I wanted the ground to open up right there and then and swallow me forever.
We were in the house of a Chinese member of our church who had just been diagnosed with a serious form of cancer. We came over to pray and encourage her, and we had purchased flowers for her.
The visit had gone well, but towards the end of our time she cleared her throat and said: “Just one thing I’d like to mention. White chrysanthemums are typically used at Chinese funerals and therefore symbolise death. They are really not the best flowers to bring to someone who has just been diagnosed with cancer.”
What a cultural blunder!
Cultural diversity is and can be a source of tremendous blessing.
There are real challenges to doing ministry in culturally diverse contexts, yet cultural diversity is and can be a source of tremendous blessing. For the scriptures show us that the early church was incredibly diverse, and it also tells us that unity invites blessing from God (Psalm 133).
How can this blessing can be seen? Every culture has aspects that, by God’s grace, help us understand something of His heart and ways. Working out our faith in other contexts helps us see aspects of God’s ways through new lenses and opens our eyes to areas our own culture might have been blind to.
For instance, moving to Asia has helped me understand the value of family and what it means to honour my mother and father in a richer way. On the other hand, my Western background has helped some of the Asians at Redemption Hill Church (RHC) to understand that to “honour your mother and father” doesn’t mean being bound to their will.
When we set out to plant RHC we weren’t aiming to be a diverse church, we were simply aiming to be a gospel church. I believe that it’s the gospel that has enabled this diversity to take root and flourish. This diversity has both testified to the gospel and helped us to remain focused upon the gospel.
So now, let’s look at diversity in detail.
1. DIVERSITY HELPS TO CLARIFY THE GOSPEL
Cultural diversity in a church helps us to remember why we gather and what we have in common despite our diversity. We all know that it’s simpler and easier to hang out with people that are similar to us, because of the familiarity and ease of understanding. You don’t have to explain yourself as much as you simply “get” one another far more easily.
But true gospel unity in a diverse context helps to clarify the gospel because it reminds us why we are together.
We are not together because of ethnicity, life stage or background, but because we are sinners saved by grace, helping one another follow Jesus together. This fact is more fundamental to our identity than our ethnic background or life stage.
True gospel unity shows that we are saved by the blood of Jesus – and that is the most important thing about us.
2. DIVERSITY IS ONLY POSSIBLE BECAUSE OF THE GOSPEL
The gospel tells us the truth that we are sinners in need of God’s grace. This grace is given to us in Christ, and makes us God’s children.
Our fundamental identity is that we belong to God. This identity runs deeper than ethnicity. We can only have true unity when our primary identity is a person who has been given grace by the gospel, as opposed to our cultural heritage.
This doesn’t mean that we dismiss or disdain our cultural heritage — it’s just not the most fundamental part of who we are.
This is why the early church in the book of Acts was so diverse. Because, as Paul said in Ephesians 2, Christ has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile, making one new man out of the two (Ephesians 2:15-16).
3. DIVERSITY IS A WITNESS TO THE GOSPEL
Jesus said that the world will know us by our love for one another. How much more clearly is this love displayed than when loving people from radically different backgrounds?
All too easily do churches become social spaces for people to network or find Christians just like them. But when the church is a place where true relational diversity is seen and love is displayed, it testifies to the gospel’s power.
One of the early emperors, Julian, remarked on how the Christian faith spread: “Through the loving service rendered to strangers and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is scandal that there is not a single (one) who is a beggar and that (they) care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for help that we should render to them.”
Another early commenter on the faith said: “They love each other even before they know each other!” This loving care for those who are radically different to us is a remarkable testimony to the gospel.
4. DIVERSITY IS POSSIBLE WITHIN OUR CHURCH
So how do we encourage a gospel-saturated diversity in our ministries? It might seem counter-intuitive, but I want to propose this: Don’t aim for diversity, but aim for a true gospel culture.
One of the worst ways to become diverse is to specifically aim for diversity because that ironically makes you more aware of people’s ethnicities and backgrounds. So, we should instead focus on what we are together, not what we are not. Highlighting foreign languages and different ethnicities may seem like a celebration of diversity, but it actually ends up accentuating how we are different.
In aiming for a true gospel culture, we focus on what we have in common, which is Christ. When we see and speak of one another simply as Christians, as brothers and sisters in Christ, we lay the groundwork for unity.
How can we do this? One way is by simply sharing our lives. Make it a regular practice to ask one another about how the other came to faith, what Christ has been teaching us and how God is at work in our lives.
Very quickly, our superficial differences will fade into the background, and what is most true and important about ourselves will be what we are aware of. This doesn’t mean that there will be no awkward moments or cultural blunders we make along the way.
But when we do make these blunders, there will be much grace for one another (just as that Chinese member gave to me on that day).
What has brought us together is not our works or good behaviour, but the grace of God given to us in Jesus Christ. It’s from this deep well of grace that we can dispense that same grace to our different — yet fundamentally alike — brothers and sisters in Christ.
This article was first published on Cru Singapore and is republished with permission.
- What is your church like? Is it culturally diverse?
- Is there a gap between members of different ethnicities or backgrounds?
- How can you bridge that gap?