My challenge at a recent conference was to prepare a message that described our church’s experience of finding true Christian unity in a context of wide ethnic diversity. To ensure I was speaking on more than my own behalf, I invited my church to join together for a roundtable discussion. Over a few hours (and some pretty tasty soup and sandwiches) we discussed diversity and arrived at a number of keys to our experience. Here, from Grace Fellowship Church, are seven lessons on finding unity in diversity.
- Remember your history. Remember your history as a Christian and be sure to acknowledge this history begins 2,000 years ago. 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 faith in Christ. There is an important implication to this: Diversity is the natural state of Christ’s church. However, as you keep reading to Acts 6 and Acts 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.
- 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. In order to love the people of your church, you need to be a student of the cultures in 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 guilt/innocence culture, many members of my church come from an honor/shame culture. 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. This however would not have been 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 her culture 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. What surprised me was that some very communal and relational cultures (like West African) apparently tend not to extend hospitality within their homes. These people were blessed, then, when Romanians, Sri Lankans, French Canadians and others began to invite them in on a Sunday afternoon. It was intimidating for them at first, but soon became normal and motivated them to open their 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, 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. You may have trouble getting different ethic groups to worship together. 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 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, at last, our eldership is diversifying as well. 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, 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 didn’t lay out a program for 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.