Cross- cultural, multicultural, multiethnic or intercultural, whichever is your church’s claim to inclusivity, please be sure that your invitation is sincere, that your congregation understands what these words means and what they mean for the congregation. It’s about relationship and how we relate to persons across cultures not just during Sunday morning worship but throughout the week. Because Christian community is not a Sunday morning commitment. It’s a way of life.
It won’t happen in an hour. It is not a slogan, a stock photo of diversity or a handshake and a close-lipped smile. After receiving the “right hand of fellowship,” does your church have anything more to give its new members to make them feel like they belong? More than giving them a church bulletin and pointing them to a Sunday School class, what are you doing to build a relationship outside of weekly church services? What do you serve after the fellowship hour? What do you say when the coffee is gone and there’s no more hot water for tea? Community- building takes time and Christ’s community is more than food and drink (cf. Matthew 6.25).
Some church specialists suggest that it is now “sexy” to say that your church’s membership is diverse. It is attractive to new believers and those seeking a faith to believe in. Never mind the fact that Jesus asked his disciples to do share the gospel with all nations more than 2,000 years ago, now it’s popular for our sacred spaces to reflect the diversity of its communities (Matthew 28.16-20). But, this desire for inclusivity is not true of every church and certainly is not the norm.
And it is quite a turn off when a church presents itself as diverse only to reflect the culture’s affirmations of white privilege and the positioning of socially colored white people in all the positions of church leadership and influence. This plantation- style of ministry where the socially colored white people are in charge while persons of other social colors do the work of ministry is a sad commentary on the impact of the social construct of race in Christian community. We simply do not share the gospel’s vision but instead, perpetuate the image of American slavery and its systems of dominance.
It is evidence that persons of different cultures do not share the same faith in Jesus and are not sharing in the same faith, that we are believing in Jesus for culturally- specific things. We also do not share the gospel outside of our culture– unless, of course, it’s on a missions trip. While the kingdom of God is not just for “me and mine,” it is hard for us to share our faith and worse still, to share a faith with those of different cultural backgrounds, experiences and expressions. We would rather worship God separately, segregated on Sunday mornings according to the social construct of race: White Christians go here. Black Christians go over there. Red Christians go around the corner. Yellow Christians go across the tracks. Beige Christians go over the river and through the woods.
I suppose we believe that Christ is walking with each culture separately, that there are separate discipleship paths, different salvation tracks, that Christ divides his body and his time based on our social categories.
Drawn by Christ’s hands on a cross, we are unable to see him reaching for those whose hands do not “look like” ours. Assuming that Christ only speaks English, we, perhaps unknowingly assume that Christ doesn’t understand what they are saying either. Though Jesus is the Savior of the world, we have managed to reduce his salvific power to our area of the world. And we call this faith. We call ourselves the body of Christ.
Cognitively, we know that believers of other cultures are our siblings, that we share the same faith. But, we stop short of accepting that God loves them just the same and offers them the same promises, the same blessed assurance. Instead, we have to believe that God loves us more and differently. Because the social construct of race says that human beings are physically different in ways that affect value, worth, treatment and life outcome. We believe then that God loves us according to the social construct of race.
As a result, we invent cultural and racialized representations of divinity that affirm our practice of faith and ours alone. This Christ is one of us– and not them. This Christ is in our circle and understands why we worship without them. This Christ supports our decisions to exclude and the witness that Christian community is a gated community. These socially colored idols say that we are worshipping the right way, that we are the right people for the work of the Church, that we are the best hands and feet that Christ has ever seen, that we are the only hands and feet that God has in the world. This god works for us. We can accept and appreciate this kind of god. But, God doesn’t work for us, at least not as a cosmic employee who has a serious commute to work each day.
Consequently, intentional inclusivity requires work and that we be willing to work with others. This decision to accept and model the Great Commission as well as the Great Commandment is well- informed, personally practiced and a coordinated effort on the part of the entire church– not just the pastor, the worship leader or the outreach committee. This calling to genuine community will require us to inspect the Christ we are following, to make sure that his path does not conveniently line up with our own. Does he look like us? And if so, why? Who made him this way? why is this a requirement in order for us to follow him and to remain in fellowship?
Because fellowship goes deeper than looking the same and sharing a password. This isn’t about matching outfits and hairstyles, sharing a culture or a language. It is more than sharing a pew or even singing in the choir together. It is more than what takes place on Sunday morning and if you are not sharing your life during the week, then I would question if there is genuine fellowship at all. Our community has something much deeper in common. We share in the life and body of Christ.
So, if you only see each other on Sunday morning, why? Why do you not live among, play with, work beside, rejoice and mourn with those you share a faith and hymnal with? “One Lord, one faith, one baptism,” still persons come to church and expect a cultural representation of their faith (Ephesians 4.5). Who told us that this was an option? That this was a requirement for belief? That Christianity was to be practiced in cultural silos?
Genuine community requires that we not open the doors of our church until we open our mouths, freeing our tongues of our terms and conditions for acceptance. We need to be freed of pretense and perfunctory greetings in order to speak to the presence of race in our churches. We need to have candid conversations about its impact on our fellowship and cultivate a desire to belong to Christ’s body and to each other– not just our own. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “For where the brother (or sister) is, there is the body of Christ, and there is the church. And there we must be also.”