Last Sunday at church we thought through the question of identity, what it is that is the most important way you could describe yourself. We saw that there were many ways you could do this. The most common ones tend to be things that show where you fit in society economically (what you do for a job, where you live etc) or what your marital status might be (single, married, divorced, widowed etc). However, only one possible division between people is eternal and not just for this life. The most important division between people is whether they trust in Jesus for their salvation or whether they do not. 1 Peter 2 explains this division in terms of Jesus being the cornerstone of God’s plan; either you are not put to shame or you stumble on this rock of offence.
This has all kinds of implications, including what we do as a church family. All Nations is more of a mixed bag of people than most churches. We have significant divisions on some level with different cultural backgrounds, genders, ages, occupations, socio-economic status, and marital status. Sociologically, our church should not work as a functional group of people. We are too different. But the reality is that (most of the time) the church is united, and there have not been the major conflicts and cliques you would expect. Why is that? Because what we all have in common is more important and deeper than what divides us. However different we are, we all trust in Jesus the cornerstone as our Lord and Saviour, and that means we can build friendships across the usual divisions between people.
There are many models of how you go about ‘doing church’ out there. A common one is that churches are divided along some kind of identity division so the people who come along are already pretty similar to one another. This could be some kind of ethnic group, like a Chinese church which is united by language and culture. This could be a youth-oriented church, with loud (youthy?) music and a funky message dominated by multimedia. This could be an early morning prayer-book service which is aimed at older, traditional believers. In each of these cases, the church unites based on some identity marker to some degree – like attracts like, and the church is run in a way that attracts one kind of people while possibly repelling others.
The same trend can be seen in ministries within churches. It is common to look at the list of ministries offered by a church and see them divided all along demographic lines: a women’s ministry, a men’s group, a youth group, an older saints group. We naturally divide that way and naturally mingle with people who are like us; that makes most of us most comfortable.
Before I make some comments on this, I need to honestly admit that often this approach does work. A church full of young adults will naturally attract more young adults. It’s sociology and there is truth to it. If you want to target one subculture and fit your message to their culture it does work.
I must say that this approach does make me feel uncomfortable though. There is more to church than sociology, and more to gathering believers than just ‘what works’. If our true identity is in Christ, and what unites us is Jesus, surely we should have a church family that is as diverse as possible. Our diversity testifies to the power of the gospel not just sociology. We want to create environments where people cross those natural identity marker lines; and yes, this is hard for many of us! But if we want an environment where older women teach younger women (to use Titus 2 as an example) the two groups need to be in the one place and build strong relationships in some way. If we want young believers and teenagers to be mentored and encouraged by older believers, we want a church community where this actually happens. The unity we have in the gospel needs to drive us to more diversity and friendships between very different people for the sake of Jesus.
On somewhat of a similar note, two years ago I heard Tim Keller speak at a conference in Sydney. When asked what type of music they played at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, he said just a grand piano and one or two vocalists, maybe a violin sometimes. And the aim was to be inclusive to all kinds of people. This wasn’t so loud that it offended the older people, and younger people in New York listen to opera anyway so it was non offensive to them. The music was done in such a way to include a wide range of people and not just pander to one subgroup among them.
What practical implications does this have for our church? Well, sometimes people have asked me to start a young adults group and I have resisted this. At some point people need to be in the general adult population, learning from others in a different life situation to themselves. We are also trying to come up with a mentoring strategy so our youth can meet regularly with older believers. All our Bible study groups aim for diversity if they can. And on Sunday, I told everyone to speak to someone very unlike them over morning tea rather than sit with what is most comfortable. It can be hard work, that’s true. But the gospel makes us cross other identity marker lines, if we truly believe that the gospel unites us more deeply than our current circumstances divide us.