Diversity Marks of a Healthy Church 10
And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.Genesis 12:3
God’s great plan is to unite the nations in Christ. To bring together people from every culture, every colour, every country and every class and to make them one. To make them united in Jesus Christ. This is brought before us here in one of the earliest chapters of the Bible, one of the earliest gospel texts, where Abraham is given this great promise that in him (or “through him”) shall all families of the earth be blessed. This theme continues, even in the Old Testament, which often seems very Israel centred. But remember, Israel was called by God to be a kingdom of priests, a nation that mediated and that stood between God and the peoples. They were not just to get the truth and keep the truth, they were to be priests of the truth who spread it out to the nations.
Diversity in the Church as a Biblical Theme
They did not do this terribly well, of course, but that was still God’s plan. We see throughout the Old Testament here and there indicators of God’s plan to bring together the nations in a spiritual unity. We see it, for example, in the salvation of Rahab and in the salvation of Ruth. We see it for sure in the Psalms. Many of the Psalms contain this amazingly wide vision of God bringing together the peoples of the nations in one. The prophets have this theme continually. They obviously saw that Israel was not fulfilling their call to be the mediator of God’s truth to the nations and called them to repentance and held out the hope of a better day. So especially towards the end of the prophets, we have these amazingly wide, broad visions of all sorts of diverse and varied peoples being brought together in Christ.
Of course, when Jesus came into this world, some of the first people who came to Him were wise men from the East. When His birth was announced by the angels, it was joy to the world, and peace on earth, and goodwill to all men. Jesus’ first sermon in the synagogue might actually be called a sermon about racial or national integration – and it did not go down too well with His Israelite hearers either. As we will see, His life was a life of barrier-breaking and bridge-building. His last words were, “Go out into all the earth and preach the gospel to every creature.” He had a passion for the Church to be a house of prayer for all nations.
What do we see in the book of Acts? We see that as that gospel goes out, barriers were being broken and bridges were being built. It was not without tension, hesitancy and faults along the way, but clearly the impetus and the momentum was: Bring in the nations, bring in the different, bring the varied peoples of the earth and go out to them as well! In Ephesians 2, Paul paints this great vision of all the walls of partition being broken down and the Jews and the Gentiles, sworn enemies, coming together.
Revelation, the last book in the Bible, in a number of places keeps this dream alive as it envisions a future glory of people from every nation time, kindred and tongue, worshipping together in eternity. Even the last chapter of the Bible speaks of the leaves of the tree of the gospel being for the healing of the nations. So I hope you can see that from the beginning to the end of the Bible this theme is threaded throughout. And not just threaded, you may say “roped.” It is hardly hidden. It is on the surface. It is there. It is significant. It is hard to ignore.
The Call to Pursue Diversity
And yet, the Church has not done a good job of this in some ways. And that is why we would like to look this evening at the next mark of a healthy church, which is diversity: A diversity that reflects God’s vision, God’s Word, and the themes of it that are held out from beginning to end. This is not an easy theme for us to think about, and it is not an easy theme to put into practice. We by nature love ourselves, and part of that sinful love of self is that we love those like us. We prefer those who look like us, sound like us, talk like us, dress like us, smell like us. We tend to look down on the different, push away the different, belittle and criticize. That is part of our own sinful bias. Self-love makes us love ourselves, and really in many ways makes love conditional on people becoming just like me. “Become like me, and I might consider loving you.” I hope I can show you that this is not the vision of God. This is not a mark of a healthy church. A healthy church has a healthy diversity among it.
In many way we have to ask: Does our church reflect society? We can say, “Well, I like it this way. It is more comfortable.” And that is for sure, but is it biblical and is it for the best? Society is rapidly changing. Let me give you some statistics. The majority of children by 2023 will be the children of minorities. By 2042, the majority of the population of the U.S. will be made up of minorities. In other words, the minorities will be the majority. The non-Hispanic white population is losing population so rapidly that by 2050 they will only be 46% of the population. The Hispanic population will triple from 46 million to 132 million between now and 2050, meaning that 1 in 3 U.S. residents will be Hispanic. The Black population will increase from 41 million to 65 million by 2050. American Indians, Alaskan natives, native Hawaiian and other Pacific Island populations will also double in size. A lot of people hear these statistics and say, “Danger! Threat! Awful!” but the Bible calls us to welcome it and to see it as an amazing opportunity to reflect the vision of God of His house and His Church being a house of prayer for all nations.
