Unity Amid Diversity: Multicultural Community in the Church

I preached this at the opening session of the Northern California District Assembly on May 11, 2016.  Around half of the congregations of this district speak a language other than English, with congregations worshiping in some 13 languages total.  I was asked to talk about how these churches can live with more unity amid this teeming diversity.

Spanish: Es un honor estar con ustedes hoy. Yo crecí en Texas, y todavía me siento tejano, especialmente cuando estoy en un restaurante de Tex-Mex. (I’m honored to be with you today. I grew up in Texas, and I still feel somewhat like a Tejano, especially in a good Tex-Mex restaurant.)

Korean: 안녕하십니까.  저는 9년동안 한국나사렛대학 국제영어교회에서 목사로 사역했습니다.   그래서 가끔 저는 9퍼센트 한국인이라고 말하곤 합니다. (I was the pastor of KNU International English Church for nine years, so I sometimes say that I’m 9% Korean.)

    In just another 41 years, I would be half and half. All of that sounds more impressive than it is.  I’ve forgotten half of what I ever knew of both languages because of lack of use.  Now, when I try to speak Korean, Spanish comes out, and when I try to speak Spanish, Korean comes out.  Add in some English, and it’s just Kor-Span-glish.

    Seriously, it’s an honor to be here to talk with you about multicultural community.  Nearly, 20 years ago, God called me to missions, but over the past three years I’ve been serving in northwest Indiana.  I’m still not sure if that’s an extended furlough or an exile - maybe both.  But we have a great life there in a wonderful small town just outside Chicago.  

    In case you don’t know, my wife is Elizabeth Palmer’s sister.  Michael and I both married up.  As we’ve come to visit a few times, we’ve kind of fallen in love with Northern California.  I think I’m more California than I am Indiana.  When God asked me to leave the land of my father and go to the land he would show me, I never pictured Indiana winters.  It’s a great place to live - six months of the year.   Anyway, I love Northern Cal, and I’m glad to be with you.  

    Let’s read from Ephesians 2:11-22.

11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his fleshthe law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizenswith God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundationof the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy templein the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

    Our world is fractured, separated, segregated, split, divided.  And this cuts to the core of our hearts. 

Deep down, our souls know that we are designed for wholeness, but globalization pushes us together and forces the essential fragmentation of humanity into eyes.  We see this theme emerge again and again in our movies and stories:

  • In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, tragic lovers from feuding families help their families discover peace - but only after their death.
  • The Lord of the Rings trilogy is really asking the question of whether we can overcome our differences to make the world safe and whole.
  • Remember the Titans tells the story of a championship football team when the black high school suddenly merges with the white high school.  The fundamental question is whether we really can get along.
  • And then, there’s The Little Mermaid. No matter how much every father of 4 year old girls hates this movie, it actually deals with the serious theme of cross-cultural marriages.  

    God designed us for a fundamental unity even as we experience tremendous diversity.  When we see people come together out of brokenness and find wholeness and peace, it touches something deep in our souls.  It connects with our deepest hopes.  We need peace.  We need wholeness.  We need community amid our diversity.  It is a deep, deep craving of our soul, and without it we will forever be malnourished. 

    Unity amid diversity is a major theme in the Bible. 

In many ways, God is a diverse community.  The Trinity is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  They are unified, but diverse.  Each has a distinct personhood.  Their diversity enhances and enriches their unity.  Instead of being a single monochromatic deity, the Trinity is a rich tapestry of community, love, and relationship.  Loving relationship among essentially difference is the foundation of reality.

    It makes sense then that, when God created humans, he started with diverse community.  “Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us.’ … So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:26-7).  God is too great to be represented in a single type of human.  Although Adam and Eve may not have technically been a multicultural community, Men Are from Mars and Women Are from Venus, so they had plenty of diversity to deal with even as they became “one flesh.” 

    Later in Genesis, Jacob ends up with two wives and two servants as concubines.  First, what was he thinking?!  One wife is enough trouble - and enough love, honey, if you’re listening.  But, second, these two maidservants were probably slaves from an oppressed people or prisoners of war captured from an enemy nation.  The four sons of the maidservants mean that at least 1/3 of the 12 tribes of Israel were fundamentally multi-ethnic. 

