I wanted the ground to open up right there and then and swallow me forever.
We were in the house of a Chinese member of our church who had just been diagnosed with a serious form of cancer. We came over to pray for and encourage her and had purchased flowers for her.
The visit had gone well, but towards the end of our time she cleared her throat and said,
“Just one thing I’d like to mention: white chrysanthemums are typically used at Chinese funerals, and therefore symbolise death. They are really not the best flowers to bring someone who has just been diagnosed with cancer”.
What a cultural blunder!!
There are real challenges to doing ministry in culturally diverse contexts, and yet cultural diversity is and can be a source of tremendous blessing.
The scriptures show us that the early church was incredibly diverse, and when we enjoy a unity amid our diversity we find ourselves in the midst of a great blessing from God. How is this blessing seen?
Understanding God’s ways through new lenses
Every culture has aspects that, by God’s common grace, help us understand something of His heart and ways.
Working out the faith in other contexts helps us see aspects of God’s ways through new lenses and opens our eyes to areas our own culture might be been blind to.
Moving to Asia has helped me understand the value of family and what it means to honour my mother and father in a richer way.
On the other hand, my western background has helped some of the Asians at RHC to understand that to ‘honour your mother and father’ doesn’t mean being bound to their will.
When we set out to plant Redemption Hill Church (RHC) we weren’t aiming to be a diverse church, we were simply aiming to be a gospel church.
I believe that it’s the gospel that has enabled this diversity to take root and flourish. This diversity has both testified to the gospel and helped us to remain focused upon the gospel.
Let’s explore these in more detail:
1. Diversity helps to clarify the gospel
Cultural diversity in a church helps us to remember why we gather and what we have in common despite our diversity.
We all know that it’s simpler and easier to hang out with people that are similar to us, because of the familiarity and ease of understanding.
You don’t have to explain yourself as much as you simply ‘get’ one another far more easily.
But a true gospel unity in a diverse context helps to clarify the gospel because we are being reminded of why we are together.
We are not together because of any ethnicity, life stage or background markers, but because we are sinners saved by grace helping one another follow Jesus together.
This fact is more fundamental to our identity than our ethnic background or life stage.
When true gospel unity happens, it clarifies the gospel: that we are saved by the blood of Jesus which is the most important thing about us.
2. Diversity is only possible because of the gospel
The gospel tells us that the truest thing about us is that we are sinners in need of God’s grace: a grace that is given to us in Christ and makes us God’s children.
What is more fundamental to our identity is that we belong to God. This identity runs deeper than our ethnicities.
Only when our primary identity is one given to us through grace in the gospel (as opposed to our cultural heritage) can we truly have this unity with one another.
This doesn’t mean that we dismiss or disdain our cultural heritage—but it’s not the most fundamental part of who we are.
This is why the early church in the book of Acts was so diverse. Because, as Paul said in Ephesians 2, Christ has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile, making one new man out of the two (Eph 2:15-16).
3. Diversity is a witness to the gospel
Jesus said that the world will know us by our love for one another. How much more clearly is this love on display when we are loving those from radically different backgrounds?
It’s quite possible for churches to become social spaces for people to network or find Christians who happen to be like them in all the secondary ways.
But when the church is a place where true relational diversity is seen and love is displayed, it testifies to the gospel’s power.
In fact one of the early Emperors, Julian, remarked that the Christian faith has been spread:
“through the loving service rendered to strangers and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is scandal that there is not a single [one] who is a beggar and that [they] care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for help that we should render to them."
As another early commenter on the faith said,
“They love each other even before they know each other!”
This loving care for those who are radically different to us is a remarkable testimony to the gospel.
4. Encouraging diversity for the sake of the gospel in our ministries
So how do we encourage a gospel-saturated diversity in our ministries? It might seem counter-intuitive, but I want to propose that we don’t aim for diversity, but aim for a true gospel culture.
One of the worst ways to become diverse is to specifically aim for diversity, because that ironically makes you more aware of people’s ethnicities and backgrounds.
Rather, we are to focus on what we are together, not what we are not.
Even the language of foreigners or highlighting ethnicities can sound like a celebration of diversity which actually ends up accentuating how we are different.
Rather, in aiming for a true gospel culture, we are to focus on what are have in common, which is Christ. When we see and speak of one another simply as Christians, as brothers and sisters in Christ, we lay the platform for this unity.
How can we do so?
Simply by sharing our lives in the gospel. Make it a regular practice to ask one another about how the other came to faith, what Christ has been teaching us, how God is at work in our lives.
Very quickly, our superficial differences will fade into the background and what is most true and important about ourselves will be what we are aware of.
This doesn’t mean that there will be no awkward moments or cultural blunders we make along the way.
But when we do, there is much grace for one another (just as that Chinese member gave to me on that day).
What has brought us together is not our works or good behaviour, but the grace of God given to us in Jesus Christ. It’s from this deep well of grace that we can dispense that same grace to our different—yet fundamentally alike—brothers and sisters in Christ.
Simon Murphy is the Lead Pastor of Redemption Hill Church, a church of three congregations that that meets in Chinatown. He and his wife planted the church in 2008, and have three children, Tyra, Rory and Kate. Simon also serves as the network leader for City to City Singapore, a network of churches committed to a city-wide unity for the gospel movement in Singapore.
What if the refining process we encounter in the city actually leads to a wholeness in our faith that is rarely seen?
Church isn’t just about socializing and feeling good about your community.
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