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Exclusion and embrace…

February 7, 2008


Someone shared a story with me this week about some young men who had been shunned by their Beachy Amish church.  They were shunned not for some sexual sin or for any other hedonistic indulgence.  It actually is quite different than that.  I heard the story second hand, so I can only relate the gist of it. 

My purpose in writing about this story is not to disparage my Beachy Amish brothers and sisters in Christ.  Just as my purpose in writing about Willow Creek was not to cast stones at them.  I share these stories as a backdrop for some reflections on the nature of Church and how our actions do or do not uncover the reality of the resurrected Christ in the gathered community–the church.   

It seems that some young men who were a part of the Beachy community began to develop a heart for bringing others to Christ.  In response to this missional impulse, they began to look for opportunities to build relationships with those who were outside the church.  They began relating to The Other.  Relationships with those outside the church bloomed.  They invited them to church.  Church leaders became disquieted by the presence (intrusion?) of these “outsiders” within the communal space and story.  What was it that troubled the leaders of the Beachey group? Their appearance?  Their language?  Their behavior?  I don’t know the specifics.  Long story short, these missionally-minded young Beachy men were shunned. 

Some twenty-five years ago, the same type of thing happened to a hot young rock band from Ireland.  Three members of U2 (at that time) had come to faith in Jesus and were exploring what it meant to follow Jesus as members of a charismatic fellowship known as Shalom.  Their musical career was just beginning to take off.  The response of this Christian community was to speak prophetic words and words of counsel calling the group to give up their vocation in the “secular” field of rock music.  The Gospel narrative of this community compelled them to frame the challenge to U2 as one of chosing Christ or rock music. 

The Christian members of the band at that time, did not sense it was necessary to lay down their gifts and to abandon their vocation as musicians in order to follow the way of Jesus.  No doubt this decision had implications in terms of the acceptance and blessing of Shalom fellowship.  It also has caused many Christians in the ensuing years of the bands journey to question whether they are in fact Christian. 

88777043_optim.jpgWhat is behind the question that some Christians feel compelled to ask–“Is U2 Christian?”  I don’t intend to delve into the full dimensions of that question with this post.  However, I do want to offer some reflections on how a bounded set ecclesiology compounded by independent expressions of church contribute to exclusion rather than embrace.  HT to Miroslav Volf

What motivated the actions of the Beachey leaders?  Actions that seemingly led to exclusion rather than embrace.  How did the words and actions of Shalom fellowship push U2 further to the margins?  And perhaps that is where the prophetic role should be found, but why cannot that voice be recognized by many Christians as Spirit-inspired–from an authentic engagement with the Gospel narrative?  Perhaps Shalom fellowship feared that the witness of U2 might be compromised through its presence “in the world” of rock music.  Perhaps their exclusion was motivated by a genuine concern for their souls. 

These questions lead to other questions…

Upon what reality is the Church centered?  Is it the externals–behaviors, dress, separation from the world?  Is it around visible unity?  Unity on what essentials?  What about when there are points of disagreement?  Where shall we find a common center that uncovers the reality that in Christ there is one body?

“Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”  1 Corinthians 10:17

Is it possible that the Eucharist is intended to uncover this reality?  That if we disagree on things like whether or not to ordain women, we can still come to the same table at the invitation of Jesus?

What happens when we don’t have anything deeper than words, confessions, covenants, social contracts to keep us together?  What happens when a vote does not resolve points of tension and differences?  Is the only recourse to break off from the whole and form smaller associations and networks? 

Some observations offered with the sense of “is it possible…”: 

When the church has an underdeveloped appreciation for the sacramental center of Church, we often see more rigid definition and application of bounderies which exclude even those committed to the way of Christ.  How has church discipline been appropriated as a proxy for a sacramental center? 

Without a sacramental center, what is the locus of authority?  How is the communal discipline discerned?  The community of believers seeking to restore the fallen sinner, the errant brother or sister to wholeness through discipline.  Where and how is the medicine of grace made visible without the sacramental presence of Jesus?

Without a fully developed appreciation for the sacramental realities of Church, we see a false dichotomy constructed between sacred and secular, between insiders and outsiders.  We cannot make room for the outsiders who threaten our sense of place with their unfamiliar language, appearance and behavior.  So we shun those who would embrace the Other.  We do not make room for those whose musical gifts take them further into the world than we thought was possible as servants of Jesus. 

The sacramental life of the the Church frees us to go into the world without fear or shame and make visible the way of righteousness and love–the way of Jesus.

We need not seek to categorize everything into nice, neat sets of sacred and secular.  As I have observed the musical vocation of U2 and the use of the rock star platform by Bono for mobilizing resources for social causes (poverty, aids, etc.) I hear a voice that rings true to the Gospel.  I hear a prophetic voice that challenges religious complacency and self-righteous attitudes.  I see signs of God present in music, in concert venues moving people to a deeper reality.  How can this not be of God?

Centered set–bounded set…

And then I consider a conference (LMC) in upheavel as various theological polarities give voice to divergent framing narratives.  I am aware of multiple sources informing the framing stories to which we look to help us understand who we are and what we are to be about.  We have the framing story of contemporary Evangelicalism.  We have the framing story expressed through a Charismatic–neo-apostolic idiom.  We have the framing story as denominational narrative.  These competing narratives coalesce around an uncertain center–institutional/historical structures and identities.  For many local congregations and groups of congregations, this center has not been a true anchor point.  So they break off and form new structures and identities around a newly defined center.

Will we choose exclusion or embrace?

Can we come to the same table and make visible the reality that in Christ we who are many are one loaf?

Kyrie eleison…

2 Comments leave one →
  1. steve sherwood permalink
    July 1, 2008 12:36 pm

    I stumbled upon this post as I was trying to find the name of the sculpture on the cover of Volf’s ‘Exclusion and Embrace.’ I REALLY enjoyed your comments. I teach in the religious studies dept. at George Fox, with a particular emphasis upon theology and pop culture and youth ministry. I also am a huge fan of Volf’s, use the open set/bounded set idea regularly in class and have a great affinity for U2. So, I liked your post immensely. And, you’re here in the Portland area, all the better.

    Keep it up! Shalom.

  2. Liz permalink
    March 9, 2009 7:10 pm

    Thank you…from a fellow fan of both Volf and U2…and more importantly, Jesus and his church. I’m also one who has been deeply concerned about “exclusion” (vs. differentiation) among us within LMC and across the church. I think that one pointer from Volf might lie in the “will to embrace” as a first step in the right direction…

    BTW, have you heard that Volf is speaking on Friday at Lebanon Valley College?

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