    When Pharaoh finally let the descendants of Israel leave Egypt, the text says “a rabble of non-Israelites went with them” (Ex. 12:38). Many from the various oppressed groups held in slavery by Egypt escaped with Israel and became part of Israel’s community.  So at the Exodus, the people of Israel were - according to the old King James - “a mixed multitude” (Ex. 12:38).  

    When Rahab the Canaanite married Salman, and when Ruth the Moabite married Boaz, this was no spectacular scandal because Israel was always incorporating others. They were always a mixed multitude.  It was never blood or DNA or any marker of ethnicity that defined Israel.  What united them was always loyalty to the God of Israel.  

    Jesus himself, God in human flesh, was multiethnic.  In addition to whatever mixture came from being a “normal Jew,” he also had Canaanite, Moabite, and probably some Hittite blood via Bathsheba.  Jesus’ human DNA was multicultural, and his homeland in Galilee was a place of great diversity - a teeming mixture of Jews and Gentiles from around the world.

    I’m not sure what all happened at the Tower of Babel with the multiplication of languages, but one thing is certain.  God is not an enemy of diversity.  God is the creator of this beautiful rainbow of humanity we see present in this room and on our city streets.  In fact, in the New Testament, God is systematically reversing or redeeming and reclaiming the divisions of Babel.  

    On that first Pentecost Sunday, the primary sign of God’s Spirit in the world was that these people from every corner and crack of the known world could hear the wonders of God proclaimed in their own native language.  The book of Acts moves forward breaking down one cultural barrier after another.  Samaritans are included.  Gentiles are included.  Eunuchs (the 1st century version of transgender people) are included.  They don’t have to conform to the dominant religious culture.  They can still be Turks or Greeks or Syrians or Ethiopian eunuchs and still be God’s people.  The Church is the new iteration of God’s inclusive people sweeping wide to include the whole world.  Everyone is welcome in.  There are no more outsiders.

    “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col. 3:11).  “For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. … He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups. Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death” (Eph. 2:14-16).  

    And some day, we will look around, and we will see “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb,” and all of us will cry out together: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9-10).  

    That is what we are about.  That is what Pentecost is about.  That is what the Church is about.  We are essentially a multicultural community, and we are better and more beautiful because of the diversity that colors our unity.

 

    So what are the implications of all of this.  What does this mean for us andfor the world?

    1. Diversity is fundamental to humanity and to theology. 

We understand ourselves in our experience of the other, and we understand God in our experience of the other.  When we open our hearts and our lives to others, that changes us.  When the “other” is part of our genuine heartfelt pursuit of God and longing for transformation, we learn more about God and more about ourselves.  We desperately need multicultural community so that we can be genuinely Christian, genuinely human, and genuinely us.

    2. God has made us one in Christ

The hardest work is already done. The good news is that God has made peace for us all.  When we we embrace our diversity, we are only trying to actualize what God has already done.  We are one people.  We share a common humanity.  We are all equally loved by God, so let's BE one people in our day to day life. Our world needs this, and we in the Church have the DNA to live it out and to offer this good news to the world.

    3. The Church still has to work out our salvation in fear and trembling. 

The hardest work is already done on the cross, but we have our own hard work to do.  We get to embody the Good News of unity amid diversity in our own blood, sweat, tears, and potlucks.  In the end, God will heal all our conflict, and the deep longing of our souls will be satisfied in the wholeness of God and a perfectly united multicultural community in heaven.  So now, before heaven, the Church can be a signpost guiding the world on the way forward.  When we embrace our diversity by embracing each other, we become prophets.  When we welcome an “other” into our homes and into our hearts, we become time-travelers, bringing the future-reality of heaven into present reality here.  

 

    Let me tell you two stories of how I have experienced unity amid diversity to shed a little light on how all of this works practically.   

    From sixth grade on, I grew up in Texas football country.  My school was a mix of whites, hispanics, and blacks, but my neighborhood was almost exclusively hispanic.  I was usually the only white kid on the bus.  

