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.