As I listened to ICPs Theo Visser talk to Alpha’s Nicky Gumbel in a recent webinar about how Alpha can be used for intercultural church planting, Nicky spoke so passionately about diversity. Diversity has been a global buzzword for the past few years, and rightly so. There should be much talk about representation and inclusion, and the church should be leading the discussion on this! But the sceptic in me wasn’t sure if their conversation was heading in a ‘culturally-relevant-for-the-sake-of-relevancy’ direction, so when I heard the word, I’ll admit that I almost tuned out momentarily.
However, what Nicky said next not only shut down my scepticism but encouraged me to reflect on my own experience of diversity.
Referencing Paul in Ephesians 3, he said that diversity is the manifold wisdom of God, ‘polupoikilos’ in Greek, meaning ‘much variegated or varied, manifold, marked with a great variety of colours’. Nicky drew parallel to Joseph’s coat of many colours, the only time that this Greek word is referenced in Hebrew in the Old Testament. So, where we hear these words in Ephesians – a phrase I’ve often been confused by – Paul is instructing the church to manifest the varied and integrated diverse wisdom of God in the church; Gentiles heirs together with Israel, members together of one body.
He even went on to say that when we pray ‘Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’, we are actually praying directly for diversity in the body of Christ!
I am the youngest of 6 children. My family was formed out of a ‘yours, mine and ours’ setting – I am the only child from my mum and dad together, and my siblings were all brought to our blended family from either my mum’s first marriage or my dad’s first marriage. My dad’s first wife was European. My mum’s first husband was of UK descent. To add to this, my mum and her husband had adopted two indigenous Australian children. So my five siblings and I are a glorious multicultural tribe – one brother is Maltese, one is Aboriginal, my sister is part-Aboriginal and part-Melanesian, my brother and sister who I shared a womb with are Scottish and our mother was Jewish, which means I am Jewish also!
Our mother was the glue that held us all together. She shaped my view of what ‘family’ is and looks like, and how every person is made in the image of God. I grew up never knowing anything different to this. Skin colour, race, and racism were not on my radar. But I am very aware that my story is unfortunately not everyone’s story.
There is no place for racism anywhere, but especially not in the family of God nor from members of the family of God. Blatant, casual, any form of it is vile and ugly and totally contrary to the very commission Jesus gave to his disciples. Just like my upbringing in a ‘polupoikilos’ family – a family of many colours! – where I never knew any different, our churches should represent a blended family where the members look beyond the exterior and form a bond of choice, of one heart and one mind and one name. A family where it is so natural to be diverse we don’t know what it’s like to be anything else!
Heaven will be an eternity spent with brothers and sisters of every tribe, nation, and tongue, worshipping and praising our Lord God Almighty. So why should Heaven only ‘start’ when we step into our eternal home? Why couldn’t we bring Heaven down and start the party early by forming and enjoying intercultural churches that embrace culture, variety, and a shared love for the Lord?
If, according to Nicky Gumbel, we are praying for diversity in the church when we pray ‘Your will be done,’, it begs the question: what does a diverse church family look like? In many ways, it will look like a wide range of cultures coming together to form a unified group with a common mind and common value system, worshipping one God.
However, that is where the similarities can and should stop. The expression of worship should be a mosaic of language and style. The prayer might even, from time to time, resemble an upper room experience! It would be colourful to say the least because let’s remind ourselves: Joseph’s coat wasn’t called ‘the bright purple coat’ or ‘the loud red coat’. It was striking and different and vivid and interesting to look at…just like our churches should be.
Of course, merging a variety of cultural worldviews is bound to have its challenges. My siblings will tell you many stories about the complexities of growing up in a non-“nuclear” family. It was more than just the looks from strangers as eight of us varying in age, shape and colour would pile out of the family van! I could talk to you at length about the struggles I faced being the only child from our shared parents, difficulties mostly related to feeling stuck in the middle, or the pressure I felt to be the peacekeeper; I was the ‘missing link’ as one of my brothers liked to tease! My indigenous brother and sister have their own stories about what it was like growing up as adopted children in a ‘white’ family. And all of us, our parents included, felt the strain at times of what it meant to fuse together as one, each bringing their own hurts and unmet expectations, rejections and foreign ideals to the blended family table.
Families are made up of imperfect human beings, but a church family should be a place where, despite the imperfections, all people find a sense of belonging and community, and, according to Nicky, the church should be representative of the city or area where it is planted.
Perhaps we could go even further to suggest that the church could celebrate being made up of a larger population of multicultural members; people who find themselves disconnected in many ways to their surroundings, but whose central source of belonging comes from a shared faith in Christ.
What would our churches and missional communities look like if they were to become a diverse patchwork of vibrant fabrics and colours, knitted together to form a magnificent cloak or a richly ornamented robe!? What a glorious sight that would be!