The Beautiful Community
Many people these days have grown disillusioned with Christian community. There is no shortage of criticism of the church both in print and on social media. So, it is refreshing to run across a book written by someone who, though well-aware of the church’s shortcomings, nevertheless still has faith in Christ’s ability “to present … to himself … a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:27).
The Beautiful Community by Irwyn L. Ince, Jr. is such a book. Ince serves as the Executive Director of the Grace DC Institute for Cross-Cultural Mission (ICCM) and as a pastor in the Grace DC Network. As an African American pastor in a largely white denomination (PCA), he writes from years of experience working in the context of multi-ethnic churches. Though familiar with both the challenges and the heartbreaks of such work, Ince is also aware of how beautiful the church can be when it demonstrates unity in diversity.
In Ince’s view, “unity in diversity” is more than a politically correct catch phrase. It is an essential element of God’s purpose for the church. As a Triune Being, God is a beautiful community in and of himself – a community of three distinct Persons who relate to each other in perfect unity. Since humans were created in the image of God, we all long to experience this kind of community, genuine unity with others who are different from us.
Sadly, because of the brokenness of sin, such an experience is rare. Our alienation from God drives us to seek self-worth and safety by isolating ourselves within communities of people of our own kind, homogenous communities referred to by Ince as ghettos. He writes:
[We] love our ghettos, our ethnic ghettos, our social ghettos, our cultural ghettos, our economic ghettos, our academic ghettos. And we love them to a fault. When we see cultural and ethnic differences, we don’t embrace our dissimilarity. We immediately distrust.
Sadly, this aversion to diversity is true even of churches. Though called to model to the world the gospel’s power to unite people in Christ, the church itself often divides itself into communities defined by likeness, whether that likeness be defined ethnically, economically, politically, or academically. In Ince’s words, “What’s most tragic is that Jesus’ church has a ghetto-busting responsibility, but it has … ignored that command.”
Nevertheless, Ince remains hopeful that, with God’s help, churches can overcome this tendency to isolate among our own kind, and to experience unity with people whose backgrounds differ from our own. To accomplish this goal, congregations must commit to do four things: to devote to doctrine, to probe preferences, to count the cost, and to practice hospitality.
Regarding doctrine, Ince makes a surprising observation. Ethnically diverse churches generally do not make ethic diversity their number one goal. Their primary focus is the authority of God’s Word and the truth of the gospel. He writes:
One of the common threads I found throughout my research of diverse churches was that participants placed a high importance on each church’s commitment to God’s Word and doctrinal soundness. People were willing to overlook or work through the difficulties of being in a diverse church if that church was committed to the Bible as its central authority.
Ince cites interviews with members of diverse churches who initially joined the church, not because they were seeking diversity, but because they were looking to hear God’s Word. One woman, named Eun, searched for a church asking, “Is the pastor preaching the gospel, and am I going to get fed?”
Of course, there are many doctrinally sound churches that are anything but diverse. Often this is because of a failure to “probe the preferences.” Much of what we do as churches (our style of worship, our patterns of preaching, the way we relate to each other and structure our congregation) is not due to biblical principles but rather to personal and cultural preferences. Unfortunately, we are often blind to this reality. We mislabel our preferences as theological principles without realizing that there are other ways of “doing church” that glorify God and follow the teachings of his Word. Individuals in the majority culture (in the American context, this means white people) are the ones most likely to be blind to their own preferences. What many assume to be the “right way” is really just “the white way.” The only solution to this blindness is to listen humbly and non defensively to brothers and sisters from minority cultures and to take seriously what they say.
Reading Ince’s thoughts on this subject caused me to reflect on our church. In one sense, ACC is wonderfully diverse. (By my last count, 57% of our congregation is comprised of immigrants or people of color.) But in another sense, we fall short of the kind of unity in diversity that Ince describes as “beautiful community.” Though we are blessed with ethnic diversity, we have yet to experience much cultural diversity. The predominant culture of our church is white, middle class and North American. To experience richer diversity, we need to make room for the beauty of other cultural expressions in our life as a church.
For this to happen, Ince says, we will all have to “count the cost.” Are we willing to sacrifice our own preferences to edify others and to glorify God by demonstrating “unity in diversity” to the watching world? Ince’s research revealed that in diverse churches, the individuals who pay the highest cost to participate are generally members of minority cultures. Upon his visits to these congregations, church members from minority cultures would often ask to meet with him. Ince would ask them, “What has it cost you to be part of this church?” The answers were often deeply moving. These Christians talked of costly personal sacrifices they had made to be part of a church where their own perspectives would often be ignored.
In Ince’s view, the beauty of the church will not truly begin to shine until members of the majority culture are also willing to sacrifice their preferences out of love for others. “[T]here is a particular need for white Christians to develop a deeper cultural self-awareness and a willingness to die to [the maintenance] of those cultural norms for the sake of pursuing unity in diversity.” I agree with Ince. As a member of the majority culture at ACC, I need to do a much better job listening to the voices of my brothers and sisters from minority cultures and setting aside my own preferences whenever possible.
In diverse churches, what often helps individuals to sacrifice their personal preferences is the joy they receive through the practice of hospitality. Since the days of the early church, breaking bread with other believers has been an essential step to experiencing the power of the gospel. Ince says:
So, it came as no surprise that participants in my research regularly brought up eating together as an aspect of the way they experience belonging in their diverse church. In most instances the meals were cross-cultural experiences. Who do you invite to your table?
Though Ince is not shy about pointing out the problems in the American church, and though he never sugar-coats the cost involved in addressing those problems, The Beautiful Community is a tremendously encouraging book. The picture the author paints of the beauty of our Triune God, and his firm belief that, with the Spirit’s help, this beauty can be demonstrated by the local church, moves me to want to pursue beautiful community at ACC. I pray you will be moved to seek it, too.
CALL TO ACTION: One way we at ACC have pursued this beautiful community is through our Diversity group which covers racial, ethnic and cultural differences as well as other differences we have as humans. It’s new name will be: Competent to Love in a Diverse and Multiethnic Church. Several leaders created this group curriculum a few years ago and we have offered it twice. We hope to offer it again towards the end of 2021. If you are interested in being on a list of participants for when we offer it, please email Andrea at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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