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How Faithful Diversity Testifies to the Gospel

I was delighted by what I saw as the worship service began. Little did I know how short-lived my joy would be. Visitors were a rarity in the tiny Midwestern town where I pastored. Most Sundays, the same 30 or 40 people gathered in the sanctuary. But this week was different. As the service began, I glimpsed a set of faces I’d never seen before. These newcomers were African American, in an overwhelmingly white community.

When the time came to welcome one another, I headed toward the guests, but a church member stopped me with a question. The welcome ended before I was able to make my way to the new couple. As I stepped back onto the stage, I saw two longtime church members welcoming the husband.

At least that’s what I assumed they were doing.

During the invitation, the visitors knelt at their pew with their heads bowed. After the closing prayer, I opened my eyes, planning to invite the couple to join my wife and me for lunch. But they’d already left.

No wonder.

When asked if anyone had obtained their information so I could contact them, my joy crumbled into grief. What had happened during the passing of the peace hadn’t been welcoming at all. According to an attendee who overheard the conversation, two church members had informed the man and his wife that while they were free to stay for the service, they needed to find a place to worship with their own “kind of people.” The church members gave the couple the location of a historic African American church 15 miles away.

Nearly 30 years later, the memory of those events still scrapes uncomfortably across the surface of my soul. Until I shared this story in the book In Church as It Is in Heaven, I hadn’t recognized how deeply these events affected my life.

Yet as I reflected on the incident, I realized the treatment of this couple wasn’t the sole reason for my sadness. Part of my grief had to do with my own missteps; I didn’t know how to shepherd the people in this situation well. Most of all, I lamented all that the congregation missed. If I could go back to that church, I’d certainly confront the two men’s prejudices, but I’d also do my best to help the whole congregation see that embracing diversity is a faithful way to testify to God’s truth.

How Faithful Diversity Testifies to God’s Truth

Fallen humanity has always struggled to unite groups that are different from one another. That’s why a diverse and faithful church can function as a powerful defense of God’s presence among his people. When it unites people from different ethnic, economic, and generational backgrounds, that congregation provides a living apologetic for God’s wisdom and the gospel’s power.

1. Faithful diversity gives evidence for the gospel’s power.

We’re all inclined to choose physical kinship and social similarities over kingdom diversity. That’s because sin has distorted our desires and disordered our loves. If there’s no God and the natural world is all that exists, seeking the supremacy of people who look like me might make sense.

A diverse and faithful church can function as a powerful defense of God’s presence among his people.

Yet treating any class, ethnicity, or culture as superior to another contradicts our common creation in God’s image. That’s why, when some Christians in the first century began preferring one social class over others, James rebuked their partiality as a transgression of God’s law (James 2:9).

A diverse yet unified church, by contrast, honors God’s image in all humanity by practicing a distinct set of values that refuses to favor people who look most like us. Such churches humbly admit that the resources we need to become like Jesus aren’t the exclusive property of people who share our ethnicity and cultural background.

Overcoming our sinful tendencies and pursuing diversity requires supernatural power and grace a materialist universe can’t explain or provide. That’s what John Stott was hinting at when he wrote, “The more mixed the congregation is, especially in ‘class’ and ‘color,’ the greater its opportunity to demonstrate the power of Christ.” When our churches are separated by human customs and social classes, we miss opportunities to show the gospel’s supernatural power, but when we’re faithful in diversity, we give evidence for it.

2. Faithful diversity provides an aesthetic argument for God’s wisdom.

As Blaise Pascal exhorted, Christians should “make [religion] attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is.” Faithful diversity is one of the many ways we can manifest the attractiveness of a Christian way of life. When a Christ-honoring church draws together people from many social and cultural backgrounds, it declares the truth of God’s Word by displaying the gospel’s divine beauty.

In his epistle to the Ephesians, Paul described how the gospel joined Gentiles and Jews as fellow participants in God’s promises (Eph. 3:6). As he reflected on the diverse communities God was bringing together in the church, Paul rejoiced at “the manifold wisdom of God” (v. 10). The term translated “manifold” or “multifaceted” in this text suggests, in the words of one biblical scholar, “‘the intricate beauty of an embroidered pattern’ . . . or the endless variety of colors in flowers.” A richly varied church united by God’s Word reveals to the world the intricate beauty of God’s wisdom.

Overcoming our sinful tendencies and pursuing diversity requires supernatural power and grace a materialist universe can’t explain or provide.

According to the apostle John, this diversity will persist past this present life. The multitude before God’s throne in eternity enfolds the redeemed from “all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9). At the end of time, all that’s glorious and good from every ethnicity will be gathered together in the New Jerusalem (21:26).

There’s a beauty glimpsed when God’s people gather in all their diversity that’s hidden when we remain apart. This beauty provides an aesthetic apologetic—a defense of the gospel that first displays how the church’s way of life is more attractive than anything the world can achieve and then goes on to declare that what’s attractive is also true.

What Might Faithful Diversity Look Like in Your Context?

You probably aren’t the sort of person who’d tell a visitor of a different ethnicity to find a different church. But it’s still worth asking yourself some questions:

Is my local church providing evidence for the gospel’s power and beauty in bringing people together that the world can’t?
What types of people has God providentially placed in my neighborhood who don’t attend my church?
What barriers might be keeping these individuals from hearing the gospel and finding a spiritual home in my congregation?

The answers may look different in your context than they do in mine. In your community, cultivating a diverse kingdom culture might require learning to pass the peace with displaced Somali refugees or Latino immigrants. It might mean adjusting your ministries to welcome low-income families from a nearby trailer park. Or it may entail difficult adjustments to help a congregation of twentysomethings be more receptive to senior citizens, or to help a blue-collar congregation welcome executives from the new tech company in town.

Perhaps your church already displays gospel-empowered diversity. If so, prepare to point to this pattern of life as proof of the presence and power of God. There’s power, beauty, and proof in a church that gathers different classes and cultures in the same communion. We shouldn’t hesitate to point to this diversity as evidence for the truth of our claims.

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