Touching

My experience in multiethnic churches has lead to this grand conclusion: Something essential is missing in my life when I only do life with people like me. With the absence of what Volf calls “the other,” I am incredibly incomplete.  

I’ve always maintained the deep conviction that healthy multiethnic movements can only happen when there is a diverse cohort of leaders at the highest levels of the organization.  Nothing new here.  But this statement is rather ambiguous, requiring a bit of unpacking.  I know of several churches trending into multi ethnicity among their leadership teams, yet are feeling frustrated that this is not being experienced at the congregational level.  While there can be many factors contributing to sustained homogeneity, I want the focus of this post to clarify what I mean by diversity at the highest levels.

Simply put, just getting diverse people around a table together is not enough.  I mean, each night when I sit down to dinner there’s diversity on my plate, but call it a touch of OCD, I don’t want these items touching.  They’re in the same place, but my macaroni and cheese has no real community with the green beans.  In similar ways you can have a diverse table without true community, and if the latter is missing, don’t be surprised if your constituency fails to truly embrace one another in Christ-exalting diversity. They are, after all, following our lead.

Healthy movements are the product of healthy teams (certainly not perfect teams), who experience high touch with each other.  Think of the example of Jesus and his disciples.  There’s diversity.  It doesn’t get any more diverse than a tax collector (Matthew), and a Zealot (Simon).  Yet in spite of such book end differences, Jesus prays for more than a sense of touch among his team, but a profound intertwining of lives (John 17), tethered together by the bond of love (John 13).To begin this process they shared meals together, walked through grain fields together and stared death in the face together.  

But why is this important, this sense of community, especially at the “executive leadership team” level?  Miroslav Volf speaks to this in his book, Exclusion and Embrace:


“I am who I am in relation to the other; to be Croat is, among other things, to have Serbs as neighbors; to be white in the U.S. is to enter a whole history of relation to African Americans. Hence the will to be oneself, if it is to be healthy, must entail the will to let the other inhabit the self; the other must be part of who I am as I will to be myself.”


My experience in multiethnic churches has lead to this grand conclusion: Something essential is missing in my life when I only do life with people like me. With the absence of what Volf calls “the other,” I am incredibly incomplete.  

Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood this.  His frustrated attempts at finding a white, Bible teaching church in New York City, lead him to “the other,”- Abyssinian Baptist in Harlem, a black church.  There this white, blond headed man, immersed himself into the narratives and experiences of “the other”.  Specifically, he befriended a black man named Albert Fisher (who he actually met at seminary).  This relationship between a white German man and an Alabama born black man would change Bonhoeffer’s life, as he began to submit his worldview and biases to Fisher, a glorious exchange took place, that would ultimately lead to Bonhoeffer’s deep seeded commitment to see the gospel in all of its social implications applied to his home country of Germany.  Were it not for this exchange with “the other,” I’m not so sure “The Cost of Discipleship,” would have had the potency it did, or that Bonhoeffer would have  even returned to Germany.  In short, Bonhoeffer’s life was broadened, and the Imago Dei further illumined because of his experience with “the other”.  

What does this mean for our teams?  Truly embracing “the other,” as Volf argues in his volume, begins with the realization that a lot of how I perceive truth has been shaped profoundly by my experiences, or lack thereof.  Our worldview, and perception of truth, in many regards, has been held captive by our culture.  Objectivity is an endangered species for all of us.  There’s a necessary humility in recognizing and listening to other opinions and perspectives, to even allow ourselves to be shaped by them.  My perception of law enforcement could be wrong.  My view on such combustible topics like gender identity, role of government, race, etc, is probably flawed due to a warped formulation of my narrow experiences and upbringing.  As Jack Deere put it in his book, Surprised by the Spirit, charismatics tend to fall victim to their experience, while conservatives to their lack of experience.  While this statement was directed at a specific theological topic, I find it good medicine in general.  None of us are completely objective, and certainly not omniscient.  We need to humbly submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21), and give ear to one another.

Clothed in humility, the next domino to fall now becomes the abdication of fear in talking about tough subjects.  Our silence is replaced by a courageously inquisitive dialog, because we have the humility to at least admit we could be wrong. After a particularly spirited message that I gave, one of the white leaders on our team mustered the courage to ask about the role of emotions in preaching.  This lead to a wonderful exchange as we ventured down roads of traditional African American preaching, to the Greek model of rhetoric (logos, ethos and pathos), and my question as it relates to why his preaching seemed to be devoid of what the Greeks called “pathos”?  Through our exchange we talked about the importance of conviction in preaching, and the people needing to feel as if we actually believed what we were talking about.  Years later he wrote me a letter saying he became a better preacher because of that conversation.  Humbly, and courageous exchanging with “the other,” made us both better.

Let me end with this somber note.  It was sociologist Michael Emerson who argued that homogenous churches actually become allies to racism.  How so?  When the church is filled with people of the same race, in general there’s the collection of similar world views.  In the absence of “the other,” there tends to be a gravitational pull towards a specific political party, theological hermeneutic and cultural narrative (among others) that can quickly become arrogantly imperialistic, and oppressive.  

An example of this is the wholesale condemnation by our white evangelical friends of what they would call “prosperity theology,” a type of theology that is seen predominately among minorities and the poor.  Before I show you the imperialism among my white evangelical friends, permit me to make two disclaimers.  One, prosperity theology is a problem.  Whenever I minimize God to equation theology: Good over here = Good over here; Bad over here = Bad over here, I have just succumb to the essence of prosperity theology.  However, this equation theology is not just seen in the poor, minority people “over there,” but it’s a universal proclivity we all experience.  Issues of theodicy points to this.  Are we not all thrown by the age old question of, “Why do bad things happen to ‘good’ people”?  The equation just doesn’t add up.

The second disclaimer I need to make is that to preach of a God who blesses his people materially is not prosperity theology (when blessings become the motive, then that is).  God does bless us with homes, cars, jobs, etc.  But what tends to happen is when you get a certain group of people who have historically always had the material blessings, they now are afforded the opportunity to preach a neo-Gnostic gospel that emphasizes the spiritual, with no real thought to the material.  At the same time they now rail against any group that tends to preach a more holistic gospel that touches soul and body, deriding them as heretics, and having bad theology.  This is theological imperialism that grows in homogenous environments.  

Furthermore, this worldview diminishes the cultural worldview of others.  African American’s, for example, are an honor culture.  While honor can slip over into idolization, honor is a good thing, a biblical thing.  Historically, we show honor to our pastor by the giving of such material things as money and/or cars.  Over the years I’ve had so many of our white brothers and sisters readily dismiss this, with no real substantive theological footing.  At its core, they were able to be so dismissive because they grew up in culturally imperialistic churches, where devoid of the other, they established and clung to cultural defaults as if it was gospel truth.

The way out of this requires a certain humble, courageous civility in which divergent groups are placed together and allowed to dialog about these issues under the banner of the local church.  The way to eradicate such theological imperialism is the multiethnic church, comprised of diverse teams who boldly enter into life with one another.