“I pray they will be one…so that the world will believe that you sent me.” John 17: 21
“I pray they will be one.”
In the 17th Chapter of the Gospel of John, we have Jesus’ last prayer. This prayer was prayed in the upper room after a final meal with his best friends. In this last prayer, Jesus doesn’t pray for himself – he prays for his friends, for his followers, and for his church. At the heart of this prayer, Jesus casts a vision for a church for all people. Jesus knows that the witness of his “good news” is a church where people of different ages, races, and backgrounds are united in mission, ministry, and service.
This goal might sound simple, but the two thousand years since Jesus prayed this prayer have shown just how hard it has been to realize. The tough truth is that the worship hour in most churches, especially Mainline Protestant churches, tends to be one of the most racially, culturally, economically, and politically segregated hours of the week.
At Royal Oak First, we have begun the long hard work of trying to live into Jesus’ hope of being a church for all people—racially, economically, and politically diverse, inclusive in membership, ministry, and leadership of people who are LGBTQ+ and persons with special needs. We are just in the early stages of this, but we’re already learning some important and valuable lessons along the way.
It is easy to confuse unity with uniformity. Uniformity is found in communities that look alike, believe alike, vote alike. It is formed by people who come from the same economic backgrounds and who seek the same social aspirations. Unity, on the other hand, comes from the way different parts come together to form a whole.
A church for all people will find its unity in Christ.
When we focus on differences, our focus is on each other. When we focus on unity, our focus is on Christ.
Uniformity does not require grace. Unity is impossible without it!
A Church for All People Only Works When it Works for Those Most Likely to Be Left Out
I never used to worry about food allergies (because I don’t struggle with them!). That all changed the day a young couple was attending worship for the first time. We had greeted them and they seemed to be connecting to worship. Then came time for communion. At that time, we didn’t have a gluten-free option, and when I extended the ‘invitation’ to the table with a hearty “All are welcome,” this couple stayed seated and the young woman began to cry.
In the receiving line after worship, she told me that she had just been diagnosed with a gluten allergy and that the communion table was just another reminder of how her life was going to be different and more difficult. They never visited us again.
I have served communion (and made sure there are snacks for fellowship time) with a gluten-free option ever since.
But what if we had been thinking about how to include her before she came that first time?
The ability to extend God’s welcome to all kinds of people becomes possible when you ask, “who doesn’t the church usually work for and what are we doing to make it work?”
How does your bathroom signage welcome transgender persons?
Do your family ministries include single and same-gender-loving parents in both promotions and programming?
How are you making space for persons with special needs?
Do you promote and speak about recovery programs in your sermons?
What do the images of Jesus in your space communicate to people of different races and ethnicities?
At Royal Oak First, we have a longstanding relationship with many of our community’s hungry and homeless. We want to extend our welcome beyond the hot meal they receive during the week to the fellowship of worship over the weekend. As our guests arrived for worship on Sunday morning, we quickly realized they were hungry. We were not prepared to offer much more than a cup of coffee or a doughnut. But our desire to include our friends in our worship and community life was sincere, so we now ensure that there are meals available for anyone who comes to worship and needs something to eat.
We are discovering that when the church works for those most likely to be left out, it works for everybody.
Our Beliefs Matter, Our Behaviors Matter More
In a church for all people, there must be room for a wide set of theological and political beliefs. We can believe different things about the inerrancy of the Bible, the personhood/divinity of Christ, the nature of sin and salvation, and every other widely debated theological topic. In a church of all people, there will be Democrats and Republicans. We will disagree about guns, war, abortion, taxes, and every other hot-button issue. In fact, we think that our differing opinions and beliefs are a strength of our community, giving us a richer appreciation for the complexity of life and faith. We welcome deep conversations and robust debate. At a church for all people, there is room for different beliefs.
However, the only way it works to have a such a wide diversity of beliefs is our commitment to love and serve each other with compassion and kindness, especially those whose beliefs are different from our own. We place a high value on listening and honoring stories. In sharing our stories and serving together, we build relationships that can transcend issues that might otherwise divide us. In a church for all people, behavior is what really matters.
In the United Methodist Church, the issues around the marriage for same-gender-loving couples are among our most contentious. At Royal Oak First, there is a wide range of beliefs about marriage, but we share a commitment to treat all couples with dignity and respect, and we share an understanding that marriage, as pastoral care and hospitality, is available to all people.
Representation is Just the Beginning
A church for all people must be committed to more than just representation. A church for all people must be committed to the participation and ultimately in shared leadership of people of different ages, races, and backgrounds. People need to see themselves in upfront leadership and in positions of service if they are to believe that our welcome is genuine. Additionally, it is crucial to include a wide range of people on your governing boards and in leadership and ministry teams. The goal of inclusivity is to make sure that everyone feels included in everything you do and that each individual feels they belong—regardless of gender, race, sexuality or economic standing.
“Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”
A Church for All People is Not for Everyone
One of the things you will discover is that a church for all people is not for everyone. Some people will need more conformity on theology and doctrine.
Some people will need more clarity on social issues.
Some people will need worship to be more predictable.
Others might struggle to be in worship with those who are poor, LGBTQ+, or of a different race.
Creating a “no hush, no shush” culture where kids can be kids and encouraging the visible participation of special needs kids can be unsettling for some.
Sometimes people will decide to leave.
The grace we offer to people when they decide to come is the same grace we try to extend to people who choose to leave. We try to suggest other churches in the community we think might better fit their spiritual needs. We offer our prayerful support in their quest to find a loving and supportive faith community where they can worship, grow, and serve.
It is Worth It
Following this Christ-shaped path isn’t easy. Those on the margins have less money, power, and prestige. Ministry with samaritans, soldiers, and outcasts just takes more effort and care. Those who have felt called to leave will have someplace else to go. Those on the margins may not. At Royal Oak First, though, our widening doors have meant two people coming in for each one who needs to leave.
A church for all people can be messy.
A church for all people can be hard.
A church for all people can be chaotic.
A church for all people can be turbulent.
But a church for all people is totally worth it!!!
Whatever your perspective, we hope this starts a conversation. Feel free to reach out to us through Director of Communications, Sam Garrett, firstname.lastname@example.org, and thanks in advance for your help.