Thursday, 21 May 2015

Church and the need for diversity

“Somebody who only reads newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses. He is completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of his times, since he never gets to see or hear anything else.” Albert Einstein

"The man who thinks he knows something does yet not know as he ought to know." 1 Cor 8:2

Research in the fields of psychology and sociology point out: people connect through similarities and dislike differences. Organizations such as churches are and teams, like leadership teams are, always tend to become more homogeneous over time, because we just don’t like ‘other things’. They disturb us. But as comforting homogeneity is homogeneity is the enemy of creativity and necessary innovation. Homogeneity is an enemy to the stranger as he challenges the established group thinking, the ‘majority rules’ atmosphere and puts light to individual and congregational blind spots.
“When you think yours is the only true path you forever chain yourself to judging others and narrow the vision of God. The road to righteousness and arrogance is a parallel road that can intersect each other several times throughout a person's life. It’s often hard to recognize one road from another. What makes them different is the road to righteousness is paved with the love of humanity. The road to arrogance is paved with the love of self.” Shannon L. Alder
That’s the reason why leadership is necessary and needs to foster diversity and protect minority voices. Leadership in the church can't be satisfied with the status quo. Leadership in the church is more than personal leadership but deals with real, difficult issues, tensions, resistance and has to strike the right balance between ‘connection’ in sameness and ‘provoking distress’ in differences. Both is needed.
“If man is to survive, he will have learned to take a delight in the essential differences between men and between cultures. He will learn that differences in ideas and attitudes are a delight, part of life's exciting variety, not something to fear.” Gene Roddenberry

Bonds through common experiences

We all see the world differently, and we all notice different things—and yet we are being profoundly bound to others by shared experiences. Shared experiences often lead to forming strong bonds with people who share their very specific experiences and keep even slightly different others at bay.

Emerson and Smith write, "People are comfortable with different worship styles, want to be with familiar people, and have different expectations about congregations. For this reason, if congregations end up being . . . homogenous, it is acceptable, if not preferable."

But since we spend most of our time with people who are demographically, attitudinally, and who have similar experiences, our new experiences continues to be with people who look, think, act, and experience the world like us already. This not only strengthens the existing bond but also creates barriers for outsiders.
“Keep your language. Love its sounds, its modulation, its rhythm. But try to march together with men of different languages, remote from your own, who wish like you for a more just and human world.” Helder Camara
As a result, our overall experience of live and truth is further restricted and we fall deeper into homogeneity to the point of segregation, the church becomes about us.
"However, the numerous Christians who gravitate toward churches that are filled with people who look, talk, worship, think and experience life like them are unaware of the dark side of division. In fact, most people don't see homogeneity as a problem as long as it's not motivated by explicit prejudice." Christena Cleveland
I think this to be a common blind spot in the life of many churches as this kind of thinking overlooks the bidirectional relationship between separation (homogeneity) and prejudice. Division between groups leads to prejudice and prejudice leads to division between groups. Further humans naturally create group thinking and categories that makes us, us, and them, them. Our church becomes about us.

Yet there is the question; "Is the church about meeting my need or is the church about helping me to grow, helping me to move to where I need to be?

One of my favourite theologians Miroslov Wolf challenges our natural tendency, a tendency we are too easily content with by pointing out, "When God sets out to embrace the enemy, the result is the cross. . . . Having been embraced by God, we must make space for others in ourselves and invite them in -- even our enemies."

In short, Christ's work on the cross does not eradicates our natural inclination for deprecatory distinctions between cultures, denominations, between us and them. Rather, we are being together a new household of love and ongoing reconciliation. The commands "Love your neighbour as yourself" and "love your enemy" challenges our natural distinctions such as culture, race, gender, theology, and appearance. Distinction that gave us identity and comfort. But we have now a new identity in and through Christ. Our common experience of being forgiven, being made part of the new family through the coming of the Holy Spirit must be the new bond maker. Jesus while in the midst of enormous pain, thought of the need and pain of others. forming new forms of bonds, "'Dear woman, here is your son.' and to the new son he said, "'Here is your mother.And yet, if we are truly honest with each other, we apply these commands to love almost exclusively to those who are first family, who are near, familiar and like us --- people with whom it is natural and easy to be neighbours and at peace with.

