How to Build an Inclusive Church - Reservoir Church
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How to Build an Inclusive Church

October 3, 2023

The Christian faith has some pretty outrageous visions for what’s possible in the world. Peaceful nap times for predators and prey, weapons of war melted down into farming tools, sumptuous feasts with more than enough for all people, and trees with leaves that can heal our nations are all part of its poetic vocabulary of a one-day restored creation. Again and again, these dreamy visions hope to include all people, all nations, speakers of all tongues. It’s a vision of abundance and inclusion that gave rise to what Martin Luther King, Jr. called the Beloved Community.

On these hopes, the Christian church has more often than not disappointed. 

In terms of race, the Christian church in America has been a mostly segregated space. In terms of gender, it’s mostly been a space where women have been limited or even silent in their leadership. And in terms of gender identity and orientation, the church has mostly been an unsafe and even homophobic space for LGBTQ peoples. 

Some of us, though, still hold out for the dream of church as a place of beloved community. We think that faith spaces go best for us all when they are truly shared spaces of belonging for all people.

In this spirit, we offer seven steps toward making an inclusive church a space belonging for all people.

1. Read The Bible

Maybe this seems like an odd place to start. The Bible is an ancient and diverse set of ancient texts. You wouldn’t think it would have much to say about how communities hold diversity of race, language, politics, or sexual identity and orientation. When it comes to the details, sometimes that’s true. 

But to shape a beautifully equitable, diverse, and inclusive faith-based community, it helps to have a deep set of spiritual and moral reasons for doing so. It helps to have a story that guides you.

For Christians, parts of that story emerge from our sacred text. 

I think of the early church, as it figured out how to share the message and life story of a crucified Jewish rabbi with people throughout the Roman Empire. Awkward encounters occurred across differences. The recipients of the message sometimes had as much to teach the messengers as the other way around. Changes were made. Everyone experienced God and truth and one another anew. 

I remember Jesus himself, as he moved beyond the ideas and people of his rural, Jewish childhood and offered healing, liberating ideas and touch and relationship to all he encountered. 

I think of the whole arc of the Hebrew scriptures and prophecy that shaped Jesus, as it moves from the tale of a single founding family to the vision of all people through the earth feasting and worshiping together. 

All these stories ground me, guide me, and give me hope. 

2. Change What’s Happening at the Center Stage

I’m a lifelong resident of Greater Boston. I once visited a church in my city that was full of transplants from other cities. But there was one guy there playing a small role in the service who wasn’t just from Boston, he was like the Hollywood caricature of all things Boston – Red Sox cap, Irish features, thick accent. He seemed like the token local guy, added to the side of the show, in hopes that other locals would feel welcome. 

Diversity window dressing doesn’t work, though. America’s colleges and universities are famous for pictures of happy, diverse gatherings of beautiful students on their glossy brochures and websites. But if you spend time in those schools, you may not always find that reality matches the advertisements. 

Churches too. It’s hard to find a church that says all people are welcome there. Church people have hopes for what the church can be. They may want all people to feel welcome. They may want the community to look diverse. but they may not be willing to change anything about their worship or culture or beliefs or practices to make this so. 

If you want an inclusive church, you have to want to be different. An inclusive church that doesn’t just host other people until they become like you. It changes to reflect the gifts of presence of its participants.
An inclusive church doesn’t just center one culture’s story and sample from others around the edges. It welcomes everyone at center stage.

3. Representation

An inclusive church pays attention to who is leading, making sure that as much of the community as possible is represented at the top. 

When we think about who is on staff at the church, who’s preaching, who’s on the Board, who is leading our groups, we want to make sure that as much of the community as possible sees part of their story and identity in our leadership. For instance, we’re a multiracial church in a predominantly white region of the country, and we have a white senior pastor. So we make sure that our Board is half or majority people of color.

It’s not just fair and effective, it’s wise and even biblical.

4. Don’t Center Politics, but Don’t Run From It Either.

Some churches are partisan hot spots that push politics all the time. Others try to run away from it, afraid of taking any stands that might offend parts of their community. 

An inclusive church doesn’t need to center politics, but when they matter to the well-being of members of their community, they can’t avoid them.

I remember Christmas of 2014. Our church at the time was probably around 15% Black. In the wake of the murder of Trayon Martin and the unrest in Ferguson, a movement to uplift the sacred dignity and worth of Black lives had begun. It mattered to our community, and it mattered to me. 

So I started the Christmas season preaching in a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. I wore a shirt. Hardly a radical act in my mind. But a number of our African-American members took selfies with me that day. It was an important gesture of solidarity they saw in their white pastor. And sadly, not most but a few of our white members were upset. They thought I was bringing politics into the pulpit. In a sense, I was. Politics originally refers to the public – the public issues and concerns of the people. 

If you want an inclusive church, you need to care about and speak up for the concerns of the people, including people who are especially underrepresented in your community.

5. Stop Shaming and Harming LGBTQ People and Those That Love Them

There’s been a movement of LGBTQ rights in this country for fifty years. Same sex marriage has been legal throughout the country for years, and most Americans are glad this is so. The church has had a hard time keeping up, though. In fact, both American and global Christianity has been one of the biggest sources of violence and hate toward LGBTQ peoples. An inclusive church can do much better. 

Historically, most Christians have not held welcoming or affirming views on diversity of sexual identity and orientation. But Christians have managed to change their minds and update their views on many other things over the centuries. 

There’s now a wide body of literature and thinking that can help churches be faithful to their tradition and sacred texts while also doing right by people too long stigmatized and rejected by the church. The path to dignified, joyful, full inclusion of queer Christians and spiritual seekers is available. For me – a cisgender, straight follower of Jesus – this path has enriched my faith and made me a better friend, family member, neighbor, and pastor. For our siblings in the LGBTQ community, their participation and sometimes their very lives depends on it. 

6. Be Ready to Lose People.

Those people offended by my solidarity with Black Lives Matter – some of them left the church. When people are threatened or angry or disapproving, that’s what they do sometimes. During the period of time when our church became fully inclusive and affirming of LGBTQ people, almost half of the church left. Some left over that specific issue. Others left because it was a period of so much transition in our church in general. Things were a little chaotic. We could have managed the change better of course. 

But churches that become more inclusive usually start losing some people before they gain others. That’s been our story. It’s been the story of just about every other church I know of that got more committed to racial justice or LGBTQ inclusion than it had been before. 

Loss is sad. There are costs to pay. But what you get on the other side in this case is very much worth it. 

7. Celebrate, Enjoy and Keep LEARNING!

I love our inclusive church! I love the depth of experiences and perspectives and relationships it offers to our community. I love the stories of safety and belonging people share. I love that Reservoir is known in our region as the kind of church where an interracial family, a gay couple, a trans child, or a woman preacher can feel at home. 

Building an inclusive church results in communities people enjoy being part of, with great stories to share with the world at large. 

But they’re never static. People come and go, and the vision and hope which guides the journey needs to be refreshed. People make mistakes – hurtful things are said, our commitments to everyone’s full seat at the table get broken. And we need to make apologies, make things right, and keep learning. 

Inclusive communities are messy sometimes. The best things in life aren’t simple and neat. But they’re worth what it takes to find and keep. 

Visit Reservoir Church Today!

At Reservoir Church, we put Jesus at the center of everything we do, from our Sunday services to our various programs. We welcome everyone without exception; whatever your race, gender, sexual orientation or background. You will always have a place here.

If you’ve been looking for an inclusive and welcoming church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, we would love to have you join us at a Sunday service. Click here to connect with us by subscribing to our email list or by exploring our service opportunities.