In every church I’ve ever been on staff at, we've inevitably wrestled with the question, “Who belongs?”
Oh, we never say it like that.
Instead, we raise questions like, “Who is active here? Who worships here? Or who gives an offering here?”
We do so in order to try to classify people. It’s human nature to want to know who’s in and who’s out. We also do so in order to maintain our membership roster and in many mainline traditions, figure out how much money we owe the synod (something that’s typically calculated as a percentage of total membership).
In youth ministry, we have our own versions of this question.
In an effort to determine who belongs, we measure participation – most often through attendance. We’ve got kids who are “regulars” and those who are on the “margins”. We’ve also got those who simply never show up. They’re the “disengaged”.
At the first youth ministry I led, Laura was “disengaged”. She was on my ministry’s roster but she never showed up. Yet, for reasons I never quite understood, my leaders were obsessed with her. Every time we met, they insisted that I follow up with her.
To me, this felt like a waste of time. Why put so much time and energy into chasing after someone who was clearly uninterested when I could instead use that energy to follow up with kids who were at least marginally connected or disciple kids who were regular attenders? Surely, those efforts would yield more fruit.
For the last 18 years that I’ve practiced youth ministry, I’ve believed it’s better to put your effort into following up with kids who – through their attendance – have expressed some interest in what you’re doing than to sink a lot of time and energy into chasing after kids who will likely never come.
That said, I also like to practice radical hospitality. It's a value I think Jesus demonstrated again and again throughout his earthly ministry. That’s why there are times when I think it’s important to reach out to EVERYONE, regardless of how much or how little they’ve previously been connected. Fall kickoff, Youth Sunday, and special events are often opportune times to reengage people.
In my ministry, we’re currently following up with high school seniors in order to plan our high school graduation milestone and recognition.
Our church’s tracking system is a bit hit or miss, so our list of seniors is incomplete. We learned this the hard way last year when we missed people who should have been included. I felt bad for months afterwards.
This year, my boss suggested we track down a confirmation picture from when these seniors were confirmed and use that as the starting point for our roster. Thanks to some of our awesome parents we were able to do so. Sure enough, there are people in this class who were not on our list of seniors.
There were also people in this picture who I couldn’t identify. Thankfully, the parents could.
Even so, there were names on this list of seniors that were unfamiliar to me, clearly people who belonged in the “disengaged” category. Nevertheless, since I wanted to err on the side of radical inclusion, I asked the parents, “Are these teens still connected to our church?”
One mom responded, “They would consider Atonement to be their church home.”
That statement undid me and made me rethink my 18-year old philosophy of inclusion.
By every reasonable metric, this teen (and their family) is disengaged. They’re inactive.
Yet, they still consider our church their church home.
Their reasons for doing so are irrelevant… Almost as irrelevant as our standard metrics of inclusion.
If they consider our church to be their church home, then they belong – regardless of what their attendance suggests.
Of course, the practical implications of this are many but they start with this: If what matters is whether or not someone self-identifies as a member of a church, then we can’t classify people based on their actions. Instead, we have to trust their classification of themselves. We have to reach out and ask them, “Do you consider our church to be your church home?”
If they say no, we can wish them well and move on.
But if they say yes, then the onus falls on us to continue following up with them, no matter how fruitless it may initially seem. If we're their church home, then we need to include them – in mailings, milestones, and invitations to participate.
Because if they say YES, then they’re saying they belong to us and we belong to them.
The best way to honor that is to accept it.
That’s why this year, I’ll be dropping off presents to our seniors.
ALL of them – even the ones who have never attended our youth ministry; Even the ones whose names I didn’t recognize.
In the end, what have we got to lose?
Sure, we’ll spend a few extra dollars on some gifts. Maybe a disengaged senior will think it's strange to receive a gift from a group they don’t really know.
But maybe it will remind them that their church loves them and so does Jesus.
Maybe it will remind their families that we are their church home.
Maybe it will even reengage them in the life of our congregation.
But even if it doesn’t, it’ll be worth it.
Because somehow, now that I think about it, I don’t think Jesus ever classified people as in or out based on their attendance or giving patterns.
So here’s to belonging and a philosophy of inclusion that’s so radical it says “If a person says they belong, they actually do.”