Is Unity in a Diverse Church Even Possible?, Part 1

Is Unity in a Diverse Church Even Possible?, Part 1

Many people in our day love the concept of a multi-cultural society, but achieving it has proven quite difficult.

The Apostle Paul had the same challenge in the churches that he planted. Racial strife was a real issue, because for the first 2,000 years God worked in human history, all of God’s people had been Jews. Then Jesus showed up with his new “whosoever will” program, and a bunch of Gentiles believed, too. So then, in these new churches, Gentiles were sitting next to Jews, and Gentiles had their own customs and fashions, music preferences, and political viewpoints. And so, it was a mess.

Two thousand years later, the church is still a mess.

I read an article not long ago in The Atlantic about a study done on people who chose to live in multi-cultural neighborhoods. The study found that even people who live in progressive, multicultural neighborhoods end up hanging out only with people in the neighborhood who are just like them.

Just like we tend to stick with what we know in our neighborhoods, many people who love the idea of a multi-cultural church are fine with it until you start doing things that are culturally uncomfortable to them. Then, they want to go back to what’s easier. Their ideal is a multi-colored church, but the church culture is still predominantly white. So everyone sings traditional white-people music and sits silently during the sermon.

And, based on their Facebook feeds, many people are all about racial reconciliation but don’t really do anything about it. They are what one of our pastors calls “slactivists,” which means they champion things on Facebook that they don’t live out in real life.

Paul said that the mystery that is now revealed to the church through the Holy Spirit is that “the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” Paul preached to the Gentiles “to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:6, 9-10 ESV).

One of the best ways we can demonstrate the wisdom and power of God is being known for our unity-in-diversity, when we move beyond virtue signaling and slactivism and into gospel community.

This kind of unity is fun to talk about, but it takes commitment, and it is hard. Here are a few reasons why.

Six Obstacles to Unity in the Church

1. Satan

Satan hates this kind of unity, especially in the church, because it’s how God gets his best glory. At its core, this is a spiritual battle, and we should always be aware Satan’s working in us to try to undo the good things the Spirit is trying to do.

2. Pride

Racial, political and educational characteristics tend to become core parts of our identity; they are what set us apart from others and make us significant. We feel proud about them, and we resist anything that threatens to remove that distinction.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with any of those things. But where pride in them exists, there will be no unity. Or, as Chris Green, one of our African-American pastors at the Summit says, we have skin issues because we have sin issues.

3. Preference

Bryan Lorrits says that we know multiculturalism was an issue in the early church because so much of Paul’s letters talk about food. Food isn’t an issue in a homogeneous church; you just eat your kosher meal and be happy. But when you’ve got Gentiles showing up at the potluck, they start bringing in different, unfamiliar dishes: Who brought the squirrel soufflé? Wherever the Bible talks about food, we could sub in music.

In order to achieve unity, you have to be willing to be uncomfortable sometimes with people not doing things your way. You have to care about being multi-cultural and not just multi-colored.

4. Apathy

It’s just easier to be indifferent. When you try to change the status quo, you’re often misunderstood, and you get hurt. I get a lot of feedback when I talk about topics like this—some feeling I said too much, others not enough. Sometimes it’s easier just to forget it.

But the glory of Jesus and the success of the Great Commission are worth it.

5. Lack of empathy

James tells us that we should be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger. If there were ever a place for us to apply this verse, it is in the area of church unity-in-diversity.

Yes, there is a time and place for you to speak. But we need to seek to understand more than we seek to be understood.

6. Unforgiveness

There is a lie about forgiveness many people believe that keeps them in Satan’s clutches: I can’t forgive you until know that you know how much you’ve hurt me.

But when you make forgiveness conditional on someone understanding everything about your pain, you’re just holding yourself captive to a standard that person will likely never meet.

That’s not forgiveness. Forgiveness is extending grace even when someone doesn’t deserve it.

Jesus Made a Way for Unity in the Church

Those six daunting obstacles keep us from being able to achieve multi-culturalism in our churches. It’s no wonder our society can’t do it!

But what the law is unable to accomplish, the power of new life accomplishes in the gospel.

This article originally appeared here.

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J.D. Greear
J.D. Greear, Ph.D., is the President of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastors the Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, NC. Tagged by Outreach magazine as one of the fastest growing churches in America, the Summit has grown in the past 8 years from 400 to over 5,000 each weekend. The Summit Church is deeply involved in global church planting, having undertaken the mission to plant 1000 churches in the next 40 years. J.D. has authored Breaking the Islam Code and the upcoming Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary.