Biblical Diversity in Church Planting
Church planting requires you to be bold enough to actually take God at His Word. Our own journey as a church plant has been just that: believing that God loves his church and wants to see churches multiplied into new, autonomous churches until he returns. For my wife Jessy and I, we cannot imagine following Jesus in any other way than to devote ourselves to the ministry of making Christ known where he has not been named. As Lesslie Newbigin says, “The deepest motive for mission [in our case church planting as the advancement of His mission] is simply the desire to be with Jesus where he is, on the frontier between the reign of God and the usurped dominion of the devil.” What a great summary! Who would not want to be right where Newbigin describes: where you find a sweet communion with Jesus in the midst of “good triumphing over evil?”
In theory, it sounds great. But, in reality, church planting on this frontier is a hard work; a work that, at times, is lonely and tiresome, chaotic and uncertain. But church planting is also rewarding because in this work – on the front lines of battle with the King of Kings by your side – you get to see the power of God on display for those who would believe in him, and you get to see what God does when a group of people take him at his promises.
One conviction that we have had from the beginning of our church planting journey is to be diverse. We aim to be a church who believes the gospel transcends social barriers (i.e. socio-economic, cultural, ethnic, etc.). We want to see what it looks like for a church to practically work out the ecclesiological implications of “to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). Though most Christians would hopefully say “Yes and Amen!” to this ministry model, we have found that diverse and multicultural ministry is much harder in reality. In the face of these difficulties, we believe that Jesus is on his throne. “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor. 1:20).
TOWARD A BIBLICAL THEOLOGY OF DIVERSITY AND MULTICULTURALISM
As one traces the storyline of the Bible, one theme that is evident is the power of the gospel to restore all nations to saving faith in God and consequently loving relationship with one another. The gospel of Jesus Christ changes our relationship with God and with others.
In the Garden of Eden, true community was celebrated, whether in communion with God or in communion with one another. God’s original design for humanity was for each person to flourish in relationship with one another based on faith in a sovereign Creator.
We all know the story, though. Even those who are not Christian understand on a basic level what Christianity professes happens here in the Garden. Sin entered into our experience. Adam and Eve disregarded God for their own curiosity and autonomy; then chaos ensued. And one of the major effects of sin seen immediately following this evil act was the division created between the two people. You can sense the bitterness in Adam’s heart toward God when, talking about Eve, he says, “The woman you gave to be with me” (Gen. 3:12), as if she caused him to sin. They were ashamed of themselves before God and, consequently, before each other. They could not live in open fellowship anymore. They ran and hid.
While we see marriage on display in the garden – the pinnacle of human intimacy - we quickly learn that their sin damaged ALL human relationships. Immediately following in Genesis 4 is the account of Cain and Abel. Brother turned against brother in the first “worship war.” As each vied for the attention of God, murder was the end result. Note that hatred toward his brother was the end result of brokenness between Cain and God. Sin has affected all aspects of human relationship because of the hostility between God and man.
Genesis 11 continues with the same relational problems. Where we experience unity with one another in relationship with God, we experience chaos and division apart from him. At Babel, the people continued to rebel against God’s good design. As a result, they were dispersed throughout the earth and given different languages. Genealogy after genealogy shows us that the problems that started in the Garden now filter into every aspect of our existence.
As the people were dispersed throughout the world, differences arose between peoples and cultures. Culture itself and even differences in culture were not the problem. Though Adam was commissioned in the Garden to create culture: to take dominion of creation in a posture of faith and worship before God. The problem became when this was done in a manner that opposed God’s will. By disregarding God’s plan, Adam’s “taking dominion” resulted in relational brokenness and death (human oppression, systemic injustices, etc.). When Abram, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph arrived on the scene there was death, conflict, uncertainty, family feuds, among many other effects of the fall.
From Genesis 12 -50, two realities are juxtaposed with each other. The first is the hope of God’s promise made to Adam and Eve that was carried over to Abraham: that God would conquer the evil one and restore all that was lost in the Garden, and that all nations would be blessed because of it. Contrasted with this promise is the second: the reality of oppression and relational brokenness of “here and now.” To follow God in the world was to live as sojourners in a world that does not hope in God’s word of faithfulness and love to his people.
