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    Assistant Pastor, Youth/Families
  • Christine Betts
    Assistant Director, Youth/Families
  • Ty Commons
    Youth & Families Intern
  • Kim Delchamps
    Administrative Assistant
  • Derrick Harris
    Assistant Pastor, Shepherding & Young Families
  • Angela Sierk
    Director, Children's Ministry
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    Director, Nursery
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    Director, Community Development
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Undeserved Inclusion: A Gospel Welcome for Youth & Beyond

Undeserved Inclusion: A Gospel Welcome for Youth & Beyond

The completion of summer vacation is one of my favorite times of the year.  I do not write that because my kids go back to school, because football is right around the corner, or even because the ridiculous Alabama heat is promised to relent.  The completion of summer is one of my favorite times of the year because it signals the beginning of High-Life’s fall programs.  I embrace the fact that I love my calling in life.  I love to work with students.  I love to walk through their lives with them.  I love to affirm that their day to day experiences are real and significant. 
The vast majority of tweens and teens have the sneaking suspicion that they are not taken seriously.  In the eighteen or so years that I have been doing this, the main feedback that I have received from teens is that I do not speak down to them.  I tell them real things, confront them with real life, and expect that they can handle it.  What they are hitting on is my main defect.  I always want to treat people with dignity, whether they are five or eighty-five.  I am not good at small talk, I am not good at overpromotion, but God has blessed me with the honest desire to get to know people.

Many of our students do not feel known. They feel like outsiders, waiting until they check enough of life’s boxes to be treated as people by those who are older than they are.

At Southwood, our vision statement is ‘To Experience and Express Grace’.  At High-Life, we tweak that a little bit while still saying the same thing.  We want people ‘To Know and to be Known’.  Many of our students do not feel known.  They feel like outsiders, waiting until they check enough of life’s boxes to be treated as people by those who are older than them.  They are as frustrated, if not more so, by their hormonal outbursts, persnickety and ever-changing views on life, and desire to find validation from their crush as their parents, teachers, relatives, coaches, etc.  They are perpetually on the outside looking in because their adolescent behavior does not give them a seat at the table.  They are constantly jockeying for position with each other in order to be the one taken most seriously because of popularity, athleticism, intellectual acumen, or spiritual savvy. 

This shows up at High-Life when students are unwilling to give up their social standing in order to meet new people, meet introverted people, or meet strange people.  Thankfully, Christine, Ty, and I have the desire that no-one be left out.  Our life experiences and personalities drive us to the least, the lost, the littlest, the lonely, and the left out.  This was my experience for much of my life.  I was a kid who like heavy metal music, socially conscious rap music, acted in school plays, got good grades, and lettered in multiple sports.  I had friends from every walk of life in the school, but I still managed to convince Mr. Hall to let me skip lunch to do basketball drills in the gym.  Everybody was cool with me in our individual places in the school, but I did not have friends.

Inclusion is a strange concept.  It is batted about by groups of all kinds, seeking to make people less of who they are so that the group can be successful.  The funny thing about these inclusive groups is that, at some point, they all become exclusive.  There is not necessarily any objective common ground from whence human idiosyncrasies can actually be tolerated.  People are expected to attain and persist in some moral higher thinking that is based solely in the ideology adhered to by the group.  Naturally, at some point this becomes a fallacy of composition as the individual members of a group will never meet the mark of the collective. 

In the healthiest way possible, I know that I am the worst person whom you will ever meet.  I live a pretty clean life.  My past notwithstanding, I still have some visible issues, but I am generally a good decision maker, morally upright, and sound enough to be ordained as a teaching elder in our denomination.  My heart, however, always seems to be leading me astray.  A former doctrine professor of mine used to say, “The heart of the matter is a matter of the heart.”  Sins of the heart are at the root of any physical manifestation of those sins.  They all reflect a disbelief in the reality that Jesus meets us in those places so that he might present us righteous before his holy Father.  The first and greatest commandment, “Love the LORD your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength” is something that I violate even as I pen this article.  This does not even include all of the different ways in which I do not love my neighbor as myself.  And what about loving my wife as Christ loves the church?  Training my children in the way that they should go so that when they are old they will not depart from it?  My addiction to sports?  My anger, pride, lust, greed?  I can confidently assure you, I will not meet a person in any walk of life who is more in need of the Gospel of Jesus Christ than me.

It is at this point, in this grounding, that we become able to be inclusive.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ promises nothing if not that all of us are in desperate need for a savior.  This means that none of us can encounter a person on a Sunday morning who does not belong as much as we do.  I am grateful to have believing parents, but I have no earthly clue why my Heavenly Father sees fit to embrace me as his child.  Do not read me as doubting my salvation but understand that I did nothing to deserve his effective affection, and instead have done everything within my power to deserve his wrath.

The church of Jesus Christ is the only place that can be truly inclusive.

This is why I know that the church of Jesus Christ is the only place that can be truly inclusive.  Those of us who have been given the gift of belief and faith and salvation know that we did not earn our standing.  When an LGBT+ person, an atheist, a biker, a doubter, someone who has been abused by a Church, a legalist, a moralist, or whomever is in our midst, they are in the right place.  Romans 8:28 has far reaching implications in our lives.  Of course, our Heavenly Father works in our sufferings for our good, but he also works through our sinfulness for our good.  This is why Paul writes to the Galatians to bear the burdens of their brothers and sisters.  This type of love is not based upon whether or not the person in need deserves your love, rather it is based upon the love given to you by a Heavenly Father, earned by his faithful Son, and granted to you by a Holy Spirit who proceeds from each of them.

As we were on our knees praying as a Church on Sunday morning, I felt like I was still standing too tall.  The Gospel is so big, it is so wide and so deep, and yet sometimes I feel as though I have a real grasp of it.  Inclusion starts with the knowledge that I am the least.  It is no matter who I might meet along my journey, they at worst need Jesus as much as me.  This emboldens me to give them a place at my table.  This emboldens me to give them a seat in my pew.  This emboldens me to want to share my life with them, so that they might see the amazing things that Jesus has done for me.  That is real inclusion.