Christians are called by God into communities, in which there is real unity in the midst of diversity:
"Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” (Colossians 3:11)
We are called to reflect - and celebrate - the diversity of our multicultural city. The importance of this is seen more clearly when we realise that one day, we will take our place amongst the "great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9-10). We will stand in the very presence of God, rejoicing in our salvation. That will be a wonderful day! And God intends for this future to shape the way we live today.
Within Co-Mission, we rejoice that God has been saving and gathering increasingly diverse groups of people who congregate in an impressively diverse range of churches. Our network is enriched by having professionals and creatives, students and pensioners, West Africans and Koreans, meeting in Anglican and Independent churches on inner city estates and in spacious suburbs all over London. We praise God for His goodness in bringing us all together. We rightly rejoice because we know that the gospel is for all people: Jesus died to save people from every nation regardless of age, social class, ethnicity, or any other potential dividing barrier.
However, let’s not be too quick to pat ourselves on the back and relax. Building truly diverse gospel communities is a supernatural work which requires prayerful intentionality from all of us. This cannot be a passing fad for Co-Mission. It deserves the same attentive dedication that royal gardens require; destructive diseases and unsightly weeds will spoil our communities if left unattended.
What kind of diversity do we seek?
There are different ways diversity can be expressed, not all of them are healthy or Biblical. Let's consider three models of diversity as different types of food: bento boxes, tomato soup, and roast dinners.
Bento Boxes: Social Separation
Captain Patrick Zevo in the 1992 film Toys expresses the sentiment well when he complained: "I can’t even eat. The food keeps touching. I like military plates, I'm a military man, I want a military meal. I want my string beans to be quarantined! I like a little fortress around my mashed potatoes so the meatloaf doesn't invade my mashed potatoes and cause mixing in my plate! I HATE IT when food touches!"
With bento, the rice, meat and vegetables occupy separate compartments in the box. These ingredients occupy the same space but walls of separation exist between them and each dish can be eaten separately if desired. This is the type of diversity typically seen in London - people from different cultures occupying the same space but often not mixing socially.
Tomato Soup: Single Dominant Culture
Jamie Oliver reckons a good tomato soup contains carrots, celery, onions, garlic and basil. But by definition, the dominant flavour is tomato. By the time the other ingredients are chopped, boiled and blended with the tomato their distinctive contributions can no longer be discerned, and the absence of one or two of these auxiliary ingredients may not be missed. This type of diversity can sadly be in multi-ethnic churches which still end up being mono-cultural.
It’s easy to look around with satisfaction that the congregation contains people with different skin tones, yet to miss the fact that the church is dominated by a single culture because it is made up of people who have gone to the same schools and universities or who work in similar jobs. The existence of an overwhelmingly dominant culture can mean that the church fails to attract, retain and be enriched by people from different backgrounds. They may not even realise there’s anything wrong because the basil and celery are part of the church too.
Roast Dinners: Truly Multicultural
Roast dinners are a genius invention! Carrots, broccoli, parsnips, potatoes, meat and yorkshire puds smooshed together on a single plate and drowned in gravy. No walls of separation. No single dominant flavour. The potatoes can’t avoid rubbing shoulders with the carrots and the yorkshires are virtually on top of the meat. Roast dinners represent a healthy multicultural community because each ingredient is given room to shine and enrich the whole meal. We may have a particular love for the parsnips or broccoli, but we notice if the potatoes or carrots are missing. The key ingredient of any roast dinner is the meat, right? And in a truly diverse gospel community, the Lord Jesus, the Lamb of God will take this central place (and if you will excuse the analogy), the gospel gravy of God’s grace will flavour and unite our spiritual fellowship. Christian churches are called to be roast dinners. But for this to happen we must overcome a number of barriers.
Abandoning the analogy for a moment, let’s be explicit about what roast dinner diversity entails. It requires more that simply having people of different ages, ethnicities and cultures attend our church meetings. It requires more than having these diverse peoples contribute to the life of the church in significant ways. Even more than that, within truly diverse gospel communities we open up our hearts and our lives to people from different backgrounds to us. It involves truly knowing them and being known by them: hopes and fears, struggles and concerns, joys and sorrows. It involves worshipping our wise Creator by celebrating the ways He’s made us different from one another. It involves worshipping our loving Saviour for making us His children and uniting us together in His family.
Or to put it another way:
“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves… Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord's people who are in need. Practice hospitality… Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.”
Why is “roast dinner diversity” so difficult to achieve?
