Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Church For All People – The Argument For Diversity

A little over two months ago, I started a Word Document that I titled, "On Church Planting". In it I've been recording little nuggets of insights as they come to me related to church planting. As GracePoint starts a church service in a new suburb, there have been myriad little things that I've been thinking about that I want to remember if I ever get a chance to plant a church. Here is one that I wrote recently that I would like to subject to the review of others for sound doctrine and faithfulness.

In my church, I will not have FCG or Extreme*. I do not want to create a specific, targeted ministry. I believe that the gospel is relevant to all people and for all people. Moreover, it unites all people, no matter the diversity. “In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit”.
I am convinced that God meant for his churches to demonstrate unity in the gospel by having all manners of diverse people worshiping him together. I want my church congregation to cut across every demographic, whether age or race or social class or upbringing or education or personality.

The key passage for me is Ephesians 2.11-22: Paul's great treatise on unity in the gospel (the theme of being one in Christ extends all the way to 4.16). In this section, Paul addresses Gentiles and Jews together and tells them how they should relate to each other. “He himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility... For through him we both have access to the Father by one spirit.” In the first-century church, the major obstacle for church unity was how to incorporate the Gentiles into the body of believers. But Paul makes it clear here that through Jesus the church was a new creation; one in which all people, both Gentiles and Jews, have access to God through Christ. He then goes on and says, “In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord” (3.21). Sharing in Christ means to be part of a building that is a holy temple to God. Furthermore, in 3.10, we are told that God's intent for this beautiful mystery (now revealed) is to make known his manifold wisdom to the heavenly realms!

God is glorified and his wisdom is made known in the gathering of all people, Jew or Gentile, into his family. What this translates to in terms of church-planting is that God is most glorified when people of all kinds of backgrounds and ethnicities gather to worship him. To the degree that we unite around another common interest that is not Jesus, we are robbing God of his glory! But how does God get his glory when people of all kinds come to worship him? His greatness is made known when the elderly worship with the young, when the rich worship with the poor, when former enemies lay down their arms before Christ, when people of different factions and families fellowship with each other. When people who normally don't get along embrace each other and worship together, it is a testament to the power of the gospel and the greatness of Christ. Before him, we break down all dividing walls and find supreme shared joy in considering him supremely great.

(On a side note, this also points to why it is such an affront to Christ when we wantonly call any hanging out time “fellowship”. When we flippantly use the term koinonia, we are in danger of mistaking “fellowship around another common interest”, with "fellowship around Jesus". Are we really expressing unity in Jesus when all the guys come over to play video games, or are we expressing unity in Marvel vs. Capcom 3? Are we really expressing unity in Jesus EVERY time we eat together, or are we expressing unity in our common physiological need for physical sustenance?)

More and more I see churches that target specific kinds of people as going against the unity of the gospel. According to Acts, the only demographic targets for missionaries were by geography. When Paul planted churches, he chose a city, preached at the synagogues there, preached at the city centers, the agoras, the downtowns and the CBDs, established a regularly-meeting assembly of believers, and moved on. He didn't say, “Alright, in Corinth we're going to need a church for the temple prostitutes, a church for the elite noble class, and a church for the peasant class, who are the patrons of the temple prostitutes.” He just preached the good news about Jesus to all who will listen, established leaders of that church, and left.
So why is it then, that when I think of New York City, I can't help but think, “Alright, we're going to need churches for the Latinos living from Corona to Woodside, a few more Chinese churches in Flushing, a few more Korean churches in Bayside, and a few more churches for people who wear skinny jeans and horn-rimmed glasses and wool caps in the summer, believe it's okay to smoke cloves and drink bad beer, and commute to worship service on fixed-gear bikes in Williamsburg”?

Why are there so many ethnic churches? Sometimes it's good. Sometimes, it's a matter of mission. Just as you need to learn the Japanese language to be a missionary in Japan, you need to have Spanish-speaking church services for the Hispanics who no hablan ingles in Queens. But I can't help but feel like there is also a great danger that our churches fall victim to, which is uniting around the language and the ethnicity and the culture and tradition. When we unite around being Chinese, we make a kingdom out of being Chinese. No thank you. My citizenship is in heaven.

The principle sin in my meditation is the sin of uniting around anything or anyone but Christ. The above is its application in ethnic churches. But this sin can creep up in any church in any number of sinister ways and I am only beginning to scratch the surface in trying to understand it. For one thing, I wonder if many otherwise perfectly healthy churches might have this problem; that its people are too homogenous and comfortable, that the way its people welcome newcomers is artificial and ineffective, that people who think differently or have different interests find it very difficult to worship God or be accepted there.

If I am so convinced of this, then it must follow that to not do so (build and plant diverse churches) is not only disobedient to God, but also to our own detriment. I believe that it is helpful to form ministries that target specific kinds of people, but detrimental to form churches that unite around that specific kind of people.
But why do our churches do this? Because it is easier. It's the homogenous unit principle. The like likes like principle. It is easier for us to unite around race or common interest rather than Christ. As individuals, it feeds our idolatry and as a people it feeds our primal “Babel” urges.
But when we plant a church for a specific demographic, we are disobeying God and we are sowing the seeds for numerous problems in the future. I wonder if the issues plaguing our Chinese-American churches is an apt example. So much time and energy and resources is spent on the generational, cultural gap; on the perpetual war between first and second generation, on the power struggle between the Chinese-speaking immigrants and their children that the gospel suffers. How can the gospel go our if a church is so mired in bureaucracy and worldly politics, each faction trying to get its own way and build its own little kingdom inside God's kingdom? What an affront to the great King!

In conclusion, I want to plant a church that is diverse in every way. It will be harder and it will require maturity and that each individual is truly in Christ, but it will be immensely rewarding. I will not build any ministries that seek to divide my people so that they don't have to go outside their own comfort zones and fellowship with believers who are different from them. I don't mind having specific ministries addressing specific needs of specific kinds of people, but I will not have them at the cost of unity. I believe that in God's infinite wisdom, he has ordained it so that people expressing fellowship across different life-stages is good and beneficial. This means encouraging the workers in my church to disciple and pray for the students. This means the families and couples in my church inviting the single people over to their homes. This means children sitting in the pews with their mom and dad to hear the Word of God together.

I want to plant a church united in Christ, for his glory alone.

*I don't mind having a Uni-targeting ministry as long as it does not supplant community groups. I want all my uni students and workers to be mixed together. Likewise, I don't mind having a high-school Bible study as long as it doesn't obstruct their presence in the worship service. The principle is that the church is unified. As long as targeted ministries do not impede corporate worship (Sunday service, community groups), I am alright with it and will even encourage my people's desires to meet the specific needs of different kinds of people.

Please feel free to correct and admonish or leave queries or comments, as long as they are edifying.

1 comment:

  1. I wholeheartedly agree Dan! Fellow citizen of His Kingdom and fellow member of His Church!