A Plentiful Harvest: Growth in Inclusive Churches
Revd Dr Augustine Tanner-Ihm is Team Curate at St James & Emmanuel, Didsbury, Manchester and the winner of the 2020 Theology Slam. This article first appeared in ViaMedia.News and we are grateful for their permission to copy it here. The vicar of Didsbury, Nick Bundock, is one of the convenors of Inclusive Evangelicals
Just over 19 years ago, my life took a profound turn when I pledged myself to the teachings and person of Jesus Christ. This powerful, transformative experience occurred during a Pentecostal service in a small village located approximately 90 minutes outside of St. Louis. At the time, I was a 14-year-old adolescent grappling with depression and the harsh realities of homelessness, as my family and I were living in a shelter near Chicago. As narrated in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), I was lost, and then found, embraced by a divine love that forever altered the path of my life.
“At the time, I was a 14-year-old adolescent grappling with depression and the harsh realities of homelessness,
living in a shelter near Chicago.”
In subsequent years, I discerned a profound call to ministry, resonating deeply with the Great Commission as found in Matthew 28:19-20: “Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” This call from our Lord Jesus Christ provided me with a sense of purpose and value, igniting a fervour in me to spread the gospel in a way that was contextual and geared towards spiritual transformation.
Today, nearly two decades later, my mission and focus remain steadfast. I value church growth not out of ambition for worldly success, but from a deep-seated desire for more individuals to come into a saving faith in Jesus Christ. As Paul writes in Romans 1:16, the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. This conviction transcends denominational lines and theological differences within the Christian community. Despite these disparities, my spirit rejoices when individuals come to know Christ, and my zeal for evangelism remains unabated.
Upon answering the call to priesthood, I was initially apprehensive that my primary role would shift to being a chaplain to a congregation, rather than an evangelist. Further, my theology, which affirms the inclusion of marginalized groups, seemed to conflict with the prevalent notions of church growth I observed in the United Kingdom, where I have resided for the past decade.
Often, churches that baptized and discipled many individuals either remained silent on inclusion matters or made very clear statements affirming traditional views on human sexuality. However, my experience serving under Revd Dr. Nick Bundock, Rector of St. James and Emmanuel Church, Didsbury, deviated from this pattern. Under his leadership, our church has adopted an inclusive theology while simultaneously producing ordained and lay leaders, establishing a Church of England Primary School, an Anglican School trust, and playing an active role in the community.
Last August, we held a confirmation service where over 95 people from our parish were confirmed. It was a deeply moving experience. A few weeks later, we baptized an entire family who had converted to Christianity from Islam. Earlier in the year, a man who found our church through our online presence started attending our church. All of these individuals came to our church because of our bold and inclusive message of the gospel.
Initially, I feared that advocating for inclusion might lead to the closure of our church. However, what we have experienced has been a profound affirmation of God’s love for all people. We have seen faith manifest itself in a myriad of ways within our community. We have seen belonging leading to believing, and believers becoming disciples. We serve a God who, as expressed in Acts 10:34-35, shows no favouritism but accepts all who fear Him and do what is right.
“Our congregation has cultivated a vibrant community that seeks not just to declare God’s message but to live it in practical ways.”
We do not believe in inclusion because it is trendy, but because we are convinced it is a faithful interpretation of Scripture and the work of the Holy Spirit. We are praying and sowing the seeds of the gospel as described in Matthew 13, the Parable of the Sower. As we look to the future, we pray for a revival of faith among more inclusive evangelical churches. We believe we are witnessing a new harvest, one that affirms the beautiful diversity of God’s creation.
“I am struck by how our explicit message of gospel inclusion has fostered such rich and diverse spiritual growth within our community in Manchester.”
Our congregation, under the guidance of Revd Dr. Nick Bundock, has cultivated a vibrant community that seeks not just to declare God’s message but to live it in practical ways. We have participated in various missions in Salford, Uganda, India, and beyond, demonstrating the global scope of our gospel mission. We emulate the apostles in the Book of Acts, particularly in Acts 1:8, where Jesus proclaims: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
In a notable instance of domestic outreach, a man who was seeking understanding of autism in relation to Christianity stumbled upon our church’s inclusive website. He happened to live in the parish, and has since become an active participant in our spiritual community. This striking experience exemplifies the far-reaching power of the internet as a tool for ministry in the digital age, drawing parallels with the apostle Paul’s innovative communication techniques in his time.
Another powerful instance occurred during a marriage course, designed by my fellow curate Revd Lex Russell and her partner Johanna Russell. This course allowed couples to explore the intersection of the gospel and relationships, facilitating spiritual growth in a unique context. In one case, the bride of a couple I was preparing for marriage expressed her desire to be baptised and begin a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This serves as an exemplary instance of how relational ministry can lead individuals closer to God, echoing the teachings found in Ephesians 5:22-33, where the relationship between partners ikened to that between Christ and the church.
Reflecting on these and numerous other experiences, I am struck by how our explicit message of gospel inclusion has fostered such rich and diverse spiritual growth within our community in Manchester. Every person, every story, is a testament to God’s love and grace extending to all people, mirroring the teachings of Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
“we do not view inclusion as a fleeting trend, but rather as a central tenet of our faith derived from a thoughtful understanding of Scripture and underlined by the Spirit’s conviction.”
In conclusion, we do not view inclusion as a fleeting trend, but rather as a central tenet of our faith derived from a thoughtful understanding of Scripture and underlined by the Spirit’s conviction. This belief in the inclusivity of all God’s people guides us as we pray, sow seeds of faith, and wait in hope for a plentiful harvest.