Diversity seems to be hot topic in our modern culture: politicians embrace it, corporations seek it, and communities struggle with its implications. Interestingly, if you rewind almost 2000 years, one of the most diverse groups of people you’d find would be the New Testament churches. As the good news of Jesus went viral-being passed from person to person, household to household, city to city- the church (i.e. gathered groups of believers) became more and more diverse. As these new churches popped up across the Roman Empire, they were anything but homogenous. Nowhere else would you find such a diverse group of individuals intentionally spending time together, and one thing bound them together: Jesus.
We see this happening in several instances (and this is not an exhaustive list):
- The Church in Antioch. Acts 13:1 provides a snapshot of the church’s leadership. Barnabas is from the Greek island Cyprus. Simeon’s surname means “black” and he’s probably from Central Africa. Lucius is from Cyrene in North Africa, the site of present day Libya. Manean is a member of the Jewish king’s court meaning he’s probably Jewish. Saul (a.k.a. Paul) was a devout Jew and Roman citizen. It’s probably not coincidental that they really understood the importance of sending out people to spread the good news of Jesus.
- The Church in Colosse. We know from Colossians 3:11 that this church was made up of people who would never socially associate with one another. Religious Jews viewed the Greeks as religious outsiders, so much so that they used “uncircumcised Gentile” as a spiritually derogatory term. The Greeks and Romans viewed everyone else as Barbarians who spoke uneducated gibberish, and the Scythians were considered the most barbaric of the Barbarians. Maybe the most difficult for us to grasp today were slaves, freedman, and even slave masters worshiping together as equals. Somehow their new shared identity in Jesus trumped all of these other secondary identities.
- The Universal Church displayed in Revelation 7:9-17. The Apostle John has a vision of “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” This throng of people encompasses every ethnic family on this earth and they are joining together in one song: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Somehow even in heaven John is able to recognize the diversity of this crowd and their unity around Jesus.
- Even in Jesus’ band of apostles we see a degree of diversity. Although they were in Israel and all Jewish, they came from very different walks of life. Peter, Andrew, James, and John were blue collar fishermen from Galilee. Matthew was a tax collector and sell-out to the Roman rulers. Simon was a zealot who probably wanted to kick the Romans out of Jewish territory by force. They weren’t exactly the normal inner circle for a first century rabbi.
So, why does this matter for us today?
- Growing a homogeneous church is both faster and easier. It’s generally easier to share our lives with people who are most like us and friendships develop more quickly. That’s normal, but it becomes a problem when we only relate to people who are like us socially, culturally, ethnically, and economically. In a culture of immediate gratification, it’s tough to realize that faster and easier do not always mean better.
- What we say and what people see need to match. We can say the good news is for all types of people. We can say Jesus cares about everyone in our community and culture. BUT, people need to see that practically displayed in relationships between followers of Jesus in our churches.
- We learn and grow from the diversity of stories, experiences, and perspectives that people from diverse backgrounds bring with them. Seeing the same gospel from different perspectives inevitably broadens and deepens our understanding of Jesus’ message and mission. Our individual lives and the life we share together in Jesus is enriched.
- I believe eventually we will gain voice of greater credibility in our communities and culture. Our culture may promote a tolerance mind-set but relationships based on God’s grace offer something far more substantial that qualitatively stands out.
- Lastly, as a college-educated middle-class white guy raised in suburbia, I tend to think a church made up of only college-educated, middle-class, suburban, white guys as very vanilla and relatively boring in comparison to a church that displays the cultural diversity of God’s eternal kingdom in the here and now. That’s just my opinion =)