One of my childhood memories is milk arriving on the front doorstep in glass bottles with a distinct layer of cream at the top. Timing your breakfast so that you could open a fresh bottle and get to have the cream on your cornflakes was a fine art. I remember that my dad used to cheat and would open a new bottle even before the last one was finished!
Then sometime in the mid-sixties, I remember my parents discussing the new idea of homogenised milk. Apparently, it was some sort of advance, but what it meant in practice was that you no longer got the delicious layer of cream at the top of the bottle. There was no need to hang around till the previous bottle was finished in order to get the cream on your cornflakes, because there was no cream to be had. All the milk, all the way down the bottle, was the same.
Apparently, homogenised milk stays fresh longer than the untreated form and it is better for cooking, but I can't be the only one who misses the cream on the top of the bottle.
So why this nostalgic discussion about the halcyon milk bottles of my distant childhood?
Well, I think that it might help us to think about the reality of the church. Let's start with an axiomatic point, the church is a worldwide body with people from a vast range of linguistic, social and ethnic backgrounds. We are the most diverse group in the world. Interestingly, at no point does the New Testament try to erase this diversity. In Acts 2 we get a long list of the different languages spoken in the Jewish diaspora and Peter's words are understood in all of them. In Revelation 7 we are given the picture of a multitude from every tribe, tongue and nation. Even in eternity, we retain our linguistic and ethnic diversity. The church is one, unity is to be prized and preserved, but it is also diverse and that diversity is also important.
Maintaining this diversity within a local congregation is a significant struggle. Going back to my childhood, we were given a clear, if subliminal, message that to be a Christian was to be middle-class. Sunday by Sunday, I would try to fit a certain stereotype, while being someone completely different during the week. This led to a dislocation between my real personality and my faith that I've struggled with for my whole life. That early formation was not healthy. I never learned what it was like to be a faithful working-class disciple, I just learned to fake being middle-class.
In the current situation, where ethnic identity is very much in the spotlight, the issues of diversity in the church are once more in focus. The temptation is to say that we need to be colour blind, we need to treat everyone the same.
If we treat everyone the same, we will inevitably squeeze people into the same white, Anglo-Saxon mould and this has three dangerous consequences.
- Firstly, by acting as though everyone is the same, we won't help people to learn to be followers of Jesus in their specific cultural and ethnic contexts. The issues that an Iranian asylum seeker has to deal with are different from those of a member of the settled British community and they need support with those issues.
- Secondly, when we assume that everyone is the same, we lose the richness that comes from diversity. The British church has a massive amount to learn from Christians from other cultures and contexts. If we homogenise the church, we simply end up listening to voices like our own and our capacity for growth is limited.
- Lastly, when we homogenise the church, people who don't fit into the majority culture will feel unwelcome and will move elsewhere. The rise of black majority churches in our big cities is understandable, but it is also an admission of failure. We are going to spend eternity together, so we need to work out how to worship together and learn from each other here on the planet. This will mean some major concessions from British churches who can't carry on in the way they have always done.
I don't want to minimise the challenges that this poses for churches and church leaders, but if we are to live out the reality of the church, we must learn to express our unity in diversity. Homogenisation is not an option.
Eddie Arthur has worked with Wycliffe Bible Translators since the mid 1980s. During that time, he was part of a translation team in Ivory Coast and served in a variety of training and leadership roles in Africa and Europe; including a stint as CEO of Wycliffe in the UK. He has a PhD in the theology and practices of Mission agencies and continues to study and write about mission. He blogs at Kouyanet where this article was first published. Printed with permission.