Did you know that we are doing church all wrong. The church growth experts of a couple of decades ago would have looked at our church and shook their heads in disbelief. This is no way to grow a church. What do I mean by this?
A number of years ago, church growth experts looked at the congregations that were growing the fastest. What they saw was that churches that grew quickly were homogeneous in nature, that everyone looked the same. Churches should target one particular ethnic group, one particular economic group. It is okay to have people with disabilities, but don’t integrate them into the main life of the church, provide a separate and distinct program. Church growth experts understood that people were most comfortable with people exactly like them.
Here is the problem with that strategy. It may be true but it is not biblical, nor is it healthy. It is true that I’m more comfortable with people like me, people with the same tastes in music, books and humour. It is also true that it is easier to gather a group of similar kinds of people. But that is not the picture of the church presented in the Bible. The Bible never lifts up uniformity, it always lifts up unity in diversity. That is we are one in purpose but different in background, personality and abilities.
Before I sound like I’m beating up the modern church, I need to acknowledge that the church has always struggled with this tension. From the very beginning, followers of Jesus have wanted to worship with similar people and have resisted diversity. But it is never accepted as an inevitable fact.
We as a church had identified being welcoming as one of our core values. That is good. But it is also a test of what kind of church we are. Who exactly is welcome in this church? How will their ethnicity, economic status or any other difference affect their welcome? Is everyone welcome in this church or just the right kind of people? The Bible has much to say about this and we will look at it carefully.
I believe that context is also important but especially so when it comes to Paul’s letters. Paul didn’t just sit down and write theology. I also don’t believe that he thought he was writing the Bible. Paul was a Christian leader who was writing to specific churches to address particular problems. Knowing what the issues were helps us to understand what Paul is trying to say.
So what was the problem in Galatia? Paul had travelled throughout Galatia preaching the gospel. He saw many people come to faith and Christians gathering to become disciples of Jesus. It was a simple gospel: put your faith in Jesus and live as guided by the Spirit.
But there was a problem. These Galatians were Gentiles, that is non-Jews. That was fine, except that some Christians thought that they missed a step. Some Christians from a Jewish background were uncomfortable with Gentiles coming directly to Jesus. They wanted them to convert to Judaism and then become followers of Jesus. Remember that Judaism is not just a religion, it is a lifestyle that affects every area. Having Gentile Christians brought an uncomfortable level of diversity into the church. If they became like everyone else, then things would be fine.
We will not go into the details of Paul’s response but I will say that we see Paul’s angry side on this issue. He is incredibly upset that people have come into Galatia after him and are causing problems. He doesn’t say the most charitable things about them. Accepting the Jewish law for the sake of uniformity is not an option.
This brings us to the problem. We tend to have a hierarchy of types of people. It may not be about superiority or inferiority. It may be explicit or implicit. But there are prejudices against certain types of people. This existed in the ancient world. Both the Greek and the Jews had a prayer of thanks that they were the way they were and not like a certain group. People who were different may be tolerated but were not welcomed.
What about us? How might people in our culture pray? “Thank God I’m a citizen and not a refugee. Thank God I’m straight and not gay. Thank God I’m rich and not poor. Thank God I’m abled and not disabled.” That prayer would not necessarily mean that we hate people who are different from us. But it would mean that we have a sense of superiority over others. Unfortunately, this gets institutionalized into the concept of privilege. Society has developed in such a way that people who belong to certain categories have certain advantages or disadvantages when it comes to advancement.
What does this have to do with the church? We are past the point where churches exclude people because of race and ethnicity. We are past the point of limiting, at least in this church, the roles of women when it comes to ministry. But there are still barriers. We may be hesitant to welcome people who look different or sound different or act different. I know that promoting disability inclusion seems to be my hobby horse. But I regular encounter of stories of individuals and families who are explicitly exclude from the life of the congregation because they are different. I have heard of stories of affluent congregations who are uncomfortable with street people coming in. There are walls that still exist.
Paul provides the answer to the question by reminding us that we are all one in Christ. But we need to be careful what we mean by this. He doesn’t mean that all distinctions are gone. When he says there is no longer male or female, we can’t tell our men to start having babies because all distinctions are now gone. What Paul is saying is that there is no advantage in being male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free. Belonging to one or several categories does not make us better or worse than another. When we are in Christ, we are in Christ. There is no ranking system.
A good example is Paul’s letter to Philemon. Philemon’s slave had run away and eventually met up with Paul and became a Christian. Paul felt compelled to send the slave back to Philemon. Paul acknowledges that Philemon has full legal authority over the slave. But he also reminds him that they are brothers in Christ and have equal status before Jesus. The master-slave relationship still existed but was no transformed by both being in Christ.
What do we see when we look around here. We have men and women. We have young and old. We have a variety of skin tones and language groups. We have different abilities. Some are richer and some are poorer. All of this diversity exists and should be celebrated. But none of us can place ourselves over another. Instead of seeing the church as a totem pole, with successive groups from lowest to highest, we are like a quilt. We bring diversity but we are side by side and on the same level and we make the whole more beautiful by the variety.
This is an exciting time to be a welcoming church. Who knows who is going to come through those doors? We may have a millionaire or a homeless person. It could be a person with Down syndrome or someone who is deaf. It could be a Great grandmother or a little baby (preferably accompanied by an adult). It could be someone from Argentina or someone from Alaska. It could be a musician or a handy-person. Imagine the diversity!
Our job is not to decide the type of people we want to see in this church but to welcome every person that God sends us. Forget any expectations about them becoming like us. Celebrate the diversity. But also develop the unity that is found in a common faith in Jesus. Being in Christ transcends any superficial differences we might have.