I have to confess that I am on a journey on this. This does not come easily to me. In fact, I would have to be honest and confess that it is really only since coming to America and seeing the diversity and the beauty of diversity that this vision has really caught fire in my own heart and mind. And I am not all the way there yet; it is hard to throw off years of a sense of cultural and national superiority. So I do not expect a sermon like this to change any of us overnight, but I hope it will start a process. I hope it will begin a new look at this theme throughout the Bible. And I believe it is there all the way through, but we just do not see it or do not want to see it. But as we see it, I believe it will be a real blessing to us as individuals and also to us as a church. I believe this is the way to true blessedness. God’s vision is the happy vision; it is the happy way to live. He has not put out something in front of us that is going to make us miserable and be a disaster. He is saying, “This is the way! This is the best way! This is the blessed way!” “In thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). But it takes faith.
This evening we would like to look first of all at pursuing and embracing diversity in our personal lives, then pursuing and embracing diversity in our church life, and then I would like to conclude with giving you some of blessings and benefits of pursuing diversity.
Let me just up front make clear that I am not talking about the world’s view of diversity. We often hear this word diversity and our alarm bells go off, and rightly so, because what most people mean by that is that we have diverse morals and diverse beliefs, and that they are all equal and acceptable. That is not what the Bible talks about. Very clearly, the Bible has morals and has ethical principles and it has beliefs that it lifts up above all other ethics, morals and beliefs, and says, “This is the truth, and all the others are false.” So we are not talking about moral diversity. We are not talking about religious diversity. We are not talking about ethical diversity. We are talking about racial diversity. We are talking about ethnic diversity. We are talking about cultural diversity. And again, I am not saying all cultures are equal, but rather looking for the biblical principles on culture and different cultures that are acceptable in our culture and in others. I hope that will become clearer as we go along.
Pursuing and Embracing Diversity Personally
First of all, let’s look at how we can pursue and embrace this kind of diversity in our personal lives.
I think the first place to start is confession. I am sure that already there are minds and hearts here that are bristling and that are beginning to stand upright in opposition to this idea. It is only natural, but it is sinful natural! The very fact that that is our instinct shows us the sinfulness of our hearts: The innate sense of superiority and the looking down upon others as lesser because they are different. So here is where we begin to ask God to forgive us for our passionate self-love that puts ourselves up in such a way that looks down on everyone else and makes other-people love so difficult, especially when they are different to us.
Let’s begin there. “Lord, I am racist. I am nationalist. I am culturalist.” Who can deny this to some degree or other? That is the nature we are born with, because we are born with a nature that loves ourselves more than anyone else. So let’s begin with confession. We really cannot make any progress until we repent. Until we look back on our lives and say, “Well, I must be honest, I was just elitist there. I was racist. I saw my own culture as superior just because it was my culture, not because it was more biblical than any other.” We confess our sins.
But, we don’t stop there! We go on to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the great barrier-breaker and bridge-builder. This is what He was all about! He broke down national barriers, bringing together Jew and Gentile. He broke down religious barriers, bringing together the Samaritans and the Jews. He broke down gender barriers, bringing together male and female in a way that was totally abnormal for that culture. He gave such a place to women amongst His followers and amongst His best friends. He broke down age barriers. When others were shooing the children away, He was saying, “No, let them come to me. Do not forbid them, for such is the kingdom of God.” He broke down social barriers, eating and drinking with sinners, with tax collectors and with drunkards. He broke down cultural barriers. He broke down ceremonial barriers, touching lepers. He broke down spiritual barriers, above all, in that He broke down the barrier between sinners and a holy God through His work on the cross.
He is the great barrier-breaker and bridge-builder! This is His mission; this is His nature; this is His character. And as we believe in Him more and more, trust in Him more and more and unite with Him more and more, then this barrier-breaking, bridge-building Spirit of His will become ours as well. We can confess and repent all we like, but unless we unite by faith with Jesus Christ, we won’t make any progress, at least not in our hearts.
Recognize the Biblical Diversity Theme
So we repent. We believe. And we soak. We soak ourselves in the diversity themes of the Bible. We go through this book and notice everywhere this great plan of God. We can say every single person is equally created in the image of God. Every single person has God as their Father Creator. Of believers we can say that every believer, no matter what colour, what country or what culture they come from, is equally saved, equally loved, has an equal standing with God, an equal right and title to heaven and an equal place in heaven to all other believers. There will be no minorities and majorities there. Let these themes soak into your life. Let them wash over you and wash out of you all that is opposed to this theme of Scripture. Study other people groups. So much of our prejudice against other peoples is based on ignorance. We do not know them. We do not know their histories. We do not know their past. We do not know their biographies. So much of this can be removed by education. By educating ourselves we build sympathy and we build understanding.
