28 January 2007

Diverse Unity, and Other Oxymorons God Loves

In a recent Christianity Today article entitled "Exit Interviews," Edward Gilbreath (no relation, so far as I know, to my Aunt Vicki) pokes an honest finger at white and black Christians who aren't proactive about pursuing the diverse unity that God seems intent on creating in the Church. Gilbreath suggests a scenario that probably too few church members have found themselves in: facing their own ignorance and uncomfortable fidgeting while trying to engage in meaningful dialogue with the Other.

Sometimes that Other isn't so other after all, but a few shades different in skin color and we might as well live on separate planets. So Gilbreath asks bold questions we should all truly ask ourselves. Then he concludes by observing the real difficulty as well as real urgency we ought to feel about this business:

"To break out of the monochromatic status quo of today's evangelical movement, we must confront hard truths about ourselves and about the things that truly drive our institutions. If we don't, we'll never find ourselves in that place of total freedom and faith and unity that allows us to be used by God in radical ways."

I guess Gilbreath and John Piper are channeling each other, because the latter just wrote a wild proposal (called "How and Why Bethlehem Pursues Ethnic Diversity") that aims to enact exactly what the former proposed. In an effort to purposely diversify the staff and elders at Piper's church, those who are already staff and elders want to practice affirmative action when selecting future members. Of course, biblical standards of doctrine and practice will not be compromised in this effort, but the church wants to look more like the Church, not just wish for it.

Wow. Where Gilbreath provides cultural criticism, Piper provides practical application, and both make bold calls for real problem-solving and love. As much as both had me on the edge of my pew, though, I never did get up.

That's partly because I'm joined at the hip (well, not literally any more) to my seven-week-old. But Noel won't serve as an excuse. Too many mothers use their children as excuses to not do ministry outside their homes, and they're doing their children (not to mention the more-important Church and world at-large) a disservice in the process. Perhaps more on that later. In the meantime, may God have mercy on us so that our home and hands might become more active in ministry now that Noel has come into the world.

But my not-getting-up problem also reflects the complexity of the issue itself. That's part of the point Gilbreath and Piper are making, after all: this stuff is tricky.

Last semester, I confessed to one of my African-American students my chagrin that our church looks very little like our neighbors. We began as a neighborhood church, and the middle-class whites that raised their children there have now grown into the oldest generation at our church. But those white flew away into more affluent neighborhoods, and they sold their houses to the working-class poor who are (at least here) primarily black. Our neighbors regularly visit the church . . . on Monday nights for basketball and Bible study, or during the summer when the gym opens daily for the same. But that's mostly it.

The upshot: we have conducted neighborhood ministries for more than a decade and only folded a handful of those Others into our white pews. My student said that she didn't think we could ever expect more.

Of course, in the end, we can only do faithfully what God calls us to do and trust Him for whatever fruit He will bring. If that means laboring long in a neighborhood that always looks unlike us, then fine. But the very notion of an "us" and "them" seems antithetical to the Kingdom. Since the beginning of a people He called His own, God has been grafting in Others: Rahab the prostitute, Ruth the Moabite, the Ethiopian reader, Onesimus the slave, to name a few famous ones. Today, we need more Rahabs and Ruths and Onesimuses, not just as members of the global Church but as integral components in our local congregations.

So let's start by honestly answering Gilbreath's hard questions. And let's continue with practical plans to overcome our monochromatic lives so that we might really display love for and likeness with Jesus. I applaud Piper's staff and elders for making a bold move in that direction. But such clapping will hardly do any good in and of itself. Something serious needs to change in this chick and in her church. Not just a nice round of applause added onto a rather pale life. In odd diversity God's fame will shine brightest.


Arthur Jackson said...

Right on.

Brent and Kat said...

Well said, Dr. Strange!

I've been listening to a "Civil War for Dummies" kind of audiobook, and it is so jarring to hear that the forces of segregation in the church were just as strong as any civic code.

The church is certainly not exempt from the ails of past racial sins... Not sure how well Affirmative Action will rectify the problem, though?

Shannon said...

Preach it, sister! We've found that to be a very frustrating element in our search for a new church home - we want to be somewhere that reflects the diversity that will be around the throne, but it's HARD to find. Kudos to Piper's church for taking practical steps. I have a SIL who's black, and we have had some amazing and frank discussions about promoting diversity in the church in the South. Not that we've reached any conclusions, but... it's something we need to be talking about. Thanks!