It is true, much has been accomplished since Martin Luther King stated an obvious fact, “The most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning,” and yet much is getting lost as sameness rules more and more. Not just sameness in culture, colour and clothing but in thinking. And there are reasons for that. For both emotional and cognitive reasons, the process of forming and maintaining groups with people who are similar to us is logical, powerful, requires less work and is all too natural.

Research has shown that social diversity in a group can cause discomfort, rougher interaction, a lack of trust, greater perceived interpersonal conflict, lower communication, less cohesion, more concern about disrespect, and other problems. Still further, familiarity is the most powerful predictor to friendship. The more we interact with the person, the more familiar we become with them. The more familiar we become, the less guarded we are, the more we tend to trust them, the more we like them. "One research study revealed that people rate individuals they hazily recall seeing somewhere but don't fully recognize as more honest, intelligent, and physically attractive than individuals who are completely unfamiliar" (CC, emphasis mine).

Certainly, from an emotional point of view it makes sense to spend time with those who are familiar to us and similar to us, but did Jesus?

It is a cycle, we are drawn to people who are just like us -- and they are commonly the only ones around us long enough to influence us. Our homogeneity within our circle, is like a cage. On one hand it provides comfort and prevents dissension. On the other side, however, it hinders us to become familiar with culturally different people and to open up to new experiences and challenges. Hence if people come to our church, we expect them to become like us fast.

This can even lead to an artificial theological homogeneity which makes the process of spiritual growth and therefore of discipleship seam to be almost undesirable from the perspective of comfort and harmony. Something the author of the book of Hebrew lamented and laments today.

The role of leadership

And here is indeed the dilemma, the conundrum for the local church and particularly its local leadership: reaching out is hard, inviting strangers is unnatural and it is much easier to work with like-minded people. After all, if people who seem familiar are more likeable and people who are completely unfamiliar are less likeable, and we are going to befriend the people who are familiar more readily. And so within leadership, how open are we to new people, new needs, new experiences, new thoughts, and new friends? The people who seem familiar are the ones that are around us -- our neighbours, classmates, colleagues, the people in our church we are comfortable with. Therefore leadership need to challenge the natural inclination to hang out with like-minded people, precisely Jesus did not do it either.

“If contemporary Christians took seriously the possibility that those outside the boundaries of the church might hold the promise of renewal, if we ceased regarding ourselves as the source of salvation and the secular world as a potential threat, and if we emulated Jesus' example in accepting the faith and the courage of those who live beyond conventional standards of purity, well, I can hardly imagine how things would look.” Greg Cary
Unfortunately, many are either utterly unaware of these natural blind spots and biases, or they simply justify it as natural. Consequently, the people around us, in our churches, happens to be a lot like us, and the stranger, the sinner who could challenge us are beyond us.

Harmony can only be found in diversity  
"I don't need a friend who changes when I change and who nods when I nod; my shadow does that much better." Plutrach

One of my favoured music is from Haydn, Creation. Different instruments, notes, voices and different parts, but my experience was that of harmony, a beautiful blend of differences. Through the diversity and then unity of their arrangement, great beauty came forth. Stunning beauty not through uniformity but through arranged, ordered diversity.

The church is not dissimilar to an orchestrate. God takes very different people, with very different experiences, skills, backgrounds and lives and gives them one new common experience ... forgiveness to which the Holy Spirit testifies. He made something new, a new beautiful arrangement of our lives. But only as we die to our old, to ourselves, we live, love and serve Him and the world he has sent us to.

God's very own nature, Three-in-One, in perfect harmony to one another points to the true and intended nature of our humanness, being made in His image. Humans, male and female are created in His image as persons-in-relationship, forever confronted with differences among them and towards God, yet called to harmony. Diversity is at the core of a relational creation that reflects God nature. Differences expressed in mutual love not only honour God, not only reflect God's image in us, but is witnessing to the very nature of love and therefore of God.

But instead learning to appreciate eternal diversity, humans sought after sameness with God, sought after homogeneity in the wrong way. We wanted to do away with natural differences, instead worshiping the sameness of self. But the robust diversity in kind and gender in creation is natural, it calls for dying to self in an ongoing and profound way.

Therefore, in the sameness of our experience of forgiveness as witnessed by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit we connect, whereas in the differences of our personalities, cultures, theologies, traditions, thinking and likes we grow!

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