Let me just give you this as a fact. In an article called How Racism is Bad for Our Bodies (2013), a journalist, Jason Silverstein, highlighted how discrimination increases the risk of depression, the common cold, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, and mortality. One study of 30,000 people found that black people experience six times more stress than white people, which not only damages the body and mind but also pushes people to cope in unhealthy ways. The study showed that even just the fear of racism increased blood pressure and heart rate. Little wonder that the current life expectancy among African Americans is only that of White Americans 40 years ago.
We should know these things. We should study other peoples in order to get to know them and build sympathy with them. But also to reach out to them, to listen to their stories, to feel their pain and to taste their tears. This is something that has really impacted myself in the limited progress I have made in this area through the diverse peoples that come to the seminary, but also through visiting different churches in America and going to different conferences. You begin to realize how isolated you are and how distant you are from their experiences of life, and you begin to develop a sensitivity and an awareness. You begin to understand why they say what they say and why they do what they do and why they feel what they feel. But it cannot happen unless we reach out to them and sit with them.
We can learn from their values. We often think our values alone are superior and everyone else has to rise to our values, but it is amazing how much you can learn from other cultures which have far superior values in some areas to ours. I was reading through a book that spoke of what African church leaders had learned through teaching in Africa. Stephen Liggins said, “African Christians taught me how to evangelize better, how to pray more fervently and how to minister more holistically.” Closer to home, Scott Moore, a white church planter who is working in an old black neighbourhood said of “the ‘hood,” as he called it:
There are jewels, if you will, in marginalized communities that are missing from the Church’s crown. Without these jewels, the Church sparkles less.
He picks out a couple of these jewels, these values that he has found in “the 'hood" (the inner city) that he has not seen in more cultured areas.
People in the ‘hood instinctively understand covenantal commitment.
Although families are often painfully broken in other ways, their commitment to one another is sacrificial and heroic.
I have seen friends in the neighborhood sacrifice greatly so that those they love can survive. I have seen a man give his last dollars, without a single hesitation, so that his brother could pay the rent. I have seen a man take a jail sentence so his friend wouldn’t have to…Men are willing to put themselves in harm’s way to protect and vindicate those they love. They are willing to bleed so that others won’t have to, or because others they love have already bled. And these decisions are made instantly and naturally. It is rooted in both their commitment and courage.Why We Need the ‘Hood, Scott Moore, 2013.
We do not need to look far in these different communities and different cultures to learn values that put us to shame and that call us to follow and imitate.
Why not befriend somebody from a minority community? In our situation they are most likely to be African American or Hispanic. It is something that you will benefit from yourself and also be a wonderful example to your children and to your neighbours.
On that point, teach your children about this. Our children are racists by nature. It is not just that they absorb it from the culture, it is in the human heart by nature. You can home-school a child and keep them away from the cultural racism that is all around us and they still turn out to be racists. It is because it is just a natural outworking of the human heart. And therefore, they have to be taught. They have to be educated. They have to be called to repentance. They have to be encouraged to befriend people who are different and to battle against racism. Not just not to be racist themselves, but to oppose it where they find it. In all these ways we can embrace and pursue diversity in our personal lives.
Pursuing and Embracing Diversity as a Church
Let’s move on to how we can do this as a church. How can we pursue and embrace diversity as a church? We are a segregated church, as are 92% of churches in America. That means that less than 20% of those who attend are from the non-majority group. We are a segregated church. And we have to ask ourselves: Do we want to continue so? Is that good? Is that okay? It has always been that way, but is that the way it should always be? Is this right? Is this honouring to God? If not (and I do not believe it is), then how can we change? Again, it is not going to happen overnight; it is a decades-long pursuit. What do we do? What can we do? How can we fulfil God’s vision in this congregation?
Again, it begins with education – in our sermons, in our Sunday school classes. We should thread this theme that is threaded through the whole Bible through all our ministry so it becomes very much second nature.
Secondly, we can promote and reference sermons, books and works written and spoken by minorities (i.e. African American or Hispanic pastors). That itself communicates its own message. I try in my own blog to highlight resources that come from different kinds of cultural backgrounds. We can work together maybe with African American and Hispanic churches. We are not going to all come together overnight, or even in months, or even in a decade, but are there ways that we can work together – if not united, then side by side? Can we not work together in ways like having conferences and meetings about things we do agree on, demonstrating that unity between the races, the ethnicities and the nations of the world? Are there ways that we can find to work together in conferences and meetings from time to time?
