March 18, 2008

A Conversation About Inclusivity

Everyone talks about how we should be more inclusive, implying that we should accept everything from everyone, no matter what. What are the consequences of opening that door?

Inclusivity is the new tolerance. Remember when tolerance was the big buzz for churchy arguments? Slippery liberals cried, hugged, sang Kumbayah, and begged us all to be more tolerant while stern-nosed, crotchety conservatives rolled around in their big piles of money andJust look at how crotchety they are! grumbled about loving the sinner and hating the sin. It was the argument du jour for quite a few years. For whatever reason, we don't hear too much about tolerance anymore, but we've replaced it with a new argumentative ideal called inclusivity!

Inclusivity, despite being a made up word that smacks of snooty elitism, is a Pretty Good Thing. As the church we want to do everything we can to make people feel welcome and to give them the good news that they're loved. We all know that Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, he let the children come to him, he didn't send the hooker away when she poured oil over his feet at a dinner party, and he even sat and talked with one of the Pharisees he had such harsh words for at other times. In fact, there are exactly zero stories in the Gospels that describe Jesus turning anyone away (with the exception of when he would move on to another town and had to send the crowds home, etc.). These are hard attitudes to adopt as a church community, when so much of our language is built on who is in and who is out.

In fact, you could make an argument that Burning Man, the annual art-fest held in the Nevada Look at that man burn!desert, embraces a more Jesus-like attitude than many of our church policies often do. The event, which has gained a lot of popularity and publicity over the past twenty years, has since developed the 10 Principles of Burning Man, which include radical inclusion, gifting, communal effort, civic responsibility, and participation. While the event is by no means a Christian one, it is quite a display of the kind of radical inclusion that many, especially in the Emerging Church, are so keen to apply to our church implementations. "Let's be radically inclusive!" could be a rallying cry or pep motto for a lot of postmodern cheerleaders.

But we have to be careful as we get caught up in great-sounding ideals that we don't set up unassailable positions. What I mean is, for example, the abortion debate is often framed as "Are you okay with murder?" or "Pro-choice is pro-abortion" or even "Do you like babies?" Simple platitude questions like those ignore the complexity on both sides and make any kind of healthy discussion impossible. We really need to be careful that we don't do the same for inclusivity by framing the issue as "Do you love people?" when it's much more complex than that kind of softball question suggests.

I'll give three examples of what I think are some of the dangers of inclusivity. The first two involve worship, as I spend a lot of my church time as a worship leader. Recently I've even taken on the role of organizing worship from week to week, which makes me the person to talk to when you want to be involved with the worship team or whatever you call it. And that's where it gets sticky, because a pure doctrine of inclusivity suggests that we allow anyone and everyone to be involved. But what if someone sings really badly? Or what if they don't play their instrument very well, and show little sign of caring to improve? Make a joyful noise to the Lord, people will say, until that noise distracts them from their own worship, and then it's "Please make your joyful noise in another room, thank you."

Inclusivity and worship can get even stickier, too. At Solomon's Porch in Minnesota, they encourage everyone to be involved not only in the singing and instrument-playing but also with the writing of their all-original worship songs. The concept is amazing, and one I want to try to incorporate, because it gives the community a chance to express itself in beautiful waThese hippies are really hipping it up.ys. But again, straight inclusivity demands that we allow everyone's song to be played and every lyric to be sung. This could be one of the most terrifying ideas I've ever heard of -- open that door so wide and who knows what will come in? Am I prepared to deal with the consequences of whatever it is?

So inclusivity can lead to distracting worship, unpredictable results, and possibly awkward or offensive situations, but it can also open the door to poor quality. Spencer Burke's website,, is an incredibly collaborative project, with a blog that has a list of 33 regular contributors. In addition to the blog there's a section for Articles of various topics and kinds. I have absolutely no idea what the screening process is for these article submissions, if any, but a close look at the most recent article (entitled "Five Second Theology Without Meaning: Living the Church Organic, Part 2" by John O'Keefe) shows why standards are sometimes helpful. I've included a few of the sentences from the article below.
Ever had your world explode around in with such force you are left deaf from the noise and numb to the results for days?

Have you ever been so moved by hurt, pain and loses that all you want to do is go into a corner, curl up in a ball and just stay forever and let the world move along without you?

I have, several times in my life, had those feeling.

I don't mean to pick on Mr. O'Keefe too much. I don't know anything about him or his story, and I encourage you to go and read his article for yourself. But there's a debate to be had about quality and how much it matters as we try to hammer out the concept of inclusivity in each of our churches. Some people will encourage participation at any cost while others will hope that the way we represent God and theology will be held to some standards of excellence.

So inclusivity is good, but it can have unwanted or unintended consequences. How can we include people and still have standards? Is true inclusivity the absence of standards and the acceptance of everyone's offerings, no matter what? If you read this blog at all you won't be surprised that I have no answers, but I hope the conversation moves beyond "Do you love people?" and on to some of the other questions that some of us have. I've raised a few of those questions here, and I hope some of you raise even more in the comments. (Please no stupid questions, though. Thanks.)

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