    Sometimes, the neighborhood bully, Pedro, would pick fights with me just because I was white. I was a chubby kid, and he was thin and fast, so it was my weight against his speed.  Once, I pinned him down on a bus seat with his arms underneath him, but I was still taking hits to the head.  The other kids decided this was their chance to take free licks at the gringo.  

    I also learned to run for the first twenty feet when the bus stopped to let me off.  I had to get out of spitting range as the bus pulled away, or I would get a nasty surprise on the back of my head.

    I’m sure there were multiple versions of this story for all of the kids who found themselves in any minority situation in Texas.  Racial tension was high.  

    But there was one place where our differences melted away - on the football field.  Once we got on the field, we only cared about one thing - hitting people - I mean winning.  Winning took priority over all of our differences. We were missionally driven, and we knew we needed each other to win.  We wanted all our best players in the game.  We knew we were going into war together, and we could only be at our best together.  The mission forged our unity.  Just let that sink in for a minute. 

Our shared mission forged our unity.

        

    After I graduated seminary, my wife and I and our eleven month olddaughter moved across the ocean to an international church on the campus of Korea Nazarene University.  It was multicultural, but somewhat begrudgingly so.  We were actually about 50% Korean, 30% American, and 20% everything else.  There were usually 10 different countries represented each Sunday, but at the beginning, American culture dominated our church environment.  

    One of our first cultural problems was the huge annual American Thanksgiving feast. The Canadians - being Canadian - passively accepted that we would never celebrate Thanksgiving in October on their day.  For Koreans, a meal of turkey and stuffing was just one more strange foreign thing, and Korean Christians have a flexible Thanksgiving date, so they didn’t care.  The Brits, though, were quite put off at this American holiday celebrating independence from those tyrannical English folks.  Eventually, we decided to focus our communal celebrations on Christmas and Easter - holidays for Christians everywhere.  

    Culture shock is tricky.  It sneaks up on you when you least expect it.  One time, after I had been in Korea for many years, I was in the men’s changing room of a public pool.  As I was changing into my swimsuit, about 30 elementary boys swarmed in after swim practice.  One of the braver ones asked me in Korean: “Are you American?”  At this point, I had been studying Korean for a while.  I decided to have some fun, so I said, “No, I’m Korean.”  This started a rowdy debate among about 15 naked elementary aged boys.  They quickly formed into sides.  Some said, “He can’t be Korean.  He’s white.”  And other’s argued vehemently, “He has to be Korean; he can speak Korean.”  Then, they started to quiz me, trying to break my cover.  “How old are you?  Where are you from?  What’s your favorite food?”  I carefully chose the questions I could answer with good grammar and ignored the rest.  A dozen more boys joined in the debate with more arguments. THEN, they started pulling my arm hair.  “Look!  He’s white, fat, and hairy.  There’s no way he’s Korean!”  

    It was about this time that I decided that I had made a mistake.  Getting myself surrounded by 30 naked Korean kids - some with their swim goggles still on - all arguing loudly about my ethnic identity and bodily characteristics was no longer fun and was definitely NOT helping my culture shock.

    In a multicultural community, you can expect culture shock when you least expect it.  Sometimes, you think you’ve got everything figured out, and then you realize that they didn’t mean what you thought they meant and they didn’t hear what you thought you said.  That’s just life when we have lots of cultures together.  

    Making decisions as a church is especially difficult in a multicultural setting. 

It’s really challenging to make sure that (a) everybody understands the issues and (b) everybody’s voice is heard.  Just as a test case, let me break down some of the ways we tried to have a healthy multicultural church board.  

  • We made sure all our major people groups were represented on the board.
  • We slowed down our decision making process to allow our non-native English speakers time to understand.  We gave out extremely detailed written agendas, complete with background info, ahead of time.  We gave time to process. (Our older Korean men expected to think about an issue for a month or two before deciding.)  
  • We gave time for genuine discussion. We found that "polling" the board a month before an official vote allowed people to voice their opinion without the fear/shame of disagreeing permanently with other leaders.
  • We gave multiple voting options: YES (I agree), Abstention (I'm not in agreement, but I'm not willing to stand in the way), and NO (My disagreement is strong and important).  A single "no" vote tabled the decision for a month. 
  • When we had cultural misunderstandings, we addressed them directly and took time to unpack them during board meetings.  This helped us learn how to understand each other better for next time.