As Exodus begins, God’s people felt the sojourning reality stronger than ever. They were enslaved to a people not like them in any respect. Differing cultures and ethnicities clashed, and they hated each other. Moses, as a foreshadowing of the deliverance God would bring to his people in Christ, came in the authority of God himself to set his people free and to establish God’s kingdom on earth – a kingdom that would not be monoethnic or monocultural but would infiltrate into every crevice of the world, to every nation. The exodus began a journey to recover what was lost in Eden. Joshua followed Moses and led God’s people through the wilderness toward this new reality of God’s promise to Abraham. God would bless all nations as his people established his rule and reign on earth.
Years later, Jesus was born in Bethlehem. He is a king that came to finally reclaim that which was lost in the Garden. As Kevin Deyoung says, “[He] is the Snakecrusher.” In a promise God made to Adam and Eve, the descendant of Adam – which Jesus is – would crush the head of the serpent - which Jesus did. When Jesus died on the cross, he pointed his weapons of mass destruction right at all that entered into our experience at the Fall. Where sin felt like the final word before God in the Garden, grace became our anthem as Jesus willingly bore our shame and guilt before God and eradicated the animosity between each other.
Jesus proved to be a better Adam. He lived a perfect life without sin. He attracted people to himself by his teaching and his love. (Our churches too should attract a watching world by what they profess - truth - and how they live - love). What he taught he believed and demonstrated in his life because he was God and he embodied the very dynamics of the Kingdom of God. He lived his life by faith in God, submitting his desires to the will of the Father – even death on a cross. And after he faced the same wrath that we deserved, he defeated death and rose unto eternal glory on the third day.
All that was lost was recovered in Jesus. God’s promise that the nations would be blessed rang true as the stone rolled away to an empty tomb. There is a new and future reality awaiting us where all nations and people will be represented before him in beautiful fellowship with God and with one another. Before, we were incapable of true intimacy outside of Christ, having no hope without God in this world. But now in Christ, we are restored to our God-given, image reflecting abilities to “love one another” (John 13:34).
As Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father, he showed his disciples that he would send a guarantee of this newly inaugurated, blood-bought kingdom. He would be with us through his Spirit. The Spirit’s presence among his disciples would be the power in which his people would take back all that sin and the enemy had robbed them of in the Garden. Where the people scattered at Babel in Genesis 11, Pentecost in Acts 2 served as an “anti-Babel” where all nations would be drawn to relationship with God and one another. And now, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the church would become a reflection of this new reality.
One of the primary areas that the gospel of Jesus radically impacts in God’s people by the Spirit is relationship with one another. Where external factors united and divided people such as socio-economic status, ethnicity, and cultural assumptions, the blood of Christ becomes the ultimate commonality. We are members of a better kingdom than our human wisdom could ever create. If we cling to Jesus by faith there is a better reality awaiting us. Where we were self-serving, we now serve one another through love (Gal. 5:6). Where we were dead in our sin, we are alive together (Eph. 2:5). The “dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14) between us has come crumbling down by the Lion and the Lamb.
Not only does the Spirit change how we live now, but we look forward to the full consummation of this Kingdom that is to come. The Spirit gives us the faith to hope in Jesus’s imminent return. The Spirit and the Bride say “Come!” (Rev. 22:17) because we know that there will be a day when Jesus will return and all that we know to be true of us in Christ becomes true forever. Furthermore, ministry now as we await his return prophetically proclaims what we believe about the new Heavens and new Earth. By faith in Jesus, how we do ministry in our lives now reflects what we believe about eternity and God’s Kingdom. Through the Spirit, we have the spiritual eyes to see and believe that “every nation - all tribes and peoples and languages – will stand before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and [will] cry out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9-10). So, life now in the Spirit, with one another, is pushing us toward this reality.
There is a scene in the “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” where the story is over, good has triumphed over evil, and a true and better kingdom – much better than what man could create – is established. Aragorn is crowned as king and all the people are there celebrating together. There are men, hobbits, wizards, elves, and others who fought the good fight and saw this celebratory, much anticipated day come. If you have read the books, or seen Peter Jackson’s film, you know that this moment is joyful. All kinds of folks are gathered around one cause and are in beautiful harmony with one another. So it is in Heaven. Our fellowship with one another through Christ will be more than we have ever experienced here and now. What we will share with one another in Christ one day transcends every difference that we think we have now. For the first time, as you are loved by God through Christ, you will know others and you will be known by others who you have nothing in common with you other than Jesus. How beautiful that will be?
PHILOSOPHY OF MINISTRY
Because of these beautiful realities in the Bible, we see what Jesus wants to build in his church even now. We do not think that this promise is reserved for the new creation just as sanctification is not only a future reality but a present “striving” through the power of the Spirit. Jesus’s promise to “present us holy and blameless (Jude)” before his throne one day is a promise that he will do this for her collectively. And that promise means that the relational brokenness, racism, slander of each other, and fear are obstacles that can be overcome by the power of Jesus.
