The Gospel of Inclusivity and The Gospel of Transformation

If you had to use one word to sum up the Gospel message, what would it be? For a fair number of people in the Episcopal Church these days, the answer seems to be “inclusive.” God’s love is an “inclusive love” we are told. God invites all people to the table. There are “no outcasts,” as a previous presiding bishop once said.

There’s a song from John Bell and the Iona Community that goes:

God welcomes all

Strangers and friends

God welcomes all

And it never ends

In my experience, this pretty much sums up a major strand of thought in the Episcopal Church today: “You’re included!”

The trouble is, this stand of thought—while highlighting something deeply true about the life and death of Christ—is not all there is to the teachings of Jesus. At some point we have to wrestle with the non-inclusive parts of Jesus’ ministry, like the story he tells about the king who sent out messengers to invite all kinds of people to a wedding. (The king is being inclusive!) When the guests arrive, the king tosses out those who are not dressed properly. “For many are called, but few are chosen,” says Jesus (Matt. 22:14). This is the same Jesus who tells us, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven”. (Matt. 7:21)

If I had to use one word to sum up the Gospel, it might be “transformation.” This is what Jesus is getting at when he tells Nicodemus he needs to be “born again” (John 3). It is what Paul tells the Romans they need to do—“be transformed” (12:2). Arguably, it’s what the wedding guests in the Matthew 22 parable did not do. They were invited but they did not allow themselves to be transformed. Inclusion is only the first part of the Gospel message. Transformation into the new life in Christ is what’s important.

There’s something particularly ironic about the way in which this gospel of inclusivity has come to the fore in the Episcopal Church at a time when our attendance figures are only getting smaller. It’s like we’re standing there saying, “You’re included!” and people are saying, “No thanks. I’d rather not be.” After all, there are already plenty of clubs to be involved in. Why be part of the church as well?

But what if we stood out there and told people in the world, “God is going to change your life!” There are lots of people in this world who are looking for different/new/changed lives. There is a lot of dissatisfaction with the way things are, both in people’s personal lives and with the world around us. One central strand of the Christian Gospel is to recognize that things aren’t right and then say “But we have a way to change that. Come share in the death and resurrection of Christ with us and be made a new person.”

I’m not convinced that the Gospel of Inclusivity is getting us anywhere. But I think a Gospel of Transformation might.

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10 thoughts on “The Gospel of Inclusivity and The Gospel of Transformation

  1. From my walk, it’s the inclusiveness that drew me in to The Episcopal Church so that I could be transformed.

    What other church would welcome a loudmouthed, educated, queer woman with open arms and say, “We have a place for you! Here, sit with us. Here, eat with us. Here, share your story with us. Here, lead us in song. Here, here is the bread of life and cup of salvation. Here, step behind the rail that’s been used for so long to keep people like you out. Take this bread, and take this cup, and give it to others and show them that they, too, are loved beyond reason– and should live life accordingly.”

    (The answer to my question, by the way, is not very many. I looked, tried, and tested.)

    1. Jesse Zink

      Reading your comment, it seems you found a congregation that did preach transformation—in the bread and the cup and the way one’s life is transformed by a “love beyond reason.”

    1. Jesse Zink

      Agreed! I think this post is more a response to what I perceive to be a sense in some places that inclusion is the be all and end all of the Gospel.

      1. Well, I think you ask a really good question here about “inclusion.” Namely, if this is the main “selling point” of a church, and if it’s so important to people to be “included” – then why aren’t they breaking down the doors to get in?

        I think it’s clear that it’s not enough, by itself. And I think it’s very worthwhile to take a hard look at this question and try to understand its implications.

  2. Timothy Sommer

    I can’t speak for others, and I could be entirely wrong, but I’ve always understood ‘inclusion’ to basically be followed by an ellipses so that it really reads ‘inclusion…of LGBTQ folks’. In other words, when people say ‘inclusive’ I think they’re using it entirely as a code word for being welcoming to LGBTQ. Such welcoming is important — I certainly would not have considered being part of the Church had it not extended such a welcome, and I’ve met dozens of others who started attending an Episcopal church for precisely the same reason.

    I think it’s easy to forget that being inclusive of LGBTQ is still extremely rare in churches, and most people I know who don’t go to church aren’t even aware that there is an inclusive church. (I had over a dozen instances this summer where people laughed, thinking I was joking, when I said that Church I belonged to was inclusive. And even after I told them what the Episcopal Church’s policy was on LGBTQ matters some of them still didn’t believe me because, to their minds, it was unthinkable).

    I guess all I’m saying is that I felt like your post resisted mentioning the elephant in the room of ‘inclusion,’ which is that it’s a catch-word for welcoming LGBTQ folks. I wonder why this wasn’t brought up.

    You may not be convinced this elephant is getting us anywhere, but I passionately beg to differ. This is not to say I don’t agree with you that we need to be more than inclusive. I would love nothing more than to be known as a transformative church. But for me, a transformative church is always-already one that’s ‘inclusive.’

    1. Jesse Zink

      I don’t think when Ed Browning said in 1985 or whenever, “There are no outcasts,” he was thinking solely about gay people. Perhaps it is only more recently that this ellipsis you have identified has come to the fore?

      For what it’s worth, I’ve often heard “justice” as shorthand for LGBTQ issues, as well. That might be for another post, though.

      I still think it’s worth thinking about why people aren’t responding to the Episcopal Church saying, “You’re included!” From your comment, perhaps it is because the message isn’t getting out there?

  3. Jesse,
    I am impressed with your ability to view old problems with candid and fresh eyes. I find it somewhat ironic that we would agree on many things including this post. I am an Priest in the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin and am currently composing a “second” to your proposal to find a new ABC in Africa. May God continue to speak to you in such a prophetic way. TEC needs to listen carefully too.

    1. Jesse Zink

      I’m not sure I find it so ironic. Perhaps the old saw, which I have always believed really is true: what unites us is greater than what divides us.

      Will be happy to see your ideas about the next AB of C.

  4. Pingback: “Epistemological Humility” and Gregory of Nazianzus | Mission Minded

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