Uniformity . . . or Diversity?

God loves diversity. That’s not just a theological ideal, but ecological observation.
I’m sure many of you, like Jenny and me, enjoy watching and appreciating TV shows that illustrate the vast array and diversity of the world. Those documentaries give us the opportunity to marvel at the almost infinite variation and colourful display of wildlife, plants, fish and insects that share this planet with us. I guess you could say we “glory” in the creativity that designed and made this rich diversity of life.

A red eyed tree frog perched on a flower shows the incredible diversity of the created world

God loves diversity, not uniformity. A quick look at God’s creation tells us that uniformity is not what God is after. Uniformity, from this point of view is actually a betrayal of God’s purposes. Across the world one can see that a healthy world is a diverse world. Even the Bible is indicative of this diversity. There are different writers using different approaches. There are parables and genealogies, poetry and proverbs, songs and symbols.  This variety reiterates the reality that God is a God of variety and diversity.

Yet why is it that human diversity proves difficult for us? Why do people so readily object to persons, places and things that are different? Even a quick look at your average local church makes it difficult to believe God is a God of diversity. We struggle over simple things like differences in taste in music, or what we believe, or what we wear. We love to have things done the way we like them and bristle when things are done differently. Moreover, many move on to different churches when they find things no longer to their liking.

Many move on to different churches when they find things no longer to their liking

Sadly too, often we desire the comfort of uniformity rather than the challenge of diversity.  If God had left the planning of the church to us we would have required everybody to be alike and avoided many problems and difficulties. Yet God chose diversity and therefore diversity is important to the church. In fact, right from the beginning (on the day of Pentecost) the church has been made up of people from different cultures, ages, gender, experience and preference. We in Hobart are no different.
I’ve heard it said there are three kinds of people who struggle with diversity in the church: the immature, the legalistic and the proud. While we all struggle with change, immature Christians are afraid of change. Legalists, on the other hand, don’t like change because it upsets their control which is based on conformation to rules and regulations. And the proud people do not like change as it forces them to ask whether things can be done better than they were in the past.

Diversity calls for the immature to grow up in their faith (Heb. 5:11-14), the legalist to not give up their freedom in Christ (Gal. 5:1), and the proud to humble themselves and allow God to act in new ways (Acts 7:50-52).

When we aim for uniformity rather than diversity our churches can easily become museums rather than ministries

When we aim for uniformity rather than diversity our churches can easily become museums rather than ministries. Warren Wiersbe (American pastor, speaker and writer) once said, “One of the best ways to promote unity in the Church is to allow freedom for diversity. That may sound like a paradox, but it is true. You cannot have true unity without diversity, for unity without diversity is uniformity; and uniformity can destroy the life of the Church” (Building Christian Unity, pg. 19-22).
Yesterday at Hobart Baptist we celebrated our first Combined Church Service. It was a time to celebrate our diversity. At this service the different congregations that make up Hobart Baptist church got together to worship God. This was an opportunity to “glory” in the diversity God has given us. It was an opportunity to remind ourselves that uniformity is not what God desires. It was an opportunity to affirm God is bigger than our individual dislikes and preferences. It was an opportunity to express our unity in Christ despite our diversity. It was an opportunity to encourage each other to maintain and foster the unity God has given us despite our diversity.
As you reflect on the importance of diversity in your fellowship, will you pray with me that God will be honoured, and many will be encouraged to follow Jesus in unity, celebrating his amazing diversity.  
Stephen L Baxter

The House that Jesus Built

One of the comforting realities of church life is that Jesus said, “I will build my church” rather than saying, “it’s your responsibility to build the church.”
Whenever we are disillusioned, frustrated, anxious or dissatisfied with church life, it is good to remember the church belongs to Jesus and not to us, and he has taken responsibility to build it.

I will build my church
The work is different to what we might think

It is so easy to slip into thinking that the Church is ours, and we are responsible to make it work. Yet, Jesus made it clear that our task is to abide in him for “apart from him we can do nothing” (John 15:5). When it comes to building the church, it is not a matter of what we can do to make it work, but getting out of the way and allowing God to do it through us. That does not mean there is nothing for us to do, but that work is different to what we might think.

