In January I had the privilege of attending Pastor’s Week at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. It was an amazing week of meeting leaders and pastors from Canada and the US. Dr. A Brian Leander led us through the week as we learned about our own cultural awareness. He encouraged us to become diversity oriented leaders in our churches, something that is much easier said than done.
Martin Luther King Jr. is famous for saying that 11am on a Sunday morning is “the most segregated hour in this nation.” Although coming from the American context when the fight for civil rights was at its high point, this is something we can all still relate to. There are many churches that have worked to be diverse and welcoming to all people, but we still have many churches, even in Canada, that are ethnically based, where 80% of people are of the same culture or ethnicity. Even in the same denomination, we have churches for certain people from specific cultures.
In some conversations I have had, people have recognized the lack of diversity while also wondering what the problem is. That is a good question. In some cases, it's simply more comfortable for us to stay with people who are like us, who eat the same food, who speak the same language, have similar customs and senses of humour. Sometimes, however, people from minority cultures are not welcomed into the majority cultures out of fear or intolerance. There can be walls of hostility between people and cultures with no real appetite for unity.
Before you protest to say this is not you, take a quick inventory of your own church and the people who hang out with. Think about how you view your own culture and those of strangers. Are you open to engaging with them? Do you see their culture as inferior? How willing would you be to take on their culture for their sake? Is your community one that welcomes people who look and act differently, or is there fear that other cultures are a threat to your own?
Brian didn’t present the lack of diversity as something negative, but there is something better available to us in diversity. Imagine drawing a picture with only one coloured pencil. It may still be a nice drawing, but how much more beautiful is a picture full of all kinds of colours? Brian believes that the church is called to break down barriers to become one in Christ no matter what cultural background people come from. Churches who are intentional about becoming diverse receive something beautiful that uniform churches never get to experience. It is not that we are wrong for not being diverse, but we gain much more when we are.
Brian and other speakers inspired us with a biblical vision for diversity and unity. At the core of it, we find a God who is diversity oriented. In Isaiah 2, we see a foreshadowing of what is to come. The mountain of God will be established and all people from all nations will flock to it. In Revelation 21-22, we see a restored heaven and earth and all people welcomed into the presence of God to receive healing. There is no heaven for Baptists nor a separate heaven for Catholics. All who call on the name of Jesus will be saved (Romans 10:13).
In 2 Corinthians 5 we read about God’s plan for reconciliation. Through Jesus we are reconciled to God. Things are made right again, and what separated us is no longer a factor. We are called into the ministry of reconciliation. We become Christ’s ambassadors. Jesus’ ministry makes all of this possible, for us to be reconciled to God and to each other.
It is from this vision that we are invited to challenge the walls that divide us (age, gender, race, culture, etc.). It is clear in Galatians 3:28 that walls that used to divide us no longer do in Christ. We are one in Him. It is hard and uncomfortable to break those walls, but when we do, we will find the potential for intimate relationships that are a gift to the church. We have so much to learn from each other that it is quite sad when we choose to miss out on that opportunity.
The kind of diversity that Brian talked to us about is not assimilation. That is to say, real diversity is not when the majority culture only accept minorities when they act like the majority. Real diversity recognizes and celebrates difference. It shares power and longs for a place where all people can feel a part of the community. There are many churches that do this intentionally, like Mosaic Church of Central Arkansas, one of the many examples we heard about.
Even if we believe that encouraging diversity is a valuable call and something Jesus wants for our churches, it does not just happen. It take intentionality, patience and trust in God. Some of the distinguishing features of diverse churches are:
- A strong vision by the leadership to be diversity oriented.
- Leadership in the church that represents the diversity of the church and community.
- A strategy and plan in place to be diverse.
- Leadership development plans that look long term and beyond the current leadership.
- Plans that expect change, instead of waiting for change in order to plan.
- Policies and procedures in place to deal with conflict before any conflict is present.
- Leaders who legitimize, define and reproduce the church’s vision, values and mission.
Our Mennonite church has a lot to learn in this regard. Against popular opinion, the Mennonite church has nothing to do with race. Yes, it is true that Anabaptist history follows a group of people who travelled, worshipped, and worked together. But being Mennonite didn't have anything to do with blood. There may be a cultural component, but the cultural component of Mennonites in various parts of Africa are vastly different yet just as valid as ours in North America. What makes us Anabaptist is our confession and belief in believer’s baptism, centrality of Jesus, community, peace, reconciliation, among other things. What a shame it is when we keep this message reserved for people who are culturally like us.
I came away from this conference with energy and imagination about what our church could be like. What if our church represented the diversity of our community? What if we were to reach out to our neighbourhood with the message that all cultures are welcome because Jesus welcomes all. What if we could be a place where people from diverse backgrounds can work, live and worship together. I don’t think it would be easy, and really, it’s not necessary for us to be a church. But as we are intentional about diversity, I believe we will benefit and grow in a way we could never imagine. It will be uncomfortable, but the church will look more and more beautiful because of it.