by Marion Shields

I remember overhearing this comment during a discussion about the possible appointment of a student teacher to a school: “But they wouldn’t fit”.

A group of students were discussing the concept of leadership in the unit, Leadership and Advocacy, which I teach. They were particularly interested in why some leaders prefer yes-men (or women) — those who always agree with their superiors; or as the Macquarie Dictionary puts it, “Obedient or sycophantic followers.” Yes-men (or women) are those who fit or who are safe.

Churches claim to value diversity but tend to do the opposite. If people do not fit with a church’s perception of what is acceptable, they are subtly excluded.

I teach wonderful young adults how to be teachers, and in the area of special education, I teach them how to recognise children who are different. I particularly teach them not to be afraid of difference, not to ignore, punish or exclude but to give attention, reward and include, to help those children understand they are of value. Teachers — good teachers, Christian teachers — need to love and accept all children.

An ‘outlier’ is a word often used in statistics to refer to a piece of information that doesn’t fit with the rest. Advice to statisticians goes like this: “Consider the possible value and the possible cause of the outlier before deciding to eliminate or ignore it.” I wonder if, as Christians, we take this advice when meeting people who don’t fit? Particularly if they make us feel uncomfortable. Especially if they are in the church.

‘Misfits’ such as John Wesley and William Wilberforce, because of their total commitment to the eradication of slavery, did not fit with the churches of their day.

Nor did Jesus — an outstanding misfit. Note His lack of education — He didn’t attend high school or university. Note His lack of employment — He didn’t become a productive citizen. Note His nomadic lifestyle — He didn’t settle down. Note His relationships with women and tax collectors — He even ate with them at dinner parties. Note His praise of Samaritans — He even held them up as model citizens. Jesus challenged the boundaries established by the Pharisees. His message? Not simply to restore our broken relationship with God but to heal broken relationships among people. The Pharisees defined holiness based on exclusivity.

Jesus defined it based on inclusivity. He didn’t come out from those on the outside. He went to them, reaching out with love and compassion. If we are serious about following Jesus, this should be our perspective and practice, too. The Bible challenges us to “accept each other just as Christ has accepted you” (Romans 15:7, NLT). The Message’s paraphrase increases the challenge. “So reach out and welcome one another to God’s glory.” Ultimately, accepting others as God accepts us in Christ involves accepting people who are different, people who do not fit with our perception of what is acceptable, people who may be fellow church members. A healthy church often attracts unhealthy people, but a healthy church should be one of the few places where those people find love and acceptance.

Despite adding five million new members, more than 1.4 million members left the Seventh-day Adventist Church worldwide during the five-year period 2000 to 2004. Did these people not fit? I look at our conservatives, our liberals, our young adults, our senior citizens, our singles, our single parents, those with special needs, will they go, or will they find in you the “something else” and stay?

Marion Shields is Master of Education course convenor, short course convenor and a senior lecturer in the School of Education at Avondale College of Higher Education. She presented this article as a paper during Avondale Alumni Association’s Alumni Lecture at Homecoming this year.

Used by permission – first published in the Record, Oct 2011