I think it’s time to challenge the way we think about church. We all agree that we want more diversity in our congregations. Look around us, look at who is present on Sunday morning. Are we a diverse congregation? What does diversity really mean? Are we merely looking for more “young people” in our congregation, or are we truly seeking to reach the WHOLE changing world for Christ? Are we willing to acknowledge that the world is changing and that requires us to adapt? How do we do that? What is required of us to become a diverse congregation?
I want us first to think of the church as a borderless church. We put up walls (physcially, spiritually, and metaphorically) around ourselves and our churches. But we are not called to put up walls, we are called to build bridges. The most segregated place in our world today is the church. We seek places of worship that make us feel comfortable and we search out houses of worship to be around people who look like us, think like us, and worship like us. But, is that really what God wants from us?
I believe that not just as Baptists, but as Christians we are called to reach out to all people-not just a specific demographic-but all who are seeking to know Christ and to do his will in their lives.
In Isaiah 56:1-8, we read this: “Thus says the Lord: maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil. Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, ‘the Lord will surely separate me from his people.’ And do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: to the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant-these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for ALL (emphasis added) people.” (NRSV)
Many interpret a prophetic book, such as Isaiah as an announcement of events that will happen. In this passage, however, the emphasis is on ethics, not on events. The emphasis is on practice, not prophecy. The study of prophecy is not to entertain the curious or to intrigue the intellect, but to encourage holy living. The study of prophecy gives us a purifying hope.
Isaiah is speaking here that the house of the Lord is for ALL people, not just one particular group, but for everyone. He even gets specific pointing out in verse 3 and following that the foreigner and the eunuch are welcome into the house of the Lord, if they follow the commands of God. The foreigner who joins himself to God came to be known in Judaism as a proselyte, a member of the synagogue who was not a Jew by birth. The position of the proselyte was a controversial one in Judaism. Not all Jews were prepared to grant them full covenant rights. Such openness to receiving Gentiles who would commit themselves to God was actively resisted by some. In this passage God assures those who voluntarily seek to join themselves to God, for example to the covenant community of worship, they will have full acceptance in the house of God.
Another group that was excluded from the temple were eunuchs. They were used in eastern courts in many capacities. They were used in Jerusalem and Samaria, as references in 1 and 2 Kings showed. An early convert to Christianity was the Ethiopian eunuch from Acts 8:27-37. Eunuchs were prominent at court, but forbidden to enter the temple. They were also considered by mainstream thought of the day to be sexual deviants, or perverts. In this story from Acts, we find the eunuch reading a passage from Isaiah and Phillip asks him if he understands what he is reading. The eunuch asks Phillip to help guide him through the passage and in doing he bore witness to Christ and the eunuch was baptized. Now, he didn't stop being a eunuch, but he became a follower of Christ. The prohibition to enter the temple and to be a part of God’s community, according to scripture is now removed on God’s authority and through Christ is open to all.
Verse 7 in Isaiah 56 shows us just how much God will accept them into the house. “these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burn offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for ALL nations.”
The standard for entrance into the temple is still the same: commitment to doing God’s will, to doing right and justice, to keeping the covenant. But all who love God and want to do these are welcome and accepted. A house of worship without borders.
I recognize the argument raised against such openness. Some say that it is naïve to open the doors so wide and let just anyone in. It implies that persons of evil intent will take advantage of the innocent, and that we may lower our standards and betray our values. Realistically, if we wanted to be safe from other views of thought, be comfortable in our worship and in church, we would shut the doors and raise up high walls and borders (metaphorically of course) around the church. Also, some say that to open membership to just anyone is to invite trouble and vulnerability. But, God prefers the vulnerable openness. He paid the price of suffering so that all might gain access to the kingdom of God.
What this passage is telling us is that all are welcome into the house of the Lord, and all are welcome to become a part of our fellowship and family of faith. Those that profess Christ as Savior are welcome into the family of faith regardless of race, gender, social status, or orientation. As Baptists we affirm that the gospel is open to all and closed to none.
In Ephesians, Paul points out that Christ has “broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.” (Ephesians 2:14-15 NRSV) According to this passage, Christ’s cross has enabled the construction of a new house “without walls”, articulated specifically in verses 19-22. This undivided house is not architectural at all, but an organic, human entity joined sinew to sinew and heart to heart. Eph. 4:16: “From him (Christ) the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”
On June 1, 2008, two San Diego area ministers led a bi-national prayer vigil and love feast in the Moravian tradition at the US and Mexican border fence at Friendship Park. Rev. John Fanestil and Rev. Jamie Gates passed sweetbread and juice through the fence to the Tijuana side in an effort to demonstrate Christian solidarity across borders. They and others began weekly Sunday communion services at the fence.
On February 21, 2009, Gates and Fanestil called for a major worship service with congregations on both sides of the fence, including a cross border choir complete with singing. This time some 150 participants on the US side were surrounded by media, loud anti-immigrant protestors and an unprecedented show of force by the police, rangers, coast guard and border patrol. For the first time a group of heavily armed officers prevented the ministers from approaching the fence to serve communion. After Fanestil served communion to those on the US side, he turned to serve those on the Mexican side of the fence. Border patrol agents raised their guns then arrested, handcuffed and detained the minister simply for serving communion. (Story taken from Our God is Undocumented, Ched Myers and Matthew Colwell, 2012 Orbis Books; Maryknoll, NY)
The gospel of Christ wrecks havoc on the ideologies of xenophobia, racism, and exclusion. We are called to love God and love others. The love of Christ transcends all barriers that we put up. In Matthew 22:37-39 Christ himself points out “Love the Lord your God will all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”
We are called to love God and love others. A diverse congregation is only achieved when we set aside our own mindset of how people should act, dress, walk, talk, and look like. We are called to be a church without a border!
