Reflections on diversity in the local church

Diversity in the church is hard. And yet it is the very means by which the wisdom of God in the gospel is displayed (Eph. 3:7-11). I had the opportunity this past spring to speak at Hinson about the experience of Chinese Americans, including my own background. I concluded the talk with the following five reflections on diversity in the local church (you can read the rest of the talk here):

The Gospel alone brings unity in the midst of diversity – I wonder if you’re ever tempted to think about the “good ol’ days”? Some time in history or some moment in your life where things were as it should be? Friends, realize that no such thing ever existed. When we consider these stories of incredible hardship and suffering by Chinese immigrants, we are reminded that actually, in every age, there has been incredible hardship and suffering. At some other point in world history, the Chinese were oppressing other people around them. In a fallen world, so often, even as one group enjoys prosperity and justice, there are many other groups that are being oppressed and denied justice.

As those who refuse to place our hope in some golden past, or the promise of some secular utopia, we understand that our greatest need has been met in Jesus Christ, the one who left His heavenly kingdom, to enter our fallen world, to give his life for sinners, in order that we might be reconciled to God. And as those who have been reconciled to God, we are now freed to be reconciled to one another, through the safety of the Gospel.

Throughout American history, people have talked about this nation both as a melting pot and as a salad bowl. And of course, taken by itself, each image could become extreme. A complete melting pot means no cultural distinctiveness. Complete diversity means no unified identity. But through the Gospel, we have a solution to that tension.

Because in the Gospel, by the Holy Spirit, we have all come under the Lordship of Christ. We all share our common understanding of God’s authority, the wickedness of our sin, the grace of Jesus Christ in the gospel, and our persevering in repentance and faith. As Paul writes in Col. 3:

“here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all”

And yet in the church, there isn’t an erasing or ignoring of cultural distinctions, but rather a reconciliation and love of those who are different. Which is why, in the Gospel, we’re commanded to:

– consider others better than yourselves.
– look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others
– to practice hospitality
– to speak the truth in love
– Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God
– to do everything in the church for edification

In the midst of all the different ways that God has called us, we are called to engage with one another. Not demanding our own rights, not dominating others, but humbly and lovingly working for edification.

Diversity means complexity – As humans, we have two problems. On the one hand, we’re finite. We don’t understand everything. But on the other hand, we’re proud. We think we understand everything. Put that together, and you get stereotypes.

Rather than doing the hard work of understanding one another in all of our nuances and differences and complexities, instead we much prefer to assume we understand where others are coming from, what they’re like, where they’ve got it right or wrong. Friends, beware of stereotypes. Be careful even of doing this positively. “You’re Asian, so you must be smart!” “Asian people are so quiet and humble.” Well, maybe… but maybe not. Asians struggle with pride just as much as anyone. And does that mean if I speak up, you might look at me differently?

What about the Asians whose gifts are not in academics, but in service, or in other areas? Sure there will be characteristics arising out of cultural or ethnic backgrounds, but at the end of the day, Scripture and humility should guide how we interact with one another.

In the church, we want to cultivate humility in our relationships and follow James’ command to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.

Diversity exists not for comparison, but thankfulness – This point is perhaps the greatest harm, in my mind, that the Model Minority stereotype creates. Not only does it stereotypes an entire group of people, allowing injustices being done to those people to be overlooked (“you guys are so successful, what do you have to complain about?”), but then it sets that group of people against other groups. So throughout Chinese American history, we see the ways that Model Minority idea was utilized against African Americans, against Irish Americans, against Japanese Americans. It’s no wonder that even as black-white tensions exist, Asian-Americans find themselves caught in the middle. Sometimes resented and even hated by other minority groups, and other times feeling used for another the majority group’s agenda, all while not really having a voice in the matter.

Friends, this is how the world treats diversity. Not as something to be appreciated, but as something to utilized for comparison and competition, ultimately for our own selfish ends. But that’s not how it should be in the church. In the church, we understand that diversity exists as God’s good gift, for God’s glory. Like a Body, made up of many different parts, our response should not be to compare and to envy or to degrade the other, but to realize that God has created and ordered all things and it’s our joy to discover the wonders of all our differences. So we give thanks that some cultures are more thoughtful, while other cultures are more expressive. Some cultures promote hard-work, while other cultures promote creativity. Some culture show more caution, while others show more initiative. Whatever it is, there’s no need to pit one against another. Realize, that God has created these various characteristics all in his wisdom… that in the Church, through the Gospel, they are being shaped and redeemed for God’s glory. In thankfulness, we seek to learn from one another.

