One of the main questions people have when they visit churches is, “Will I belong here?” This is true when entering any group, but especially true when exploring a religious community. Churches have a long history of setting up parameters for faith, then defining membership by people’s ability to meet those parameters. Churches have prided themselves on exclusivity, being different than “normal” people. Walking into a community of faith nowadays, one expects to be judged as much as welcomed. The word “welcome” carries a hidden implication: as long as you’re just like us.
This is foolishness. Any serious reading of scripture is going to yield the conclusion that we all fall short of the people we were meant to be. If perfection, or even goodness, is the metric for inclusion, none of us qualify.
When we enshrine our own standards as the litmus test for faith, we also enshrine our blind spots and faults. When this happens, we set our sins in stone as much as our faith. That we build pretty buildings out of those stones does not make the flaws any less evident.
The only corrective to this idolatry is to find truth, faith, and God’s Spirit in people who are not “us”. These people bring different strengths and faults. When we compare together, we each see the flaws in our own stones and the beauty in each other’s…more knowledge than either of us had alone.
Without that radical, inclusive welcome, we become our own gods, making faith out of our instinctive human predispositions instead of things beyond us. If our litmus test for inclusion is, “Thinks just like we do”, we have failed before we even started.
If we fail to welcome all, we end up welcoming nobody but ourselves. In this scenario, God resides among the excluded. Not only does God pity those who have been cast out in his name, he probably has a better chance of being listened to and cared about when people aren’t already convinced that he looks, sounds, and thinks just like them.
Shepherd of the Valley welcomes all, not just as members, but as leaders and teachers and bearers of God’s Spirit. To do otherwise would be idolatrous, a denial of the faith that we say guides us.