“The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.”
That is the second of “The Six Great Ends of the Church.”
I want to get to this through a story because quite honestly I think it gets to the core of the contradictions inherit in how we have lived out this particular great end.
In the mid-90’s I accepted a position to a church of 215 members that broadcasted the typical yearning of an aging congregation—“We want a pastor who can reach the families and young people of our community.” I was 33-years old at the time and felt like I was the perfect fit. I believed I had the pastoral sensitivity for the older members of the congregation while fitting the profile of one of those “families with young people” and, therefore, able to understand this underserved and under-represented demographic.
Over the next three years in a number of awkward fits and starts, I was able to lead the congregation to attracting about 90 new people, mostly young families to an evening Sunday worship service and gathering. I think it would be fair to say that the majority of the people had grown up in the church, but had abandoned it shortly after high school. Now, in their late 30’s and 40’s they thought of themselves more as “spiritual seekers.” In many ways, they represented the children of the older members of the church—grew up in the church and carried on the values of the church without the need to be in a church.
The short story is that my attempts were like mixing oil and water. It was an uncomfortable mix for many. When the group grew, it began to shift the perceived identity of the church in the community. It was said by many, “We are beginning to be seen as that church with the weird group on Sunday nights.” In order to avoid a church split the Session and I agreed to my resignation. With my resignation the ninety people also quit. And I left pastoral ministry.
Two years later leaders of this group approached me and asked if I would help them organize as some form of a church. A year later, they organized under the umbrella of the Unitarian Universalist denomination (UUCLC) and I spent three years voluntarily helping them charter the church while setting aside my ordination so as not to compete with the Presbyterian Church that had given birth to them. I grieved for years over the fact that the Presbyterian Church preferred that the group separate themselves than to go through the growing pains of including people very much like their own children.
The second great end of the PCUSA is “the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.”
There is clearly an uncomfortable tension between this great end and that experience. The church wanted families and young people, “but not those families and young people.” Were they not children of God also?
Most Presbyterians would support the idea that theologically we believe that all people are children of God. But it begs the question then, which children of God actually belong in the Presbyterian Church. How far does one stretch the boundaries of inclusion—Buddhists, agnostics, Muslims, skeptics, African-Americans, Baptists, LGBTQIA, spiritual seekers, etc.?
Is there a difference between whom we see as the children of God and those whom we welcome into our church buildings?
I wear a stole sometimes when I preach called the “Children of the World Stole.” Every color of child is represented on that stole. But I am struck by the irony that we are proud of promoting diversity for children of God on our stoles, t-shirts, bumper stickers, banners, etc. But in the pews? That seems to be another matter.
Why is there is such a big difference between our good theology and our actual practice?
Have at it.
Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades