Longing to Become a Diverse Church
As of last week, we are fully in “back to school season.” Our oldest son headed off to first grade, and our middle son starts preschool next week.
It’s an entertaining season of child development, and one of the highlights of Kindergarten last year was joining my son and his classmates for lunch.
You have to love how these little human beings get along. The students are Asian, black, Latino and white; there are tiny kids and kids that already look like Louis CK; kids that get dropped off by Range Rovers, kids who take the bus across the city. And they all packed into these tables—20 kids to a table, sharing food, telling jokes, making farting sounds into their elbows.
There’s no division or embarrassment yet. Last year, at one particular lunch, a girl tells me, “My mom’s a judge,” and then the kid next to me says, “My dad’s in jail.” And then they all broke out laughing, “Her mom put his dad in jail!!”
If you think about it, public schools are a great case study, because the people that surround us have a profound influence on our development—personally, relationally and definitely spiritually. We learn how to do life from the community that surrounds us. If we live in a diverse community, we have to do life more intentionally.
Every church, every organization, and every business values certain things and creates a certain culture. In doing so, it promotes a certain type of life.
The Diversity of the Early Church
Consider the early church. What did life in this church have looked like? And what would it have communicated to its people about “the Christian life”?
I recently preached the “final greetings” passage in Colossians (4:10-18).
(Side Note: I always think of these passages as the final tracks of Paul’s rap albums. You know how at the end of a rap album, the beat rolls out while the rapper just talks, gives everyone a shout-out? The best one ever is Kanye’s 13-minute ride-out “Last Call” on his 2004 College Dropout.)
Consider the people mentioned here. A Jewish pastor (John Mark), who started in ministry with Paul but left him and returned home. A Colossian leader (Epaphas), who was raised and educated in pagan world. A Jewish doctor (Luke)—educated, upper class, well connected to power and money. And a Gentile woman (Nympha) who hosts a church in her house.
Scholars have described a typical first century church in this way: about 30 members, meeting in a larger host home that would have also housed traveling guests. It was like a first century AirBnB: one large house full of rich and poor, young and old, some families and some couples and some singles, a few international travelers and some locals, and a homeless guy who lives in the garage.
This was the early church: Old and young; Black, brown and white; Poor and rich; Lower class and upper; Women, children and men.
Becoming a Diverse Church
What would life in this church have looked like? And what would it have communicated to the people about “the Christian life”? Remember: We all learn the Christian life from how our local church shapes us.
God has designed the church to be “a fellowship of differents” (to borrow a phrase from Scot McKnight). Not a fellowship of “sames” and “likes.” The church was never meant to be a social club for good people with the same backgrounds and interests.
The church is God’s world-changing experiment; it’s how he demonstrates to the world what love, justice, peace and life should look like.
When the Church looks like a public elementary school, a few themes become central to the Christian life: Grace and love.
Grace for One Another
In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, Grace has the first word (1:2) and the last (4:18). Grace from beginning to end. Why such an emphasis on grace? Grace is the most important reality ever introduced to the world.
Grace is God flipping the world upside down–or right side up.
Grace is good news to the prodigal and good news to the moralist.
Grace screams, “You are accepted! You belong here!” to the insider and the outsider.
Grace brings down the high and exalted; grace lifts up the low and marginalized.
Grace is God’s way of reminding each and every one of us that we are no better or worse than one another, and all one in Christ.
A fellowship of differents will never last without a robust gospel of grace.
Love for the Differents
But whereas Grace often gets the first and last word in the New Testament letters, you could say that they are filled with love in between. Why? Because no one receives grace—I mean, truly gets it—without being overwhelmed with love. Love for God and love for the other.
In a diverse church, community group, or organization, love is the only hope true, full-orbed living.
A church only reflects God’s image to the extent that it reflects the diversity of his creation.
A group or team of believers will always be limited in its understanding of the Scriptures and its practice of love without being a fellowship of differents.
If we want to become more diverse, we need to preach grace and practice love.
Conversely, if we want to understand grace and experience love, we will seek diversity—female and male; young and old; rich and poor; Asian, black, Hispanic, and white; liberal and conservative—even at great cost.
I think of Paul’s famous chapter on love (1 Corinthians 13). More than a wedding text, it describes the love of the Christian community. Actually, it doesn’t just describe love, it personifies love. For Paul, love isn’t simply a virtue or a discipline; love is a Person. Love is nowhere more fully embodied than in Jesus Christ.
Think of it: Love (Jesus) is patient and kind;
Love (Jesus) does not envy or boast;
Love (Jesus) bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Jesus is our model of love, and he (not just a virtue) is our only hope for a diverse and loving congregation. Indeed, a diverse community is worth giving our lives to—after all, that’s exactly what Jesus did.