In his letter to the Ephesians Paul takes three chapters to explain what God has done for us in Jesus, and then he turns his attention to the practical outcomes and implications of our church life. And what does he say? “Live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).
Of all the things Paul could have highlighted about church life, he gets to the heart of the matter – relationship. Humility, gentleness, patience and love are at the core of what church life is all about. Despite our programs and our planning, our worship and our service, it is, as Eugene Peterson describes it in The Message, pouring ourselves “out for each other in acts of love, alerting to differences and quick at mending fences” (Ephesians 4:4) is how we are called to live.
Hobart Baptist Church, where I am the Senior Pastor, is a diverse church. We have people with different backgrounds, languages, cultures and experiences. We have different ways of being and doing church. We have different expectations of how we should live, act and worship. Yet, Jesus has put us together and called us to work alongside each other. In doing that, he is expecting us to be patient with each other,  humble in our approaches, bearing with each other’s differences, failing and sinfulness, and making every effort to stay in unity together.
It is a sad indictment on the church that throughout our history we have not been very good at loving each other. Rather than “bearing with one another in love” we are quick to blame and accuse. Rather than be gentle, we are often violent with each other. We may not get physically violent, but we can certainly hurt in the way we gossip and talk about each other. It is much easier to go about mumbling under one’s breath about what someone has or has not done, than to forgive, be at peace with, and confront them in love if needed. Jesus has an expectation that the church will be above that. We have a “worthy calling,” as Paul puts it, and we are implored to live up to it.

Jesus has an expectation that the church will be above that. We have a “worthy calling,” as Paul puts it, and we are implored to live up to it.

In God’s wisdom, there are a number of different groups of people that come together to form Hobart Baptist Church. We currently meet as three different congregations—at 10am, 11:45am and 2pm. If our endeavours focussing on youth and young adults bear fruit we may have a fourth. Early next month we will have our first “combined service”. This will be an opportunity for all us to meet together in the one place at the one time to celebrate our diversity in a demonstration of our unity.
In a very real way Jesus has put before us a challenge that begs a question, “are you willing and committed to be a church the lives and works in unity despite our obvious diversity?” Before we are quick to answer yes, we need to be alert to the costs involved.
That cost, as Paul describes it, in borne in humility, gentleness, patience and love with one another. It requires much grace and much forgiveness. This is a big ask. And often the church has failed. May God grant us the courage, will and strength to say “yes”to this call and to “live a life worthy of the calling we have received,” as we allow Jesus to build his church.

Stephen L Baxter

Can we have Unity in our Diversity?

A number of years ago in a television interview, Billy Graham was asked, “If you could wave your hand and make one problem in this world go away, what would that be?”

Billy Graham Most admired man 4% (statistical tie)
Billy Graham

Without hesitation he quickly replied, “Racial division and strife.” Across the world racial problems continue to be a major cause of death, hunger and wars.
Australia is one of the most multicultural countries in the world, and although there are ethnic tensions, on the whole our communities are quite peaceful especially when compared to other parts of the world. Sadly, however, the vast majority of our church communities are homogeneous and do not reflect the diversity of our cities. Within most denominations there are many churches that maintain their  particular ethnicity and/or language.
Yet, there are other churches whose worship and witness is multiethnic and are multicultural fellowships of believers in Jesus Christ. Despite the different backgrounds, languages and ethnicity of the people, they unite as one church. Hobart Baptist is one such church, with Karen refugees providing a vibrant edge to our fellowship. Perhaps more by God’s design than ours we are a church with people from various ethnic backgrounds. Such a church is close to heart of God.
On the night before he died, Jesus prayed for those who will believe in him through the message of the disciples (John 17:20-23). His prayer was for unity across his church so that the world will know God’s love and believe. Through his obedience and willingness to die on a cross, Jesus was “reconciling the world to himself” and his prayer is for his church as it continues that reconciling work. The Church is God’s answer to the separation we see at work in the world. Our churches are to be a demonstration to the world of ethnic and racial reconciliation expressed through our unity.

A biblical example

In the book of Acts, Luke tells the story of the birth and growth of the early church. He traces its early beginnings in Jerusalem and its movement from there across Asia and on to Rome. In one city Antioch, Luke gives us a glimpse of the type of church it was (Acts 11:19-26; 13:1ff). Antioch was an urban and ethnically diverse community with a population of one million people and the church reflected this. Its leadership team included Barnabas from Cyprus, a Hellenistic Jew; Simeon (nicknamed Niger, meaning he was black) most likely from North Africa; Lucius from Cyrene, an African; Manaen from Palestine who was most likely Greek, and Saul from Tarsus, a Jew and a Pharisee. From this impressive list we can deduce that the church in Antioch was an ethnically diverse congregation that brought together Asians, Greeks, Middle-Easterners (Arabs, Jews), and North Africans.
Here, in Antioch, we see an answer to Jesus’ prayer, a church demonstrating unity to the watching world. And I believe what we see at work here at Hobart Baptist is also, however small, an answer to Jesus’ prayer. That is not say it is easy. The fact Jesus prayed for us suggests it is a difficult task, yet the reality of his prayer demonstrates how it important it is.

It’s a spiritual problem

When Billy Graham put the eradication of racial division and strife at the top of his wish list, I sense he understood that this is a spiritual problem. And until our hearts are reconciled to the eternal God who loves all men and women equally, there will be no motivation to love those who are different than us.
May God continue to inspire and motivate us to be the church Jesus prayed we would be, by celebrating our diversity and working to maintain our unity.
Stephen L Baxter