The church shouldn’t be homogenized
(Photo: Unsplash / Edwin Andrade)
One of my childhood memories is milk, which arrives in glass bottles with a clear layer of cream on the top of the front door. It was a good art to plan your breakfast so that you could open a fresh bottle and have the cream on your cornflakes. I remember my father cheating and opening a new bottle before the last one was finished!
At some point in the mid-1960s, I remember my parents discussing the new idea of homogenized milk. Apparently it was some kind of progress, but what it meant in practice was that you no longer had the delicious layer of cream on top of the bottle. There was no need to hang around until the previous bottle was ready to get the cream on your cornflakes because there was no cream available. All the milk in the bottle was the same.
Apparently, homogenized milk stays fresh longer than the untreated form and is better for cooking, but I can't be the only one missing the cream on top of the bottle.
So why this nostalgic discussion about the Halcyon milk bottles of my distant childhood?
Well, I think it might help us think about the reality of the church. Let's start with an axiomatic point: The Church is a worldwide organization with people of different linguistic, social and ethnic origins. We are the most diverse group in the world. Interestingly, the New Testament never tries to remove 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. In Revelation 7, we get the image of a multitude of every tribe, language, and nation. We maintain our linguistic and ethnic diversity forever. The Church is one, unity should be valued and preserved, but it is also diverse and this diversity is also important.
Maintaining this diversity within a local community is an important struggle. When we returned to my childhood, we received a clear, if subliminal, message that Christian should be middle class. Sunday after Sunday I would try to conform to a certain stereotype while being someone else entirely during the week. This led to a shift between my real personality and my belief, which I have struggled with all my life. This early formation was not healthy. I never learned what it was like to be a loyal working class student. I only learned to pretend to be a middle class.
In the current situation where ethnic identity is at the center, diversity issues are again at the center of the Church. The temptation is to say that we have to be color blind, we have to treat everyone equally.
If we treat everyone the same way, we will inevitably put people in the same white Anglo-Saxon form, and this has three dangerous consequences.
- First, we will not help people learn to be followers of Jesus in their specific cultural and ethnic contexts by pretending that everyone is the same. The problems that an Iranian asylum seeker has to deal with differ from those of a member of the settled British community and they need assistance with these problems.
- Second, if we assume that everyone is equal, we lose the wealth that results from diversity. The British Church can learn a great deal from Christians from other cultures and contexts. When we homogenize the Church, we simply hear voices like our own and our ability to grow is limited.
- When we homogenize the Church, people who do not fit into the majority culture feel unwelcome and move elsewhere. The rise of black majority churches in our big cities is understandable, but also an admission of failure. We're going to spend eternity together, so we need to figure out how to worship and learn from each other here on the planet. This means some big concessions from British churches that cannot go on as they always have.
I don't want to minimize the challenges that this presents for churches and church leaders, but if we want to live out the reality of the church, we have to learn to express our unity in diversity. Homogenization is not an option.
Eddie Arthur has worked with Wycliffe Bible Translators since the mid-1980s. During this time he was part of a translation team on the Ivory Coast and held various training and leadership positions in Africa and Europe. including a time as CEO of Wycliffe in the UK. He has a PhD in theology and practice from mission agencies and continues to study and write about mission. He blogs at Kouyanet, where this article was first published. Printed with permission.