it’s been consistent nonetheless. We stick around because it’s where we feel we’re supposed to be right now, but it certainly doesn’t make it easy sometimes.
My theory is that older congregations like the one I’m at just haven’t interacted with younger generations in church for so long they forget we’re people too and that culture is always changing across time. I think it’s human nature to conflate the way we do things with being the RIGHT way or the ‘Godly’ way. And I’m sure the same can be said about younger congregations who forget about the older folks too. I don’t know if that answers any questions, but it seems like there’s a sentiment of, “You can come, but don’t mess with the way we do things around here.” I think they want more young people but they want us to become like them before we’re actually welcome. Whether or not that’s a conscious assumption, it seems like those are the terms of membership, the fine print underneath the “All Are Welcome” banner.
Thanks for hearing me.
I think I shared the story with you about a new pastor who, when asked how he planned to “grow” the church, replied, “That depends on what you are willing to risk. Everyone like you is already here.”
I have had several experiences in church where inclusivity was a spoken value but not a genuinely practiced one. When someone “different” shows up, there is discomfort rather than welcome, and the discomfort leads to excluding the newcomer rather than engaging in self reflection on the discomfort and working through it.
Churches, in this sense, are no different from other groups or communities. They are made up of humans who want the security of belonging to a group that reinforces their identity and values.
Paul’s comment above captures this very well.
Taking time to reflect on what it means to be a “member” as opposed to a participant, visitor or some other affliliation. I wonder about how we shelter, nurture those so different we cannot see accepting: Dylan Roof, Kyle Rittenhouse, the pastor who previously abused youth in our community.
A member makes two vows (agreements) Jesus is my L & S (I might say is sovereign in my life & and brings me to wholeness), and I want to walk in discipleship with this community and its perhaps quirky way of being “Church” in the world (OK not Book of Order but a more indigenous in a generic sense–I’m sometimes stuck with my own quaint notions of the Holy, and the Holy One).
I pray that the congregation I journey with will accept me, but be willing to shape me for greater blessing by the power of the Holy Spirt. I pray that my own quirkiness will find acceptance and not be the basis of power struggles (generational or other). I also wonder if our navel gazing and desire for a cozy fit keeps us from reaching out to shelter and nurture those so shaped by the hurting and fearful world that in the name of their quaint notion of belonging, and God, they will impose by violence how to belong here.
I believe that “The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God” is clearly part of the Presbyterian Church out reach in having a sincere concern about the well being of all people in a diverse community, not just those who might buy into Presbyterian theology and church membership.
Providing free community dinners and breakfasts, along with use of the church property for child care and temporary shelter in time of need are just a few examples of what a church could do if they had a genuine concern for “The Children of God”who are in need.
Developing an alternative type worship service to the Sunday morning traditional Presbyterian worship service to provide “Spiritual Fellowship” is a bit dicey and not easily accepted by the church leadership or membership, who are committed to their traditional theology and worship program
Any type of alternative service geared to a community “Spiritual Fellowship” needs significant discussion and approval with the Elders on the Session, the Church Pastor, and other church leaders prior to implementation. Things usually end rather badly unless there is a clear understanding that the out reach effort to diverse people is simply out of concern for them as “Children of God”, and that gaining new traditional Presbyterian membership is not likely to happen.
The stated reasons for existing in any group’s mission statement must be seen as a separate from the dynamics involved in the human need to belong and the desire to be socially accepted. This is somewhat analogous to the individual’s persona and shadow, in Jungian terms. The persona (mission statement) is an ideal of what we would like to be, to become, to be seen as. This does not mean that it is not a real desire, nor a real motivating goal; it is simply not the only reality, nor the whole reality. Of course we don’t live up to our ideal– that’s why it is an ideal!
The dynamics of belonging have more
to do with our shadow elements: our hidden needs and insecurities, which are comforted by feeling we are with like-minded people who will accept and like us, as we are. That is why “like begets like,” and like attracts like. You find this anywhere you find people.
Now add the interpersonal group dynamics driven by our ego defenses: needing to feel superior to someone else; needing to be acknowledged as smart, competent, capable, good — even at someone else’s expense — with the ensuing competition. The more diversity, the more threat to our individual status position in the group.
Now add being conflict-phobic to the mix: being afraid to say anything “un-nice” to someone’s face, but letting off inner emotional pressure by rehearsing our personal grievances behind other people’s backs.
There is the recipe for the soup in which we are swimming.
To switch metaphors, Christian principles are meant to be a way out of this thicket. Too often, we fail to acknowledge these weaknesses of the human condition, even though every Sunday morning, we ritually “confess our sins.”
Every pastor needs to be equipped with a couple rigorous courses in group dynamics, and the courage to open ip and lead matter-of-fact discussions about these issues, each time they arise. Now mix these skills in with Christian principles, and we have a tasty and nutritious meal to share with others.
Wouldn’t it be fine if we could follow the dictum, “Be not afraid,” and then stop scaring each other? What if our discussion groups took lines of hymns, and asked themselves, “How are we abiding by this?” (In Christ there is no East or West….?)
I have been lucky enough to see this done a few times, in a few places, which really do come to resemble “the kingdom of God.” It requires the hard work of self-examination and humility, which leads to compassion.
I have not given up hope that we can get there, though I don’t see many groups trying. Mostly we are too busy trying to maintain our structures and edifices.