Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Evangelism for Today's World: Radical Welcome

Our previous discussion about evangelism was quite good. It has caused me to reflect on a few other things related to that conversation.

I've been reading Radical Welcome: Embracing God, The Other, and the Spirit of Transformation by the Rev. Stephanie Spellers. I highly recommend this book, and the downloads you will find on the linked page. You will want to especially note the sermon resource, which includes an excellent message from the Rev. Tracey Lind, Dean of Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio.

Here is how Spelling defines the term "Radical Welcome":
A radically welcoming community seeks to welcome the voices, presence and power of many groups—especially those who have been defined as The Other, pushed to the margins, cast out, silenced and closeted—in order to help to shape the congregation’s common life and mission...

...They attempt to listen carefully to, make room for, share power with, and learn from groups who’ve been silenced, closeted and disempowered, and they are open to genuine conversion and transformation based this encounter with The Other. On the ground, that means they allow God’s Spirit and the gifts of The Other to enrich and transform their understanding of who is inside and who is outside, what ministries they undertake, how they select leaders, how they do business, how they worship, what they claim as their mission and purpose, and how they partner with other groups...

...They understand that radical welcome is not merely about diversity, evangelism, multiculturalism, inclusion or getting it “right.” It is simply, profoundly about being faithful disciples of the Christ who welcomed and still welcomes all...
As the chart on page 3 of this document makes clear, "radical welcome" goes beyond being an "inviting", or even "inclusive" Church. For instance, compare the message of those three approaches:

The message of the Inviting Church - " Come, join our community and share our cultural values and heritage.”

The message of the Inclusive Church - “Help us to be diverse.”

The message of the Radically Welcoming Church - “Bring your culture, your voice, your whole self—we want to engage in truly mutual relationship.”

Do you see the difference? Instead of a transaction, in which we assume The Other wants something we have, a radical welcome is an invitation to enter into a mutual relationship.

Is there some risk involved? Of course. And lots of fear. One of the greatest fears of the Church in general, and many of our members specifically, is the fear of change. And if we welcome in The Other, the outcasts, those who are somehow "different," things are definately going to change. And maybe we won't like it.

But, the more I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion that there is no other way to be faithful to the message of the Gospel:

Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” (Matthew 10:40–42)
In today's world, we simply can no longer assume that Christ can only be found within the walls of the Church. There are many "Christians" who have given up on organized religion, due to the appalling witness that church folk have offered to the world. "Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me." By shunning The Other, we may just be turning away Christ.

But there's something more that I want to touch on here. I think that offering a "radical welcome" is not of value just because it is the embodiment of the message of the Gospel. When we look at the stranger in our midst as if he or she were Christ, we discover something else; we need to be in relationship with that person. It is critical to our own salvation that we be in realtionship with The Other.

Somewhere along the way, Christianity got sidetracked by a focus on "personal salvation." I blame Descarte, but the source of our self- identification as "individuals" is a debate that we can have another time. I believe that one of our biggest cultural problems is this dissection of humanity down to its smallest element.

Another perspective would be to consider the concept of the African philosophy of Ubuntu, derived from the Zulu phrase, Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu, which means "a person is a person through other persons". We affirm our humanity when we affirm the humanity of others.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has described it this way:

...Ubuntu is a concept that we have in our Bantu languages at home. Ubuntu is the essence of being a person. It means that we are people through other people. We cannot be fully human alone. We are made for interdependence, we are made for family. When you have ubuntu, you embrace others. You are generous, compassionate. If the world had more ubuntu, we would not have war. We would not have this huge gap between the rich and the poor. You are rich so that you can make up what is lacking for others. You are powerful so that you can help the weak, just as a mother or father helps their children. This is God's dream.
In his book, God Has a Dream, Abp. Tutu expands that definition:

…It is the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong. It speaks about wholeness, it speaks about compassion. A person with ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole. They know that they are diminished when others are humiliated, diminished when others are oppressed, diminished when others are treated as if they were less than who they are. The quality of ubuntu gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanise them...
I welcome you not simply because to do so is a Gospel imperative, and not just because I think I have something that you need, but because my humanity is bound up in yours, as is my salvation yoked to your salvation.


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