Roast dinner diversity is desirable but difficult to achieve because of the many barriers and obstacles which must be overcome, both within our churches and as we seek to reach unbelievers from different cultures.
Obstacle One: Contentment with Tomato Soup Diversity
In churches where there is a single dominant culture, people from subdominant cultures are expected to conform to the norms of the prevailing culture and are not encouraged to contribute in significant ways to church life.
In this environment, people from subdominant cultures, tend to respond in one of three ways:
Embracers: People in this group readily conform to the existing church culture. Often this happens with new Christians, who are hungry for mature Christian role models. However, they confuse Christlikeness with the dominant culture and end up changing what they wear, how they speak and where they socialise in order to fit in. As a result, though the church appears diverse, it remains mono-cultural tomato soup.
Partial Embracers: People in this group are cultural chameleons. Like people who speak more than one language, they adapt easily depending on whether they are at church or at home with friends and family. Within tomato soup churches, partial embracers are not given the opportunity to contribute significantly to church life and do not feel known by church members. Their closest relationships are with people outside the church who appreciate their home culture.
Rejecters: People in this group will not remain in tomato soup churches for very long (if they come at all). Or they will look for a church where the dominant culture is closer to their own (carrot soup anyone?). Some end up walking away from church altogether. When asked, they may say that church isn’t for them.
If churches are to move from tomato soup to roast dinner diversity, they will need to be intentional about appreciating the uniqueness of the subdominant cultures and encouraging them to be expressed within the church community. Of course, individuals are free to fully embrace a culture different from their own. But this shouldn’t be because they mistakenly associate Christian maturity with the dominant culture. Tomato soup churches also need to avoid inviting people from subdominant cultures to contribute in only superficial ways. Their service as small group leaders and within ministry teams is likely to be more valuable than their culinary contributions to the potluck supper. For this to happen, often we’ll need to overcome our personal prejudices.
Obstacle TWO: Personal Prejudice
Prejudice based on gender, ethnicity, class and culture is sadly part of the air we breathe. All of us have been infected. I remember when our A-Level results were published at school. One guy expressed his surprise at my grade because he assumed I was stupid either because of my colour or my sporting ability. But I’m also guilty. I remember being shocked when I saw an Australian man with long blonde hair giving a university lecture. Certain soap operas had trained me to associate that look with unintelligent surfers.
It is common to belittle and patronise people unintentionally. We often use a different tone of voice with children which we might also use with people from a different ethnic group. We might complete their sentences rather than listening patiently. These actions may seem innocent but they may communicate pride and disrespect for others. An unspoken hierarchy exists in our hearts which governs how much value we place on different people and how much respect we afford them. The wealthy, university educated businessman is usually treated with greater respect than the working class mum. Why is this?
Prejudice in churches is not a new thing:
My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:1-4)
But it remains a hindrance to building diverse gospel communities. When visitors to church perceive that they are being treated differently based on their age, colour, class, or culture, they may come to the conclusion that church is not for them. On the other hand, treating people who often feel marginalised in a manner that makes them feel welcome, providing stair-free access, large print Bibles, loops for hearing aids, and handrails in toilets, goes a long way.
Prejudice can be subtle, so it’s important we find appropriate ways to invite people to share with us examples of when they’ve felt marginalised or discriminated against inside or outside of church. This is a painful process which requires much patience, but our church communities need to become a safe space to address legitimate concerns. God isn’t surprised by our sinful prejudices but He does call us to repent of them. Therefore, we need to ask God to reveal to us our failures and help us change.
At the same time, it’s valuable to remember that no ethnic or socio-economic group is monolithic. Therefore, no matter how much we learn, we need to relate to people as individuals, rather than making assumptions based on their ethnicity or accent.
Obstacle three: Inadequate Personal Care
If we are to love sincerely as Romans 12:9-16 calls us to, we’ll need to know and take seriously the challenges and concerns of subdominant groups within our churches. James does in James 5:1-10; he addresses the socio-economic realities faced by his audience and has a specific message for each group.
For many in London, unfair prejudice has a significant impact on their daily lives: education, employment, housing, healthcare, policing, to name a few areas, are all affected. Christians need their brothers and sisters to help them deal with the challenges and trauma they face. They need help to respond in godly ways. This can only happen if we make an effort to get to know people well. It’s also important that the same traumatic situations encountered elsewhere are not also regularly occurring in church.
