Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Day 19: Are all welcome at the table? part 1

In the Presbyterian Church when we celebrate Holy Communion the words of invitation often include a phrase something like, "this is not a Presbyterian table, this is Christ's table. All are welcome in His name." The idea behind this is that at Christ's banquet all of our differences melt away: denomination, race, gender, political persuasion, sexual orientation, economic status. We are all children of God, we are all invited to gather around and partake of his body and blood and be thankful for it.

I grew up with this understanding of the church. Everyone was welcome, regardless of how different they might be. Never mind that the church where I grew up consisted of pretty much all white, upper middle class individuals who were very similar already. Still, I don't discount the message of inclusion that I received. When I was an awkward middle schooler and struggling with friendships at school, the church was a place where I belonged, and it made a huge difference to me knowing there was some place where I would always be welcome.

But have you ever been part of an intentional group related to a church: a small group perhaps, Bible study or interest group, that started as an open invitation but then grew into something deeper? And then have you been faced with the task as a group of deciding whether or not to close the membership? And did that involve telling people they weren't welcome?

I have recently been part of such a conversation in a group which has become a fellowship of sharing on a deeper-than-your-average-book-club level. It started as an open invitation to an entire congregation, but now that we have become so close and like-minded about what we want the group to be, there is discussion of closing the group to new members, and telling those who have been more casual about attendance that they need to look elsewhere for their fellowship.

This is a dilemma for me. What would you do? I have in mind one person whom I think would be devastated to be told she cannot come but who is unable to commit to meeting every week. Is it better to allow her sporadic attendance, knowing it might change the direction of the conversation? Or is it better to be completely intentional about the group, and to draw clear boundaries, possibly leaving some people out and hurting their feelings?

I look to Christ and the disciples that he called. Jesus was very intentional about those with whom he chose to share his daily life. He sought them out and called them by name. He desired their particular set of skills and weaknesses to be current witnesses to his ministry, and he called some of them 'friend.' For the disciples' part, they often drew boundaries, turning away people who were asking for healing, or children, or crowds eager to hear him speak. They argued among themselves which of them were closer to their Master.

But in all of those instances, Jesus always seems to choose the more inconvenient path: taking time to make whole the bleeding woman, embracing the children, and feeding the hungry crowds. These people did not share Jesus' ministry in the same intimate way the disciples did, but neither were they discounted.

So I wonder, can a small group make an intentional covenant to share deeply with one another, while still ministering to others? It seems to me that intentional time together in the Christian context must always be open to the stranger and the inconvenient petition.


  1. In the Jesus/disciples example there is also the fact that sometimes he just took them away by themselves away from the crowds and the ministry to everyone else to do what they needed to do, to teach them what they needed to be taught. Sometimes the crowd followed, and he had to interrupt his plans to minister, but other times they did get away and have "private time." Shoot, sometimes he even took a smaller group of just SOME of the disciples for particular important things (the prayer on the mountain that turned into the Transfiguration).

    I don't know. I struggle with this idea, too, that some things are just closed things. I can argue either direction depending on the day (and maybe how far on the outside or inside I feel tht day!). And maybe the answer isn't as cut and dry as you seek. Maybe there's a need for "pastoral care" in how you deal with individual circumstances. If the one person you mentioned would be crushed and driven farther from faith because of it, then maybe this is one of the stumbling blocks Paul mentions and you all need to figure out how not to set that in front of her, but still get what you need. Maybe just an acceptance that every gathering won't feel the same will be enough. Maybe just knowing that among the group and agreeing to it will let that ministry to each other and to her continue.

    Or maybe it can't. Maybe you all need to do your boundary setting and help her find a setting that will serve her needs, which are just different right now than yours. I think that would be a hard conversation to have and hard news for her to take, but if it's what you all have to do, it's what you have to do and I trust you can do it in a loving and grace-filled way.

  2. Is your group saying that what you are doing will only work if every person can be there every week every time? I think you've already answered that question by the end of your post.

    (ps Google calls me Douglas because we know each other from work.)

  3. She Rev, thanks, I appreciate what you said here, it's helpful.

    Douglas? So you and Google are on a first name basis? Do WE know each other from a certain mountaintop university? Do we know each other well??