Diversity is not to be ignored, but valued – This is something the Vergil Brown shared last fall, but it bears repeating. For many white Americans, race is an issue they don’t have to think about on a day-to-day basis, but for many who come from the minority experience, they don’t have the choice to ignore their race. When we read the history of Chinese-Americans, race shaped every aspect of their lives. They couldn’t work or marry or travel without being reminded of their Chinese-ness. For many people, that sense of “otherness” continues today… life in America is this experience of being Forever Foreign. It’s like the time when American Tara Lipinski beat American Michelle Kwan in the Women’s Olympic Figure Skating Championships, and MSNBC ran the headline: “American Beats Kwan”.

Have I ever experienced my foreign-ness? Sure, I can tell stories. I remember walking into an empty barbershop in a small town, and being looked at funny, and told that the wait was one hour and I should put my name on the waiting list. Except there was nobody on that list. And no one in the barbershop. And after sitting for 10 minutes, I decided to leave. I don’t know if there were other appointments that were on their way, and they were running late. But I was reminded that day… oh yeah, out here, I’m different.

Which means in our present context, there’s probably no place for racial jokes. TO the majority group, they seem benign, light hearted, but often for the minority, they are just yet another reminder of their “other-ness.” That’s not to say that jokes can’t be used in the right way and that we should always be on edge. But given how racial jokes are becoming increasingly taboo, we should just recognize that they do not commend the gospel.

The goal for the church is not to be color-blind, to simply say, “We don’t see race here… Let’s ignore our differences,” because what can come across is, “Let’s ignore your particular struggles” and “Let’s just do things as normal, i.e. in my culture.”

Rather, as we want to do the hard work of understanding one another, of hearing the challenges that we face… because it’s only as we do so, that we can begin to fulfill what the NT commands for us.

At the end of the day, there’s no way for the church to achieve some kind of perfect cultural equilibrium, as if all the cultures all get perfect and equal representation. That’s not the model that the NT gives us. Rather, the model we’re given is the Gospel, one of sacrifice, humility and love. So every church will have a majority culture, expressed in the teaching, in the music, in the culture, in the events of the church. So if you’re part of the Majority, realize that you have brothers and sisters who are willingly sacrificing their own preferred forms and styles and cultures, because of their love of Christ and of you. Don’t ignore that sacrifice, but be thankful for them. Come to understand them. Appreciate them. Look for ways to serve them. And if you’re a part of the Minority, realize that in your sacrifice, in your willingness to lay down your preferences, you’re showing to your community, and to the whole world, that Christ is more valuable than anything else. And yet, don’t allow those differences to keep you from pursuing real relationships with others… when there are opportunities to allow those cultural differences to shine through, by all means, do so.

The Gospel calls us to pursue those different from us – God is worthy of worship from people who are not just like us. Christians in America have been involved with ministry to Chinese immigrants since the beginning. As missionaries found doors closed to them overseas, they turned their attention to those who were arriving on their shores. And as you can imagine the opportunities were many. Sharlatells her story of being descended the Chinese women who were rescued by Christian missionaries in San Francisco from a life of prostitution. I’m so grateful for those Baptists who reached out to international Chinese students in Houston, including my uncle, and who eventually planted that Chinese church. By God’s mercy, so many Chinese came to America looking for wealth, and instead they and their children and their children’s children have found the far greater Treasure of the Gospel.

I hope as you consider the history of Chinese immigration that this encourages you not to give up, but to carry on that rich American tradition of reaching those who are around us with the truth of the Gospel. Regardless of what happens with immigration policy, today, we have so many immigrant and refugee communities throughout Portland of those who are coming from all parts of the world, who do not know Christ. Just as you have a Chinese-American pastor, and there are many Chinese-American churches throughout Portland today, wouldn’t it be wonderful if in 50 years, there were a vibrant movement of Syrian-American or Iraqi-American Christians and churches and pastors and missionaries, because of the faithfulness of Christians today?

Diversity is a good gift from God, but like all of God’s good gifts, in our sin, we make a mess of it. We ruin it and turn it into oppression and conflict and division. But in the Church, God is undoing the curse of sin, gathering together all the nations in Christ. I pray that our church would be reflection of God’s work more and more.

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