By Rev. Renee Dillard
Our youth group hit the road this summer bound for Youth 2015. Our small group of six trekked from Memphis, TN to Orlando, FL where we joined almost 5,000 United Methodists (mostly youth) from across the connection. So many young United Methodists in one place! The preaching was prophetic, the service opportunities were world-changing and the sense of community was strong. But my favorite part of this conference were the workshops! The topics were abundant and varied. I participated in pursuing peace, starting a non-profit, food justice, teen depression, global missions and expansive language.
That last one was especially wonderful because honestly I stumbled into it accidentally. Yet from the first slide of the presentation I knew I was in the right place:
“Expansive language: Congregations Exploring Inclusivity: Strategies for Introducing a Difficult Topic”
I’ll get to the draw of expansive language and inclusivity, but first a brief word about difficult topics.
I’m a fan of conversations that matter, even those grounded in topics that are difficult or make us uncomfortable. It’s not that I enjoy conflict or discomfort or awkwardness. The reason I long for conversations that matter is that I see the fruit they can bear. When we create safe and loving spaces and share openly and honestly our own stories and the stories of those we love, we are able to learn new information or new perspectives as we grow in Christian faith, community and discipleship.
The phrase, “expansive language” was new for me yet it resonated immediately. How we understand and name God is more than an either/or choice of language. Our presenter, Deaconess Amanda Mountain, led us beautifully through an educational and interactive time of pondering why it matters what names or descriptions we use for God, the barriers/fears/objections for using expansive language, and how we might practice using expansive language in our worship and teaching moments.
Especially gratifying was the presence of young people, including many middle school and high school aged boys, who were engaged in the topic and open to thoughtfully considering the impact of our God-language. Many asked insightful questions and offered creative ideas for becoming more expansive in how we talk about and address our God. As I write this, I realize that I just revealed a pre-formed assumption that boys and young men are not typically open to expansive language for God, especially the use of feminine names or pronouns for God. It’s more true to say that our resistance to new ways of understanding and speaking about God are rooted firmly in our own experiences and what we have learned in and from the church. We know what we know. This is true regardless of age or gender. The question is, are we willing to widen our circles of knowledge and experience?
So, how big is God? While I use gender-neutral language for God whenever possible (I serve in a setting where that is not only tolerated but encouraged), I realize that I do not often take the opportunity to use those word choices as teaching moments or entryways into larger and deeper conversations regarding gender equality and justice. I am looking forward to the upcoming release of “God of the Bible”, GCSRW’s five-week study for small groups, and hoping it will provide a good foundation for expanding ever further our congregation’s capacity to expand our understanding of who God is.
Thanks be to God!
To download a free study about expansive language, check out God of the Bible available here on the General Commission of the Status and Role of Women’s website.