How diverse should the local church be? #1 Introduction

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‘After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude

from every nation, tribe, people, and language…’

~ Revelation 7:9 ~

 

‘Multiculturalism’ is ‘so hot right now’. That is good in some ways – it poses worthwhile questions for our practise and, even more importantly, the foundational theology out of which those practises flow. But, we certainly don’t want be thinking about these things so that we can be trendy (‘oh we’re so mul-tie-cultu-ral’), but rather because our aim is to be living in line with God and his plans in this world. The end-time picture of the people of God contains incredible diversity in unity achieved by God in Jesus (Rev 7:10). How diverse should the local church be? How diverse should the church you and I go to be? Does it even need to be diverse? Actually, what do we mean by diverse and diversity?

Firstly, let’s be clear in saying that what we might call a homogeneous church (i.e. made up of same or similar kinds of people) is still diverse simply because inherent in diversity is the idea of plurality. One person means no diversity. But even if you put twins into a room, there is still diversity because, as The Life of Brian reminds us: ‘we’re all individuals; we’re all different.’ If you had a church that was completely black or white, well the people might all look somewhat similar but there is still diversity. It might be personality, it might be country of origin – there is diversity present. However, that is not saying enough and is sometimes used as a way out of actually considering what diversity looks like. And so, secondly, it is worth considering major markers of diversity contained in Scripture. While I will need to try and show later on why these are major markers in Scripture, they include markers or categories such as:

  • Gender
  • Age
  • Socio-economic and educational factors
  • And ethnicity which includes: nationality, culture, and language. Importantly, I haven’t mentioned race here because I consider it a social construct. Ethnicity is a better term. Even if racism is real, there is only one race, ‘we’re all blood, we’re all blood, blood brothers’ – as Ingrid Michaelson sings.[1]

 

 ‘And behold, there was a local congregation of people who

pretty much looked like me, spoke like me,

and liked the same things as me’

Our churches (with notable exceptions it must be said!!) are in danger of not reflecting the parishes they belong to. Even if you think that the parish system is archaic, there is at least one thing that it does: it keeps us accountable. Yes, there are certain areas where people do not settle for long and this needs to be given careful thought and strategy. Yes, we often travel out of our living areas for work and for sport and for entertainment. But evangelism and community based only off of these hubs means that there are people who are not like us who fall through the cracks. And yes, I’m thinking in particular about ethnicity here. We pass these people off as someone else’s ‘mission field’. But no one gets around to loving them and often we simply end up with churches full of people who are just like us, it’s a bit easier that way. The result can be that those who God has placed around us remain unreached and we run the risk of irrelevance as the Christian message is otherwise ‘undermined by its own segregation.’[2] For most of the people who might read this, let’s be blunt, our danger is of being white middle class churches in areas which are usually more diverse than that. If you live in an area that is particularly not diverse in terms of ethnicity, then it is still worth considering what other markers of diversity (perhaps socio-economic?) you might be lazy on.

Given the end-time picture of God gathering a diverse group of people around Jesus, is there perhaps a problem with our doctrine of the church? Are we thinking correctly about what the gathering of God’s people looks like, or should look like? Or, does it run even deeper than that? When John Webster asserts that ‘the doctrine of the church is only as good as the doctrine of God which underlies it’,[3] does this mean that perhaps our foundational issue is with our understanding of God? Perhaps we’ve simply grown hazy about what our God is like and what he is doing in this world?

With this in mind, the next few posts will follow this plan of action: firstly, we will look at diversity in unity as it relates to God, this is our starting point. This will be more of a biblical theology of diversity in relation to God working out salvation in the world. And then secondly, we will turn to diversity in unity as it relates to God’s church. What does that look like in the congregations many of us are a part of? Why has God given us diversity – does it do anything? After that, I’ll offer a brief conclusion and then perhaps try and engage with some strands that were not directly dealt with.


[1] A useful starting point for thinking about race is work by Thabiti Anyabwile (for instance http://t4g.org/media/2010/04/bearing-the-image-identity-the-work-of-christ-and-the-church-session-ii/). I’m not sure I would quite land where he does with some of the Adam/Christ thinking – we’re still one human race, just some of us have restored humanity in Christ.

[2] Mark DeYmaz, Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church: Mandate, Commitments and Practices of a Diverse Congregation (John Wiley & Sons, 2010), xxix.

[3] John B. Webster, Confessing God: Essays in Christian Dogmatics II (London: T & T Clark, 2005), 196.

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