Obstacle four: Reaching Unbelievers
According to London City Mission, roughly one in three Londoners (2.5 million people) don't have a Christian friend to invite them to church or with whom they could read the Bible. Many are separated by language and culture, they're trapped in their home or don't have one, they’re without opportunity because of poverty, family breakdown or mental health issues. In the UK as a whole, 81% of practising Christians have a university degree compared with 27% of the population. Reaching them will require us to venture outside of our local areas and social groups with the gospel of Jesus Christ. It will require us to go and give support to planting new churches in London. It will require the training and support of diverse leaders who are already part of the communities deprived of Christian witness.
Faithful approaches to evangelism are necessarily culturally conditioned (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). Therefore, we need to be careful that our preferred methods of evangelism don’t unintentionally exclude the people we are seeking to reach. To put it crudely, Christianity Explored with wine and cheese may be off-putting to those who’d prefer sandwiches and soft drinks. It makes sense to employ a diversity of evangelistic methods in order to reach diverse groups of people.
It’s also worth noting how different groups socialise. For example, it is common in some settings to get to know new people by asking a series of questions: “What’s your name? What do you do? Where do you live?” In the end, someone who is not used to this form of interrogation may feel categorised rather than known and valued. In other cultures, it’s more usual to treat strangers as family members even before their name is known. If that seems too much, it might be better to ask questions like, “How’s it going? Have you come from far?” and then volunteer information about ourselves, leaving room for the individual to share as much or as little as they feel comfortable with. In other words, we need to be flexible and try new methods, even if they feel unfamiliar to us.
Obstacle five: Christian History and Power Dynamics
Once as I was trying to witness to a Caribbean man in Brixton, I was met with this response: “How dare you as a Black man talk to me about Jesus! Don’t you know your history?!”
On another occasion a woman asked me, “Why does God hate Black people?”
What is going on here?
For many people of African or Asian heritage, Christianity is associated with slavery, colonialism and racism. And sadly not all of their accusations are false. Allow me to list a few examples:
- In 1452, Pope Nicholas V authorised the enslavement of non-Christians and the seizure of their lands by Europeans
- In the 19th century, slave masters used the Bible to justify their cruelty towards African slaves
- Even Christian abolitionists embraced ideas of European racial and cultural superiority versus African inferiority
- Similarly, all over the world, labour of missionaries seemed to go hand in hand with colonial powers, and amongst them there was a shared disdain for
Awareness of this history has led many to conclude that Christianity is a tool for Anglo-American cultural and political domination. They are unaware that according to Acts 8, Christianity reached East Africa before it reached Europe or that some of the leading theologians in the early church (such as Tertullian, Athanasius and Augustine) were North African. But perhaps more important than arguments from history is the establishment of more diverse gospel communities in which different cultures are respected and celebrated - this is a powerful witness to the gospel that unifies us.
Recognising these barriers to true diversity can be daunting. However, rather than feel paralysed by them, each of us can play a part in moving our churches in the right direction. Here are a few ideas:
Ask Tough Questions
We must regularly ask ourselves some tough questions as individuals, within our churches, and as a network:
- How diverse are the relationships within our church? Are my friendship groups monocultural?
- How well does our church reflect the diversity of our local area? Who are we unintentionally excluding?
- Which unreached communities can we reach by planting new churches? Who should go and who should give to make this plant a reality?
As Christians we are loved and accepted in Christ, but not yet completely free from sin. These facts should humble us and free us to be honest about our failure and confess them to God. Why not ask God now to reveal to you examples of sinful prejudice in your own life or discrimination in your church? It is good to confess our personal sins and to seek God’s pardon for our collective failures.
Let’s pray for the Holy Spirit to transform our attitudes towards people as we meditate on Bible passages like Genesis 1:26-31, Philippians 2:1-11, Colossians 3:1-17, and Revelation 7:4-17.
Befriend and Listen
Is there someone in your church from a different culture you can begin building a relationship with? It may be worth being upfront about your desire to get to know different people better. However, you’ll need to work hard to avoid making people feel like they’re an exotic plant undergoing scientific investigation! Begin slow, build trust, and ask for permission before enquiring about their experiences as a member of a subdominant group.
As you listen and learn and read and grow, ask God to show you if there are specific things that you or your church can do to reach people who are not currently being reached. Pray for God to bring them not just into your church building but also into your friendship groups and home.
Building diverse gospel communities is desirable but difficult. It requires focus, hard work, persistence, repentance and forgiveness. However, Ephesians 2 reminds us that unity in diversity is not only desirable but is already our reality because of Christ’s work of reconciliation. Let’s walk in this gospel reality with humility and joy.