Inclusive or Exclusive Church?

16 Aug 2020 by Rev Andrew Smith in: Letters, Thoughts, News

Exclusive or Inclusive church?

From Rev Andrew Smith
Presbytery Minister - Congregation Futures

Probably all of us would like to describe our churches as being inclusive, welcoming and friendly. Chances are that when we think of our churches in this way, we are thinking particularly of our main weekly worship service. We like to think that the one-hour worship service, once a week, on a Sunday morning is inclusive.

One of the many strange things during this COVID time is that with the changes to our usual worship services we have realised that our church has become exclusive to some people who prior to COVID were included. Some of our regular attendees for that hour on Sunday morning each week have been excluded because they are not equipped with the technology or the “know how” to connect with online worship. Even as congregations prepare to go back to in-person worship in their church buildings, we realise that for some it is still too risky to join with others in this way. They are excluded. Even if it were safe for them to come, it may be that the restrictions on numbers means that there is not enough space for them to come. They are excluded.

It comes as a shock to us that we are exclusive. That has urged us on to find ways to include the people who have now been excluded. So, there are mail outs and hand deliveries. There are at home packs. Even worship services on the local radio.

While the changes to our usual worship services have excluded some people who previously were included, those changes have also included some people who previously were excluded. Around our congregations are stories of people who have been absent from worship services for years because they are homebound with sickness or frailty. Now there is great joy arising because of the reconnection made possible through worship being online. In addition, we have also been noticing that new people are joining in the online worship. For some newcomers it feels easier to log on to online worship than it would be to walk through a church door. And with recordings of church services being available online, they can log on at any time. These people who had previously been excluded are now included.

As congregations prepare to go back to in-person worship in their church buildings we are making the effort to also continue the online worship so that those people who have been included in our churches via the online option during this COVID time are not again excluded. It seems far too wrong to stop the online worship option because to do so would be like un-inviting those who have connected. In social media language this would be described as unfriending.

These strange COVID times have made us aware of people being included in, and excluded from, our churches. And these strange times also cast a light over what we were like in our pre-COVID churches. With that light, perhaps we now see that we have not been as inclusive as we liked to think we were.

Mike Moynagh is one of the leading thinkers and writers about Fresh Expressions of church. Well before we knew anything about COVID-19 he commented that our existing churches are exclusive. By this he means exactly what we have become aware of during these COVID times: some people cannot physically get to the one-hour, once a week on a Sunday morning that we have set aside for worship services. Mike’s response is to say that the only way to make the Christian church more inclusive is to increase the kinds of Christian communities.

This is one of the reasons for Fresh Expressions of Church: our current predominant expressions of church are exclusive. If people don’t fit into the mold of what is on offer, we are un-inviting them. We are unfriending them. Sounds harsh, but it rings true with our recent experiences of people being excluded from worship services during COVID times.

The definition of a Fresh Expression includes the following: “A fresh expression is a form of church for our changing culture established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church.” The more forms of church that we have will mean less people will be excluded from gathering in community around Christ.

Perhaps you would like to get started toward a fresh expression. Often these fresh expressions are small groups of people among your existing networks of connections in your local community, and bear little resemblance to our one-hour worship service, once a week, on a Sunday morning. Some useful tools to help you get started are:

  • Mike Frost’s “Surprise the World – the Five Habits of Highly Missional People”;
  • The free Godsend App – you can download it by searching for 'fx godsend' in the App Store or Google Play;
  • The Mission Shaped Ministry course. Our Presbytery is nearing the completion of our first round of this course, and is thinking about another round. If you are interested to find out more, please get in touch with me.