So we leave no stone unturned. If Jesus is Lord, no relationship is too complicated and no social norm is off limits from the power of the gospel. Maybe Jesus wanted a certain amount of holy naïveté when he said, “We must receive the kingdom like a child” (Mark 10:15). Children can receive Jesus without any reservation because they are not well versed in “fear-of-man” and “social status.”
Our goal has been to approach church planting in this vein. Sola City Church is a story of a group of ragamuffins who dare to dream of what it actually looks like for the Lord to “restore our fortunes” (Psalm 126:1). One of those dreams is a diverse church.
We believe that if the gospel is the power of salvation for all who believe, then anybody can get in on this. God affirms our diversity as he promises that eternity will look like this. As a result, we not only open up our fellowship to all men and women, but we actually seek this diversity as we desire to reach all men and women with the gospel.
If the gospel is spiritual, then God must do the work that we so long to see happen. Our sensitivity can work to make people more receptive to an evangelistic witness, but it does not result in the fruit we ultimately desire to see produced. God must do that.
Furthermore, we actually believe the Bible offers us some hope that this is not only possible, but also probable as a result of faithful gospel ministry. If God is “slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love” and “desires that ALL would come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4), then a faithful gospel witness in our community naturally produces multi-ethnic-economic-educational-cultural churches because that is what the gospel goes after: all nations and peoples of all statuses, races, and walks of life.
One scene in Scripture that I am reminded of is Acts 16 when the gospel first reached Philippi. Paul encountered a wealthy businesswoman named Lydia who received the gospel. Immediately following, he exorcised a demon from a little girl. This scene caused so much commotion that Paul and Silas ended up being thrown in jail. While in jail, the jailer, who was probably a Roman pagan, repented and believed the gospel. This was a diverse group of people for sure. But Paul did not shrink back from what God was doing. He believed that diversity was characteristic of the church as the gospel is for all nations. So he formed the first church with wealthy Lydia and her family, a formerly demon possessed girl, and the jailer and his family. Yet, the next thing we know about this church is Paul’s letter to the Philippians later in the New Testament. And what we see is a beautiful, sacrificial, loving church that obviously figured something out relationally with one another through the power of the gospel. If there is hope for Philippi, there is hope for us.
However, diversity is complicated. When you get a bunch of different people together - different ages, socioeconomic statuses, ethnicities, cultures, walks of life, etc. - you are bound to encounter some frustrations along the way. But, in the frustration is where beauty is found. Through our conflict, we experience what it means to be “ministers of reconciliation.” We get the opportunity to grow in grace and repent toward one another, “bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven [us], so we also must forgive” (Col 3:13). And though imperfect now, we have a living example of what will happen in eternity, and that breeds hope.
One of the major problems in planting a diverse church is the expectations and assumptions we each bring to relationships – conscious and unconscious - and in this case our expectations of the church. Individually, we each have needs, and we each have a way in which we feel the most loved. People expect to be loved in the church, and with a variety of different people, ages, and cultures we are bound to misstep and even to fail as we seek to love across our differences.
Even one year in, there have been many cases when we have failed to communicate clearly with one another and feelings get hurt. One example is formal communication. As phone calls are becoming less frequent with the social media age, how individuals communicate has changed. A younger generation will undoubtedly see as much value in a text as they would a phone call. However, individuals in their 50’s would rather receive a phone call. These are the kind of practical issues that we are continuing to grow in.
Another area where problems can arise is in leadership. God can do what he wants and how he wants, but church planting across social barriers as we are attempting to do needs healthy plurality in its leadership that is working towards reflecting the demographics of the people. There are layers of trust that are naturally there when culturally and socially we are familiar with each other. The skepticism can be overcome when the leadership is not reflective, but it takes time and cannot be rushed. Though we are still working toward a healthy plurality of leaders, we are praying toward this end because of how important we see that it is in our church.
I believe that diversity is a battle worth taking up in church planting and revitalization. For in diversity, we see the heart of God and his beauty. At the end of the day, I want people to look at our community and see that something supernatural is happening. We desire to be a community that is ONLY held together by the blood of the Lamb - not our likes, dislikes, experiences, and needs. In diversity, you know the Lord is doing a work in people because no one would be there for any other reason. It’s too messy; it’s too hard; it’s too complicated. But through Christ it’s beautiful.