Let’s also cherish growth in diversity as much as (if not more than) numerical growth. Our churches are very focused on growing numerically, but what about focusing on growing in diversity? Is that not just as honouring, if not more honouring, to God? It is uncomfortable, for sure. It is challenging. It is going to upset the applecart at times. It is going to be awkward. But if it is of God, if it is part of His vision, is it not worth pursuing?
Some of you will have heard of Willow Creek, one of the massive mega-churches in America that has become known for its rapid numerical growth through various methods (many of which we would say were not biblical). But Bill Hybels, the main pastor of that church, was asked what he would do differently looking back. He said that the one thing he would do differently is make racial integration a Willow Creek value from the very beginning. The interviewer pressed him and asked him, "Would you do that even if it meant that your numbers would decrease?” And he said, “Absolutely.” The interviewer said, “You mean you would be willing to reach less people just so your church could be a picture of diversity?” The pastor replied, “The corporate witness of racially diverse churches in America would be more powerful than a number surge in any one congregation.” Let’s seek to grow in diversity as much as numerically.
We can involve minorities in leadership. Again, it is not going to happen immediately, but working towards this. There is an amazing impact for African Americans when they see their own in leadership positions. Think of some of the research done into the impact of President Obama coming into the office of presidency. Whatever we think of his policies, the impact of his presidency upon the African American culture was almost overnight. Researchers have found that the gap between white and black in educational achievement was drastically reduced in the first year of his presidency. Just seeing in leadership one of their own. And the same in the church. Let’s seek to put in place processes that will fairly and adequately represent minorities among us. Again, we are speaking of the long run.
Also, we have to work to reduce purely cultural practices. The biggest barrier to different races and nations coming together in the church are merely cultural practices. People who study these things call them the thick black lines that keep the people separated. We have to look at our church and say, “What is biblical and what is merely traditional and merely cultural?” And then ask, “Well, if that is only traditional and only cultural, are we prepared to sacrifice it for the sake of making our church more accessible and diverse?” You can say, “But I like that. I am used to that. It is the way it has always been.” Well, you can choose to go that way, but know that in doing so you are building barriers and making it more difficult for the realization of this vision of God in this congregation. So let’s examine and test how we do things, what we do and what we say. Let’s find out: “We have always thought this was biblical, but is it really? Is it rooted in biblical principle?” And then ask ourselves, “Are we prepared?” We may not be, but we have to ask ourselves, “Are we prepared to change it?”
J.D. Greear, who has done a lot of work and mission in this area, said this:
The churches with the thinnest cultural layers will experience the most integration, whereas churches with mere tradition closer to the centre of their worship and practice create less room for those who are different.
If we want to fulfil God’s plan of the church being a “house of prayer for all nations,” we will have to accept the necessity of change. But we must also fight the reflex that all change equals total loss. And that is our reflex. We think that if we have to change, we lose. Well, we lose something, but we might gain far more. Greear goes on to say:
My white culture needs the influence of my Asian or African American brothers and sisters, just like they need influence from my culture. We are actually lacking something when our cultures fail to rub shoulders and borrow from each other.J.D. Greear, Racial Integration, 2013.
Another thing we can do as a church is work on seeing our identity as first and foremost as Christians. I am not Scottish first and foremost; I am not Presbyterian first and foremost; I am a Christian first and foremost. We have to work to do that in our own lives: To see our identity first and foremost and primary as in Christ, if we are Christians. All the other things are lesser. And likewise, when we see an African American Christian, we do not see an African American Christian, we see a Christian who happens to be African American. We work to deepen our identity of being first and foremost Christians.
Also, we have to be compassionately patient with minority communities. If it ever happens in this church that somehow or other we are blessed with an influx and a growing body and group of people who are different to us, it is going to be messy! It is going to turn things upside down. It is going to be noisy. It is going to be disturbing. It is going to be difficult. It is going to be off-putting. Some of you won’t stay. We have to be compassionately patient if we go down this route. If we think this is biblical and if we think this is worth pursuing, we are going to have to be incredibly patient, compassionate and sympathetic. We have come to our understanding of doctrine and worship over not just decades, but centuries. Other cultures are not going to come to these doctrines and that understanding of worship overnight. They are going to have to be patient with us too as we go through a process of change and adjustment.