What is the challenge of diversity?
Diversity challenges us to learn. Opportunities to learn language and culture are all around us if we will take advantage of them. What a joy it is to see a face light up when an International friend hears something in their language. What fun it is to see the surprise when you do something that shows an understanding of their cultural values, such as hospitality. What a refreshing experience to attend a cultural festival and walk into another world.
Diversity challenges our opinions. Discussions on politics or economics can raise blood pressures when others don’t fall in line with our thinking. Allowing our opinions to be challenged forces us to hear the other and entertain the possibility that their way of thinking has merit. This opens doors to understanding and friendship. You do not have to agree with everyone whom you come in contact with, but you should have respect for their opinion.
Diversity challenges our own cultural morals. I read a story about a missionary couple in Asia. As their children were growing up overseas, they were very particular about celebrating Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving Day. They felt a need to stay connected to their American heritage in that way. Now they have dear friends from different countries who still call them on Thanksgiving Day and one still sends her list to them of the things she is grateful for. But it was hard to hold on to that. Rather the holidays and festivals of the various places where they lived began to play a part in their calendar year and celebrations. As various cultures here in our own country bring their own celebrations or their unique ways of living life, we are challenged to perhaps let go of some of our Americanism or southernism or north easternism to something more Asian, Latino, African or Middle Eastern. We are also challenged to understand and accept their need to hold on to those aspects of their culture that is integral to whom they are as people.
Diversity challenges our individualism. While we value the needs and rights of the individual and go to great lengths here in the U.S. to protect those rights, many of the cultures coming to us today consider the needs of the group to be a higher priority. We just don’t understand when the young woman forgoes her education or a career in order to marry the man chosen for her. In learning to appreciate the values behind such decisions, we learn to be more cognizant of the greater good of the group versus our personal good.
Finally, diversity challenges our faith. Never in American history have different faith systems bumped up against each other so frequently and at times forcefully. This particular challenge has compelled me to examine my own faith, to try and understand what I believe and why I believe it. It has strengthened my faith, not weakened it. This has come as I have had opportunity to learn what others believe and why they believe it. If we appreciate this diversity and grow from it, then we have no need to fear it. Many of us have never had our faith challenged, many of us don’t know what to do or say if our faith is challenged. We often times get defensive or argumentative when others don’t agree with us. It is important to maintain a dialogue-you don’t have to compromise your values in any way, but you can still remain in fellowship together.
What is to be gained from diversity?
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is a great promoter of unity in diversity. One of the problems that occurred over the past 25 years in the Southern Baptist Convention is trying to make people fit within a box-we are all supposed to believe the same things, act the same way, and worship the same way-legalism and fundamentalism has cast a great stain on our convention. The takeover of the SBC that occurred 25 years ago was built on deceit, power grabbing, and lies told by those that wanted the power. Men like Paige Patterson, Paul Pressler, Adrian Rogers, W.A. Criswell, and Charles Stanley orchestrated a coalition of people that sought to “cleanse” the SBC from any that disagreed with them. They ripped through the seminaries firing professors and presidents that refused to bow down to their way of thinking-or professors that taught individual thought and comprehension of God’s Word. Southern, Southeastern, and Southwestern Seminary all fell victim to the hostility and anger and divisiveness that they caused. This is not what the Bible teaches us. Division is not what God called us to bring, Christ came to tear down the walls that blocked people from having access to the kingdom. Are their main values that we should all hold like the Bible being the inspired word of God, Christ being the only way for salvation? Of course. But, we cannot get bogged down in secondary issues that leave us fighting with one another and cause division in our church. Are we going to disagree, yes, is it okay to disagree, yes. Unity in diversity is possible. I am thankful to say that many of those ties that were severed are now being repaired, but the damage for many is done for good.
We need to be “big tent” Baptists who are bridge builders rather than rock throwers, and we find comfort in other Baptists who speak our same language. Being this kind of Baptist provides space for relationships, friendships, and community for people who seek unity in our diversity.
How do we achieve diversity in our congregations?
Be willing to accept the fact that not everyone believes exactly as you do-not everyone looks like you-not everyone comes from the same socioeconomic background as you. We are all different. Be respectful of other cultures and beliefs, be willing to allow freedom for people to express their beliefs and ways of worshipping. Agree not to target a specific demographic. We are called to reach ALL people, not just some.
It’s time to tear down the borders, it’s time to stop dividing and start uniting-true growth comes from when we love God, and love others working together for the common cause of Christ.
This is what it means to be a Baptist! We are denomination that believes in diversity and helping others who do not have freedom. We believe in the freedom of religion, freedom for religion, and freedom from religion. We support the separation of church and state-the government shall never tell us who to worship, or how to worship. We believe in the priesthood of all believers and affirm the freedom and responsibility of every person to relate directly to God without the imposition of creed or the control of clergy or government. We believe in the authority of Scripture. We believe the Bible, under the Lordship of Christ, is central to the life of the individual and the church. We affirm the soul freedom and right of every Christian to interpret and apply scripture under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. This is why I am a Baptist! I am proud of who I am, of whose I am, and thankful that I serve a God that loved me enough to send His son to live, die, and live again so that I might live with him.
The views in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the congregation of Clemmons First Baptist Church.
Living a Life Like Christ
Jeremy Poplin is the Minister of Music at Clemmons First Baptist Church. He lives in Mocksville with his wife Holly. He loves music, books, and learning more about what it means to live a life like Christ. Jeremy has a passion for worship and ministry that sees people transformed by the love and grace of Christ.