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Creating a grace zone


“…inclusion is part of a culture that welcomes and nurtures who people are and not who we want to make them,” says The Rev’d Michael Stalley, from St Bartholomew’s, Mt Gravatt

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Later this month, I am leading a workshop on inclusion at a conference about intergenerational ministry. The problem is, I am not entirely comfortable with either of the terms ‘inclusion’ or ‘intergenerational’ as expressing what I understand we are seeking as a Church. Furthermore, I think my discomfort in these terms has a common root: the pursuit of either as a primary value for a congregation could result in a diminished expression of who God is calling us to be. Let me set out my concerns first and then look again at the way forward.

There are few congregations who, if you ask whether they would like to be more inclusive, would say, “No, thank you!” We desire to see our communities grow, and yet what has previously worked seems no longer adequate. Generally, we want to think of ourselves as friendly and welcoming. We can even be a little confused why more people don’t seem to value what we value. I wonder if, in these circumstances, we might be expressing a diminished view of ‘inclusion’: we want to welcome more people just like us or make them just like us.

In his book A Future Bigger than the Past: Towards the Renewal of the Church, Sam Wells describes the word inclusion as “problematic”. Wells says, “The mindset of inclusion is inadequate, because inclusion suggests an established and righteous middle that benevolently and magnanimously draws in a vulnerable or unfortunate fringe (Page 55).”

‘Intergenerational Ministry’ has had its turn lately as an approach that meets the challenges of inclusion for a contemporary Church. Some have embraced this approach wholeheartedly, including via expressions of Messy Church. Some others will describe themselves as ‘intergenerational’ purely because they have more than one generation present.

Intergenerational ministry recognises the worth of the multi-sided encounter between people of different generations in God’s presence, which leads all those involved to be more truly human, more like Christ. But why focus only on generational differences at the expense of ethnic, political, social or economic differences? My concern is that a label like ‘intergenerational’ can narrow the potential for a full expression of community that is more in line with what God is calling us to be.

In his recent book Australia Reimagined: Towards a more compassionate, less anxious society, social researcher Hugh Mackay writes, “Moral muscle is formed by developing the art of compassion, respect and tolerance towards those who are quite unlike us, including those we don’t like much. And that’s the kind of muscle we need if we are to build communities that are both diverse and cohesive (Loc 1541).”

Surely our churches being diverse and cohesive communities is at the heart of the gift we can offer to God’s world around us.

Despite seemingly arguing to the contrary, I think reflection on the significance of the intergenerational divide in our faith communities is vital in our local context. It is a critical fault line in our churches. We have preferred to gather, learn, worship and socialise in like-minded groups that have ended up acting against building diverse and cohesive communities. Mackay reminds us of our particular challenge regarding intergenerational difference because “we don’t always appreciate that they are just like any other cultural collision. Perhaps they are more mystifying than other dimensions of diversity precisely because they occur between us and people – such as our own offspring – whom we expect to be just like us (Loc 1528).”

Eric H.F. Law’s book Inclusion: Making Room for Grace is a practical guide to an intentional process we can use when the comfort of who we are is challenged by the presence of others. He says, “Inclusion is a discipline of extending our boundary to take into consideration another’s needs, interests, experience, and perspective, which will lead to clearer understanding of ourselves and others, fuller description of the issue at hand, and possibly a newly negotiated boundary of the community to which we belong (Page 42).”

If we desire to be more inclusive then we will need to be aware of our motivation for seeking to be so. Law describes how we can create a grace zone in our community’s life in which this vital work of inclusion can occur, built on God’s abundant grace. A place where there is time and space “to consider other points of view, assumptions, and values (Page 42).”

Inclusion is a value that we should desire in order to lead us towards diverse and cohesive communities. More than this, it is a process by which our churches can strive to be their fullest expression of God’s Kingdom—pointing others to the hope found through Jesus Christ. It starts with the simple recognition that inclusion is part of a culture that welcomes and nurtures who people are and not who we want to make them.

Editor’s note: Intergenerate Australia is holding its conference on 27 and 28 July 2021 at three hubs (Sydney, Brisbane and Christchurch) and online. St Bartholomew’s Anglican Church, Mt Gravatt is hosting the Brisbane Hub of this conference. The hybrid program includes international speakers and hands-on local content and seeks to provide practical learning for those seeking to engage across the generations. Visit the Intergenerate website for more information and to register.

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