by Gawain de Leeuw
I have a problem with the word “inclusive.” When people announce “We’re an inclusive church,” or I see signs that say, “Everybody’s welcome,” I cringe. Because chances are I won’t go to that church. And it’s not because I don’t like everybody, or try.
But these phrases for me are like fingernails on a chalkboard.
It’s not because announcements of inclusivity are inaccurate. I don’t mind the hypocrisy of churches that won’t expand their musical repertoire or disparage the attractive techniques of megachurches. What we mean by “inclusive” is specific: we have lesbian, bisexual, gay and a few transgender people who take positions of authority in our congregations. But I doubt we’re that inclusive until we have Sam Cooke or Gloria Gaynor in the hymnal.
I’m not unsympathetic. After all, inclusivity reflects the sentiment, “We’re not like those awful evangelicals and Roman Catholics.” We can now dine in polite society and hang with the professional, educated class. We can now be done explaining that we’re not like the bigots on the other side.
But once we’ve patted ourselves on the back, enjoyed our being inclusive, we still have work to do. Because declaring our “inclusivity” will not strengthen our church or make us more appealing. It’s lovely theater, and plausible marketing. But it’s just the beginning.
Inclusivity conveys nothing of value except being inclusive. It’s like advertising “free stuff” for the taking. But what is free can often seem worthless. What we offer for nothing can strike the outside as cheap. If everyone can have it, perhaps it’s not particularly valuable. For if we’re busy saying we’re an open place, with open doors and open minds, and it does not seem appealing, perhaps we’re focusing on the wrong issue.
I suggest two confusions.
First of all, inclusivity is not the same as hospitality. Hospitality requires intentionality and resources. We can talk about inclusivity all we want, but if we aren’t curious about others our inclusivity is insincere. If our communities aren’t willing to do the careful work of making people at home, making them feel loved, we’re not as inclusive as we’d like to be. And this is a delicate dance. There’s a difference between hospitality and desperation.
Secondly, inclusivity is passive. Being inclusive does not mean we will learn the primary, fundamental task of the institutional church: building relationships. That means not merely opening up our doors with the “inclusive” banner, but going out into the world. Our open door policy might be about letting us out, rather than ushering people in.
My issues is not about the sentiment. I love the sentiment. I like having a diverse congregation with a wide variety of backgrounds. I like that we have a church that assumes that any person who enters has a place at the table. But pronouncing inclusivity is one thing. Demonstrating that our shared life has value is another.