Toronto is the most diverse city in the world which means that Toronto churches are among the most diverse churches in the world. If over fifty percent of the people who live in the city were born in a country other than Canada, which is exactly the case, then in all probability over fifty percent of the people who attend church in the city were born in a country other than Canada. It is rare that a church here does not have members from a number of different nations—often, as is the case with my church, twenty-five or thirty of them. And this means, of course, that Toronto churches have had the joy of learning how to thrive amid a culture of diversity.
A few years ago we met as members of Grace Fellowship Church in what we called a “Diversity Roundtable.” The idea was simply to discuss what it means to be a diverse church and to consider how we can do diversity well. Over several hours we did lots of talking and lots of listening. I took extensive notes and narrowed them down to these 7 points of application that came from the membership. I’ve shared them in the past, but today’s cultural context, in which lots of the messaging seems to indicate that it’s not possible to have true unity amid diveristy, seems an ideal time to share them again.
- Remember your history. Remember your history as a Christian, acknowledging that the church did not begin with the founding of your congregation or the founding of your nation. The church was founded at Pentecost and it began in a context of great diversity. Acts chapter 2 tells about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and how suddenly people from all across the known world were hearing the gospel in their own languages and coming to a common faith in Christ. This tells us something important: Diversity is the natural state of Christ’s church. However, as you keep reading through Acts (e.g chapters 6 and 15) and as you turn to the epistles, you’ll see that much of the conflict within the early church was based around ethnic differences. This great feature of the church has always been exploited by Satan to bring about great disruption. The beauty of diversity and the struggle to maintain that beauty are both as old as the church itself. Thus we shouldn’t be surprised and shouldn’t be discouraged if we find it poses a challenge today.
- Be a student of other cultures. In a context of diversity, we can make assumptions about other people that ignore the uniqueness of their culture. We can judge them by standards or assumptions we do not share. In order to love the people of your church, you need to be a student of the cultures represented by the members of your church. You may benefit from having a few go-to cultural interpreters who can help bring clarity when you need help understanding people and situations, or crafting especially sharp applications in a sermon. For example, while I come from a culture where a person’s reputation is based on guilt or innocence, many members of my church come from a culture that leans more toward the honor/shame paradigm. When a young lady in our church was told by her parents she would be thrown out of her home unless she revoked her faith, I wanted to plead issues of justice—”It is not right or fair that they would do this to you!” But this may not have been particularly helpful to her situation since, for her family, this was not first a matter of justice, but of shame. She and I were seeing the world through different cultural lenses. As her pastor I needed to learn to understand that lens so I could help her see biblical truth that would minister to her. And it turns out the Bible is full of truth that can minister to people who are dealing with the heavy weight of shame.
- Emphasize hospitality. Several people expressed how important this was to our church and to our unity as a community. We learned that some very communal and relational cultures tend not to extend hospitality within their homes. These people were blessed, then, when people from hospitality-based cultures began to invite them into their homes on a Sunday afternoon. It was often intimidating to accept such invitations, but soon became normal and motivated them to open their own homes. There is a challenge here to be involved in other people’s lives and do it in your living room. Stop making an idol of your own comfort and invite those people over, welcome them all the way in just as God in Christ welcomed you.
- Deepen your definition of diversity. When considering diversity, it is important to go beyond race or ethnicity. Both are wonderful, but neither one reflects the totality of the ways God intends to display his glory. In some places the more difficult division may be class or caste. You may have great difficulty getting upper classes and lower classes or higher castes and lower castes to worship together. In some churches it will be ability, making a place in the life of the church for people who are disabled. In some churches it will be economics, making a place in the same church for those who are destitute and those who are wealthy. It might be age, being truly welcoming toward the elderly at a time when we seem to be obsessed with youth. And yes, it might be race or ethnicity. Study your community and make this your goal in diversity: We want our church to reflect the diversity of the community God has placed us within.
- Be patient. There is so much in the Christian life and church that takes far longer than we want it to, but God works at his own pace. In our church we had a sudden surge of ethnic diversity, but for a few years after that was not reflected in our eldership. That was kind of awkward for us because people could have said this reflected a prejudice. The reality is that many of the people who came to our church were young and needed mentoring and discipleship just like all young people do. This took time and couldn’t be rushed. Now, a few years later, our eldership more accurately reflects the diversity of the church. We had to fight to temptation to be hasty here, to rush people into the office out of fear or a sense of awkwardness. It may take time for diversity to really take root in your church, then to be displayed in the entire life of the church.
- Speak truth and act in love. The experience of our church is this: Truth attracts diversity, love maintains diversity. We found that we didn’t need to create a program to attain diversity. We simply preached truth and God’s people responded to the magnet of the Word. The Word of God drew people, but it took love to keep them. If you find people are coming to your church but not staying, perhaps this is why. God’s people are hungry for the truth and hungry to be fed with it, but we can at times preach powerful sermons which we then contradict in our actions.
- If the first lesson was remember your past, the final one is remember your future. And I can say “remember” because that future is fixed in the mind of God and recorded for you in the final book of the Bible. You can read about it any time. It’s a future of complete unity amid incredible diversity. God’s purpose in eternity isn’t to have us worshipping in enclaves divided by color, ethnicity, ability, or preference. We will worship together as people of one nation, children of one father, bricks of one temple. And by God’s grace he means to give us a foretaste of that today. It’s a faint scent of a familiar place, a distant glimpse of a promised land, a far-off sound of a joyful song. It is our joy to read about it and long for it and remember it until the day we finally experience it.