It’s Thanksgiving week, and I’m grateful for so many things—a wonderful wife and kids, in-laws who actually like me, a place to live, a job to commute to every day, and a community of friends (through church, work, school, and the blogosphere) that is a tremendous source of encouragement and support.
I’m also thankful, most days, to attend a church whose members are a lot different from me in various ways. This occurred to me a few weeks back when I first read Philip Yancey’s latest column in Christianity Today about the signs of a healthy church. I was particularly moved by this extended passage:
As I read accounts of the New Testament church, no characteristic stands out more sharply than this one. Beginning with Pentecost, the Christian church dismantled the barriers of gender, race, and social class that had marked Jewish congregations. Paul, who as a rabbi had given thanks daily that he was not born a woman, slave, or Gentile, marveled over the radical change: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
One modern Indian pastor told me, “Most of what happens in Christian churches, including even the miracles, can be duplicated in Hindu and Muslim congregations. But in my area only Christians strive, however ineptly, to mix men and women of different castes, races, and social groups. That’s the real miracle.”
Diversity complicates rather than simplifies life. Perhaps for this reason we tend to surround ourselves with people of similar age, economic class, and opinion. Church offers a place where infants and grandparents, unemployed and executives, immigrants and blue bloods can come together. Just yesterday I sat sandwiched between an elderly man hooked up to a puffing oxygen tank and a breastfeeding baby who grunted loudly and contentedly throughout the sermon. Where else can we go to find that mixture?
When I walk into a new church, the more its members resemble each other—and resemble me—the more uncomfortable I feel.
Reading that made me wonder, do I feel comfort or discomfort in my current church setting, and why? Have I settled in so much that I’ve grown deaf to the call for “unity amid diversity” that should challenge every Christian congregation in one way or the other? These are, I believe, important questions to ponder from time to time. In fact, I ponder them most Sunday mornings.
Unlike Yancey, I find that my discomfort grows not out of being in a congregation that resembles me, because mine most certainly doesn’t. Rather, my discomfort stems from the nagging feeling that I’ve simply settled for the status quo. When you are the diversity of a place (at least in a racial sense), it’s sometimes easy to grow complacent and feel that you’ve already done your part. But that isn’t necessarily so. I probably could be doing a lot more to make my church a more diverse place—whether it be reaching out to other people of color more often and inviting them to church, or speaking up about the continued lack of racial diversity in our congregation, even though we’re located in a very diverse community. I need to be prayerfully figuring out how to take my discomfort and turn it into something positive and redemptive. I need to get better at opening my mouth and sharing my perspective (which, I guess, I do here a lot) and not just accepting that “things will never change.” Yet, I need wisdom to know when to speak and when to “go with the flow.” Lord, grant me that wisdom.
I’ve also been moved this Thanksgiving week by a series of broadcasts on (suprise! surprise!) NPR that explore what it means to be an American from the immigrant perspective. So far, the series has featured insightful interviews with authors Junot Diaz and Jhumpa Lahiri. Both writers speak poignantly of the struggle of finding acceptance in a country that both embraces and resists diversity, and of having loyalties to two very different cultures. You can hear in their stories both the pain and pride of “becoming American.” [Update: An interview with half-Irish, half-Turkish author Joseph O'Neill ran on Wednesday morning.]
As I listened, I was reminded again of Yancey’s words: “Diversity complicates rather than simplifies life.” Yet it’s what makes us stronger. It’s what makes us better. Without it, we cannot fully display the power of Christ’s gospel.