Key priority #5: Celebrating diversity
In his book Crossing the Divide, Owen Hylton asks provocatively “How integral is this issue [diversity] to the church today? Is it not just a matter of preference or taste?”
How would you answer Owen? You see, I believe this is a question we can’t avoid. Each one of us as individuals has to answer the question, even if we do so by trying to ignore it! However, I don’t want us to ignore it; instead, I want to lead us deeper and allow scripture to search our hearts. Why? Because as elders we believe that during 2016 God is challenging us, as a church, to focus our attention on celebrating diversity. But if diversity is just a matter of preference, then why bother?
In 1999 I attended a baptismal service where there were 30 or so people being baptised. Somehow I found myself sat on the front row and, as people got up to be baptised, God arrested me with his love and passion for a glorious redeemed new family, made up of people from every nation. As the people were being baptised, they said their names and in which country they were born. It was like a glorious sledgehammer, busting open my hardened heart to God’s passion for the nations: Ethiopia – boom! Bulgaria – boom! Malaysia – boom! Botswana – boom! Canada – boom! Thailand – boom! With every new nation named I just crumbled inside and tears poured down my face. I honestly felt as if, just for a few moments, I was experiencing something of God’s burning hot passion for a diverse and yet unified bride.
At the time I would have struggled to put words to what was happening. But today, whenever I want to think about issues of diversity, I turn my attention to Ephesians 2, because there, in simple and plain language, we have God’s commitment and passion for unity and diversity on display in the church. It says this:
‘For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.’ (Ephesians 2:14-16)
The phrase that is absolutely central is ‘one new man’. Part of Jesus’ mission to earth and the cross was to make a way to break down the dividing walls between different ethnic, social and age groups and create this new unified community that is centred around Christ. In a world that is fractured and divided, this is one of the most glorious realities available to humanity. Let me put this really plainly: God loves diversity, as long as it is centred around Jesus and the cross. At the same time God hates prejudice and division. Period.
So, as a church over this coming season, we want to explore what this might look like for us. Celebrating diversity is more than just accepting it. It is the active engagement of the heart in recognising God’s wonderful creation in another person or culture, and seeing that, when it is centred around Jesus and his kingdom ways, it is beautiful and worthy of celebrating and bringing into the centre of our community together.
So what might this look like?
Eat: Later this year we’re planning a bring and share lunch at Life Church that celebrates food from around the world. I hope you will join us in making this a banquet worthy of a community that is becoming more and more an image of that ‘one new man’ in Christ.
Sing: Over this coming season, let’s start to learn songs that echo in people’s different cultures and even languages. There is something wonderful about seeing people sing to Jesus in their ‘heart language’ and we want to explore how we can do this well together. Gary & Jane are starting to think about this from a worship perspective, but I want to invite you to be ready to have a go and take some risks. In that way we’re celebrating God’s universal kingship, over every tribe and tongue.
Stories: Stories are the fabric that make up stable socieities. However, in all the busyness of life it is easy to rush and forget to create space to hear people’s stories. Just recently I spent a couple of hours with someone in the city who has been leading churches for many years. It was such an enriching afternoon for me as I sat and learned and in those conversations; two people from different generations were having their lives woven together. So I want to encourage you to take time to hear one another’s stories, especially those from different cultural, social and age groups to your own. Go for a coffee. Ask loads of questions. Presume nothing. Place yourself in the position of a learner and the stories you hear will enrich your life and weave us together as a community of rich diversity yet unity around Christ.
Ways: One of the greatest challenges of building a community that celebrates diversity is recognising that people have different ways from you. They might like different styles of music. They might have different ways of expressing gratitude and thanks. There may be a whole host of differences! All of these cultural norms are opportunities for us to learn how to be gracious, patient and to prefer one another. It is all too easy to say ‘Oh, I don’t like this way’. It is much harder to allow a kingdom mindset to rule in your heart that honours and celebrates the things that are different – as long as those things point towards Jesus.
I believe this could be one of the greatest and most enriching adventures for us as a church over this coming season. Do we know what we are doing? No! But we have deep convictions that Jesus died to build a church that is both glorious in its diversity and sweet in its unity around him! Shall we have a go?