A day or so ago, I received and e-mail from Wes Roberts. He had read some comments that I had made to Maggie, and wondered if this thing we have been calling the “emerging church” couldn’t actually be called “the embracing church.” It’s an interesting question. There is certainly a sense that much of the emerging for folks in the conservative evangelical traditions is in moving from an exclusionary vision of church to one that is embracing.
Now I know some will contest that characterization. “We aren’t exclusive,” they might say, “we invite everyone to enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ.” In one sense, they are right. Evangelism is generally about ministry to all (well, unless you are a hard core, predesitnarian, Calvinist). Thus how can we be exclusionary when all are invited to the party.
The problem, as I experienced it in the evangelical, fundamentalist churches of my youth, was that far more time was spent on defining who was out than on welcoming folks in. There were all sorts of lists to say who wasn’t included in the kingdom. They were doctrinal (such as a belief in the Bible as the “inerrant Word of God) or ethical (the do and don’t lists of sins that put one in mortal peril). Yes, there was the “once saved, always saved” clause of my Baptist heritage, but more often than not the topic focused on those who would be excluded from the kingdom (which was always seen in futuristic terms) with very little emphasis who would be present.
Then folks started reading those inerrant scriptures, especially the gospels, and discovered something interesting. Jesus didn’t seem especially concerned with who was out. Rather, he took pains to welcome folks in, be they women, poor folks, tax collectors, or whoever. Yes, he did seem to suggest that some wouldn’t be present, but who? Those who were the most religious, the most self-righteous, those who let their religion get in the way of their relationships with others.
What “the embracing church” is doing is to suggest that our focus on exclusion is a legacy of modernism, not of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The definitions of who is in and who is out come more from the scientific emphasis on categorization that came in modernity then a scriptural mandate to keep the heavens pure. Our focus is twofold: to love God and to love our neighbor. God will do the sorting. What we are called to do is to welcome folks into the kingdom, to offer hospitality so that God may be revealed.
Moving to a definition of the church as “embracing” begins to cast aside some of the baggage of the emergent name. Yes, a new thing is emerging in our time, but maybe it really isn’t a new thing after all. Maybe its what we were supposed to be all the while, the body of Christ which embraces all as children of God. It also allows us to move from these definitions which focus on the newness of our forms, our preaching, our ways of doing business, and instead places our identity in being faithful to God through our love. The embracing church understands that the forms are merely an expression of love and hospitality to a world which needs to experience God.
I am preaching tomorrow out of Luke 14 on the Parable of the Great Banquet. “Go out into the highways and fill the place up,” the master tells the servants. “Bring in the unclean, the excluded, the marginalized, for those who think they deserve a place at the table blew me off.”
The parable suggests that there are some who won’t be at the feast, but not because of their doctrines of ethics. No, they lose their place because of their excuses. They aren’t sinful. They just are too busy to come. They think that they have a place at the table, but they then make excuses why they can’t be faithful to the call of the master.
The master is embracing. He want’s all to come.
Likewise, the church is called to be embracing, welcoming everyone from the wealthiest to the poorest, the most holy to the most sinful. We are invited to come as we are, with our tattoos and piercings, or bald heads and polo shirts. The kingdom of God is a part in which all are invited, all are embraced, all are welcomed. Only God is qualified to sort out the guest list.