But again, we will just have to ask: Is this biblical? Is this right? Is this part of God’s vision? Is this a mark of a healthy church? I believe it is, with all my heart, hard though the consequences of it may be. So let’s pursue it in our personal lives. Let’s pursue it in our own church life.
Some Blessings of Sanctification
Let me finish with some blessings. Given that it is potentially hazardous, dangerous and divisive, what can encourage us along this track?
The first thing is sanctification. Attacking this sin of elitism, of racism, of nationalism and of culturalism goes to the root of sin in our hearts. This is not just lopping off branches; we are talking about going to trunk of the tree. But if you take down the tree, you take down an awful lot else as well. Therefore, if we attack this sin and if we go for the jugular of this sin, we can expect massive advances in sanctification and holiness. When you take down that tree, you take down an awful lot of rotten fruit as well. The great impetus and motivation of attacking this pervasive sin in our hearts is that multiple other sins will perish in its wake.
Secondly, resources. There are resources in these communities that we have very little contact with. There are gifts and graces that God has placed amongst them that we are denying ourselves if we do not mix with them. The African American pastors Thabiti Anyabwile says that this time, when Christians seem to be under such cultural pressure, as we are increasingly becoming a very persecuted minority, is a time for us to learn from the black church of the past. He says this:
Because of its privilege, white evangelical churches don’t know how to joyfully accept the plundering of its possessions and persons. If true persecution comes, it will need to learn this lesson in spades. There are two models: Jesus and the Black Church. Jesus’ model is perfect; the Black Church’s example is proximate, near at hand. One you read in the scripture, the other you can read in history texts or even access in conversation. Learning to Be the Moral Minority from a Moral Minority, 2013.
There are resources in that community that we may well need as the days go on. So we benefit from the gifts and graces that God has blessed other communities with.
Thirdly, it helps evangelism and mission. If we have this passion and catch this vision, it is going to drive us on. We are pursuing the plan of God. The more diverse a church becomes, the easier it is for diverse people to come among us. When there are more different people among us, different people feel more comfortable, because they are not so different. It has a kind of snowball effect. Also, as that happens locally and we see the blessing of this plan of God being realized, then it turns us outwards, even beyond the local peoples to the nations of the world. “If we are seeing that here, then why not see it everywhere?” Let’s pursue this nationally and internationally. It reincarnates the Lord Jesus, doesn’t it? It is becoming a barrier-breaker and a bridge-builder like He was. It is showing the world who Jesus was and is.
It also helps us to reform the church. Because when we start measuring everything by the Word of God alone, it becomes a lot easier to see what is biblical and what is not. Sometimes when we are in something so much for so long, it is hard to see where we have gone astray. But then people start coming in, and they say, “Why do you that, and why not this way?” And we are knocked back. Then we read the Bible and we search the Scriptures, and maybe we do not find a justification. Maybe we find the opposite – a biblical critique of what we are doing! So this whole process helps to reform the church and to cut away what is unbiblical and unhelpful.
It fulfils the plan of God. That is what we want to do, isn’t it? We say, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.” We say, “Let God’s will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” What is happening in heaven? Well, we are seeing all the nations and races and cultures together. Let that happen here! And as it happens here, it gives us a foretaste of heaven. Who has not tasted something of this at least sometime? Maybe you have gone abroad, or maybe you have gone to another church which is more diverse, or maybe you have gone to a conference, or maybe you have come to the seminary, and you see the different races and the different nations and the different backgrounds. And yet you sense this fundamental unity and togetherness in Christ. It is like a little foretaste of heaven! This is what heaven is like. Let it be on earth! Let me get a little taste, a little experience and a little entrance into this amazing ultimate fulfilment of God’s plan! “In thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed” – may all the families of the earth be blessed here in Christ! Let us have a little taste of people from every kindred and tongue and nation.
And let’s not keep it to racial and ethnic and cultural diversity. There is all sorts of diversity here. There is financial diversity: Rich and poor. There is intellectual diversity: Educated and uneducated. There is vocational diversity: Professional and manual. There is physical diversity: Those who are able-bodied and those with special needs. We can maybe start there in our own congregation: To bring together the diverse people from such diverse backgrounds, diverse classes, diverse situations, diverse vocations, diverse ages, diverse social strata, diverse physical abilities, diverse races and diverse ethnicities. Does it not kindle some kind of feeling of, “That would be amazing!” in you?
I believe this is one of the marks of a healthy church. Churches can survive without this, but they won’t thrive in the way that they possibly could, because there is something missing and lacking. May God give us the vision, may God give us the passion, may God give us this Abrahamic blessing, even in our midst.