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.

“Progressive Evangelism” and proclaiming the Gospel afresh in every generation

I was once in the customs and immigration line at Heathrow airport with the Rev. Otis Gaddis and watched as he struck up a conversation about faith with two other people in line. It was a sight to behold and I was filled with admiration for how skillfully he was able to do so. So it is no surprise that Otis—and several other of my former classmates—are among those profiled in a recent article about “progressive evangelists” in the Episcopal News Service.

“It [progressive evangelism] assumes that Christ is already present,” Gaddis said during a recent telephone interview. “The goal is not to bring people to church but to reveal the presence of church between you and the person you’re talking to.”

This line from Otis reminded me of something Max Warren, the former general secretary of the Church Missionary Society (and no “progressive” about evangelism or much of anything else) once said. He noted that the first thing a missionary should do when arriving in a new place is remove his shoes because he is standing on holy ground. That is, wherever we go, God has been there before us.

It reminds me also of Stephen Bayne, the first executive officer of the Anglican Communion, who once told a group of missionaries: “missionaries do not go out into the world to introduce the world to God or He to it. He is already there; He has been there from the beginning; He is standing waist deep in history, calling us to join Him. For the mission is His and not ours.”

I love that image of God being “waist deep in history.” God is already out there. We are going to join in. The progressive evangelists profiled in this story remind us that as much as we’d like we can’t do so on our own terms.

The ENS article provoked this comment from a Tom Swift:

Neither Jesus (“Go and make disciples of all nations”) nor Paul (“I preach Christ and him crucified”) would recognize this as evangelism. Christian evangelism is sharing the good news that sin and death have been overcome by the death and resurrection of Jesus. “Changing peoples’ minds and belief systems” is exactly the point! Such good news must be spoken with great love and respect for the other person’s values and beliefs, but it must be spoken to be evangelism.

This critique, I think, is helpful. I am reminded of Desmond Tutu’s line about the need to “share grace gracefully.” Particularly for Episcopalians—who have long made central our membership in the catholic church—a conversation about faith is not enough. A line like this

Progressive evangelism is not, however, about converting or getting people to church, he said.

can be a little worrisome, if you think about it. On some level, we believe that the grace that is in the sacraments needs to be shared broadly. Evangelism, at some point, has to be about “getting people to church.” (Or, even better, “converting” them.)

One of my favourite churchy slogans is “Proclaim the Gospel afresh in every generation.” The generation of which people like Otis and Adrian and Matthew and I and so many others are a part of bears this burden like every other generation prior to ours.

What’s interesting is the way in which the conversation started by evangelists in this article focuses so much on method: how do we proclaim? In this case, the answer seems to be by showing up in places where folks don’t expect the church to be. It’s also defined negatively, as in, not like those other, more conservative denominations.

I think what is missing from the conversation in the church these days is a focus on the third word in this slogan: Gospel. What is the Gospel we have to proclaim? What is the good news that people need to hear in this world? In what particular form does the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection need to be proclaimed? What is the kerygma—to use the word Paul uses—that we want to share?

These are the questions that still need to be addressed.