All of this slowed down our decision process, but I was usually in too big of a hurry anyway.  The great benefit was that slowing down reduced the fall-out of rushed decisions, culturally insensitive actions, and hurt feelings.  When we finally reached decisions, we were confident and unified in them together.

 

    So what about Northern California?  How can you actually live in healthy multicultural community here? 

Let me suggest five practical ways you can live deeply together - letting the kaleidoscope of God’s glory shine in all its beauty.  

1. COME OUT TOGETHER. 

Before anything else, we need to separate somewhat from our inherited national identity for the sake of primary identification with the Kingdom.  You are not first of all Korean or Guatemalan or Indonesian or American.  We are first of all Christian.  Our identity is first and foremost as children of the King of Kings, the Lord of all creation.  That means, that although we celebrate our home cultures, we intentionally and carefully hold them in second place to our unity as the Church.  At the very least, this means that we don’t bad talk people from other cultures behind their backs.  Americans, this goes both ways.  We can’t think that we run the show and that everything has to be done our way and always said in our language.  We’ve got to come out from all that.  

2. COME IN TOGETHER. 

We commit to unity together as the new family of God.  This means that it’s not enough to share a building.  We need to have genuine fellowship with each other.  Allow your mission to unite you.  Remember the call of Jeremiah to the Israelites in exile in Babylon: “Build homes, and plan to stay… And work for the prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile.  Pray to the LORD for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:4-7).  Maybe you are an immigrant here.  Or maybe your community has filled up with people from places you have to look up on a map.  Work for the prosperity of the community where God has sent you.  Embrace your neighborhood.  Find your mission together in working with the Spirit to redeem your community. Come in together.

3. EAT TOGETHER. 

Sunday is the most segregated day in all of America.  How is the world supposed to believe that we serve a multicultural God who brings unity among divided people if we can’t even get together with our own brothers and sisters in Christ?  Church potlucks are a spiritual discipline and a political statement - especially when they are thoroughly multicultural.  Bring your kimchi and your salsa and your peanut butter chicken sticks and your macaroni salad and your fried bananas and put them all on one table, and celebrate what God has done.  Seriously, one of the most helpful things for me as an immigrant pastor was when one of my Korean friends would save a place for me at his table.  I may not have understood everything, but I knew that I was welcomed and loved. 

4. LEARN TOGETHER. 

Intentionally embrace the posture of learners.  Learn all you can about each others’ cultures.  If you share a building with another language group, learn how to greet them in their own language.  Attend some of their worship services.  Ask questions.  Slowly, you’ll learn to anticipate likely points of miscommunication, and you’ll get better at heading them off before they become problematic.  Americans, don’t just ask your sister churches to learn English and become “American.”  We need to learn to be global Christians right here in America because the world is coming to us.  

5. DECIDE TOGETHER. 

Make sure the community embraces diversity in the decision making process.  You may have to customize your election process to have fair representation of various cultural groups on your boards and committees.  That’s OK.  Just remember:  Having a place in the room is a good first step, but it’s not the same as having a meaningful voice in the decision.  You’ll have to go the extra mile to facilitate the decision process in a way that empowers meaningful input from cultural minority groups.  

    Church, here’s the deal.  The fundamental nature of everything is unity amid diversity.  From the Trinity to the creation of the first humans, from the development of the people of Israel clear through the early church and the final restoration of all creation, multicultural community is fundamental to God’s Kingdom.  We really do need each other.  Co-existing is a good first step, but God calls us to much more. God calls us to be family together. 

God calls us to pre-present (to give an advance taste) of the Kingdom of Heaven, when every nation and tribe will celebrate the great love of God and share it freely. 

We can show people what that is like now … and invite them into the multicultural Kingdom Party.  That is our calling.  That is our mission.  That is why we are here.  

    May God unite us, tear down our dividing walls of hostility, and make us one in Christ for the sake of our broken world.