Today's post is the latest in a series of posts that are re-examining the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990). Various United Methodist mission professors and practitioners are re-examining this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today. This piece is written by Dr. Elizabeth Tapia, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. Dr. Tapia is commenting on paragraph 51 on "inclusiveness," from the ninth section of the document, "A Church Formed By Grace." Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.
How does the United Methodist Church today practice inclusiveness? Where do I see the lack of it, and why? What is my part in widening the circle of inclusion, the table of participation, the mantle of transformative leadership in my church? These questions surfaced in my mind as I re-read the 51st paragraph of Grace upon Grace’s portion on A Church Formed by Grace.
This mission study guide, produced twenty-six ago, made me think: How does the United Methodist Church in 2014 practice inclusiveness? What would the church look like if this statement of being missional and therefore inclusive was taken seriously? The statement alludes to the church as the Body of Christ, but it does not tell me how people of various races, ethnicities, classes, ages, creeds, sexual orientations and gender identities become one, become united, in the Body of Christ. Reconciliation is God’s gift, and yet decisions and the processes of reconciliation and inclusivity reside in each one of us. While I believe the reach of God’s grace is unlimited, the people’s grasp of differences are often limiting and limited.
I believe our church is missional, but it is not fully inclusive. I do not mean to pass judgment on anyone. Contextual realities of non-inclusiveness are legion. I do not need to enumerate the existing “isms”. I have, decades ago, been excluded in many ways (being young, a woman, a person of color, a poverty survivor, etc). When I became mature, I realized I needed to do my part in overcoming structures and forms of injustice and discrimination. For example, I questioned then why most scholarship recipients nominated and accepted were males; why most lay delegates to the General Conference from my Annual Conference belonged to the upper class of society; why grassroots people were considered partners in mission, when they were not included in planning the project from the very beginning; why people living with HIV-AIDS were stigmatized.
Now I celebrate the fact that churches and faith communities are making headway in building a more just, participatory and inclusive communities. For example, in a recent US church poll, I take note that one of the top priorities of the UMC church members today is “youth involvement.” Alleluia! For so long, youth had been regarded as the “leaders of the future,” not of the present. They were seen as decision takers, not decision-makers. They were taught by missionaries then, but now the young people from “everywhere to everywhere” are becoming missionaries themselves (e.g. through the Transformation Generation program of the General Board of Global Ministries, UMC www.umcmisison.org/gt).
Yes, this paragraph reminds me that to be inclusive is to be missional. Inclusiveness of all people is simply because we are all are children of God. No one is considered less, no one is more. God’s creation and creatures, including humans, are interrelated, interconnected. If one is missing, the rest are incomplete. If one is hurting, the rest are groaning. If one is growing, the rest will thrive. We lean on God’s grace as we acknowledge each other’s face. When we are truly inclusive, we become more effective witnesses of God’s boundless grace.
The struggle to be fully inclusive, relevant and Spirit-filled communities of faith continues. Where do we go from here in terms of inclusiveness journey? I have no ready answers. Perhaps we need to start by recognizing our shortcomings as well as sharing our dream for the inclusion of all peoples and creation, beginning with taking small steps of widening the table where you are.
Let us strive to become part of the church that is truly missional and inclusive. We do what we can. Remember John Wesley’s “all you can” practice? “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” As the Triune God leads us in discipleship-making and mission engagement, may we create spaces where all are nurtured in faith, grow in love, are moved to compassion and service, following Christ’s example of compassion, acceptance, prophetic love and humble service.
In closing, I want to share my own credo on an inclusive church:
“The Church I believe in”
I believe in the Triune God who calls and forms the Church.
I believe the church is a koinonia of believers that worships God in spirit and in truth…
a church that celebrates life and creation
a church that struggles with the poor
a church that repents, one that renews for the sake of all,
a church that is both prophetic and pastoral,
inviting and forming a discipleship of inclusiveness.
The church I believe in does not pass judgment
On other people’s belief systems,
Is not arrogant and claustrophobic.
The church I believe in is one that is inclusive,
Open-minded, colourful, and caring
Whose deeds are congruent with their creeds.
I believe in the church
where people are more important than rules and traditions
where servanthood and accountability are applied to all
where children and youth are valued, nurtured with nutrition and faith
where women’s discipleship is affirmed, and their rights respected
where indigenous peoples are leaders, not token participants or considered “guests”
where the differently-abled have adequate mobility and involvement
where people of various socio-economic situations and sexual orientations find full acceptance.
I strongly believe that by the Holy Spirit, the Divine Wisdom, the church is called
To be filled with love, faith, and hope,
To join the Spirit’s mission movement in a broken world,
To heal and be healed
To forgive and be forgiven
To be transformed and grow.
Finally, the church I believe in is a movement of persons, of compassionate communities,
Ever committed to Christ,
Journeys toward the full reign of God in their contexts.
She is bold, simple and humble.
Courageous enough to “turn the world upside down,”
Spiritual enough to embody daily sacramental living,
Child-like enough to be in awe and wonder in the ordinary,
Secure enough to be the last, to doubt, to take risks and make mistakes,
Prepared to lose oneself for a great cause, and by God’s grace, rise again.
This is the church I believe in. This is the church I embrace.
In the name of the Triune God who makes us One Body, many parts, many colors.
Praise to the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.