I've just come back from 10 days in Africa, where I was serving in my role as 'Operations Director' for our international Salt & Light family of churches, at our biannual conference, this time in Nairobi, Kenya. I've seen again the value of diversity, which is what this blog is about! For more on what I learned from the conference, read my blog a few days ago.
God's church is an amazing thing. As Bill Hybels so eloquently and concisely sums up the Biblical teaching on the local church, 'it is God's Plan A for the world' and 'the hope of the world'! And yet this amazing thing is at times frustrating and infuriating, and we wonder why God designed it as he did! What does the Bible have to say?
In the letter to the Ephesians, writer and apostle Paul paints a grand picture of God's great purposes for the church. He explains 'the mystery hidden for ages' that 'through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be known to the whole world' (3:7-11). God indeed has great plans for his church, as the rest of the letter so vibrantly draws out.
This word manifold can also be translated as much-variegated (many colours), much-varied, multi-faceted or ultra-diverse! Diversity can often be a challenge to us, but this rich multi-coloured ultra-diversity is at the heart of God's plan.
In this ultra-diversity I see at least 5 aspects that make the local church what it is meant to be:
1. Diversity of culture
Jew and Gentile are now one in Christ (2:11-7)! As Paul puts it more succinctly elsewhere: 'There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.' This reconciliation of different races, peoples and tribes was a powerful statement in the first church, and remains a powerful statement today. Town and Gown. Rich and Poor. White and Black. Young and Old. Native and Immigrant. Last month I had the privilege of spending time with leaders from several nations. The diversity of perspective brought a richness into our conversation, and a robustness of outcome as we learning to listen to each other and strive for common purpose.
2. Diversity of age
This leads me onto a second point: Young and old together in church brings a whole-of-life long term perspective. As Francis Chan so eloquently illustrates with his famous 'rope illustration' we all too often get focused on the immediate, the people and problems which are in front of us, rather than having God's long term perspective. There is a huge benefit in sharing life, making decisions and listening to God with people who are at a different life stage from you. It guards us from short-termism and blinkered decisions.
3. Diversity of gift
Thirdly, the church is empowered and enabled to live and witness as Christ intended by the different grace gifts he gives, by the Holy Spirit. We see that we are one body and yet God gives, by his Holy Spirit, different gifts to different people (4:4). Whether it's the gifts of leadership we see here, or the so-called charismatic gifts we see in described in 1Corinthians 12 and 14, or even the fruit-gifts we see in Galatians 5, they're all given for the common good, that God's diverse people may learn to get on, co-work and be fruitful together. The word charismata, from which the charismatic movement derives its name, means grace gifts from the Holy Spirit. These gifts are vital to the proper functioning of the church.
4. Equipping for maturity
Ephesians 4 goes on to explain the purpose of the leadership gifts: 'to equip all of God's people for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain unity, maturity of understanding of God and maturity of conduct - each part working properly, so that the body grows as it builds itself up in love.' (paraphrase mine). The word 'equip' is also used of mending fishing nets in the gospels. That's a great picture of the purpose of leadership. Someone once put like this: 'mending God's people so they can fish!' Until Jesus comes again, there is an ongoing task to lead the into unity, maturity and love. This task is a cross-generational mandate, a commission to be passed from one generation to the next (2Ti 2:2). It requires long-term thinking and persistence - and good leadership!
5. Innovating for mission
A key element of this cross-generational task is learning to 'fish' appropriately in each new generation. While much has been written about Paul's strategy-change in Acts 17, mission methods now are radically different from Paul's day. They need to be. The message doesn't change, but the method must. As Paul himself said, 'I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel.' We live amid huge cultural changes and the church must be 'always reforming' in the way in plays out it's ambassadorial reconciling mandate in the world. This learning and innovation requires long-term thinking, courage and persistence.
It's for these 5 reasons we think it is best that most 'specialist ministries' ('para-church ministries') connect properly with local church through meaningful, effective and robust partnerships. This is mutually beneficial to both partners! We are delighted to have several such partnerships in place: As a local church our most significant partnership is to be part of the Salt & Light international family of churches: through these diverse relationships we are challenged, equipped and encouraged, and together we we develop and support church planting work internationally. As a local church we develop and support housing for the marginalised in Oxford through Edge Housing. As a local church we develop and support long-term teams working with unreached people groups through a partnership with Frontiers UK. As a local church we reach out to seekers through our partnership with Alpha.
As these important priorities are well-connected to the local church they find strength, wisdom and support in a multi-culture, multi-age and multi-gifted family, on a long-term trajectory of maturity and missional innovation, as God's gifted leaders equip and train everyone. Each of these priorities above - the poor, world mission, church planting and student ministry - would be incomplete without that connection!
So let us pray, with Paul: 'Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.' (3:20-21)