Many challenges face the church today but one of the most significant is our ability to live, function, and minister in a world that is increasingly diverse. Perhaps the issue is not that the world is more diverse but that this diversity has become part of our everyday lives.
More than ever before the world is at our doorstep. This is due not only to the internet and 24/7 news, but the increasing mobility of people. Not only is business routinely conducted across borders but individuals and families from many cultures now live in our communities. When I attend a school function for one of my grandchildren, I see not only people of European ancestry and African-Americans, but Hispanics and Asians from various countries.
How will the church address this diversity while pursuing its mission?
First, each congregation must become aware of the challenge of interacting with people “who are not like us.” This past Sunday my pastor, Noel Schoonmaker, preached a prophetic sermon on “Transgressive Relationships.” He not only encouraged church members to step outside their comfort zones to interact with people who differ in ethnicity, beliefs, and values but shared his own experiences of doing this. Congregational members need both the vulnerability and the confidence to initiate conversations with those who are not like them in order for meaningful dialogue to result.
Second, Christian churches must find ways to work alongside people from other faith traditions for the enrichment of our communities. The Urban Mission Institute led by Wallace Hartsfield in Kansas City is open to adherents of all faiths. Whether one is Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, or Hindu, there is a shared desire to improve one’s community—to care for the poor, aid the homeless, feed the hungry, and assure peace and justice for all. This will only happen when people of every faith—or no faith—join together in common cause.
Third, on the national level we are rapidly moving toward the point where there will be no ethnic majority. There will be a number of minority people groups sharing in the life and governance of the nation. This will not be an easy transition for many in leadership. For denominations, leadership will have to be more diverse. For national government, political leaders will have to move beyond appealing to prejudice and self-interest in order to accomplish what is best for the nation. Many of our present leaders will not be able to do this and will fall by the wayside.
Fourth, we live in a world where many religions thrive outside of North America and Europe. For some time, the Christian church has grown most rapidly in South America, Africa, and Asia. Each of these non-Western churches brings its own perspective to the faith. A number are laboring in cultures where they are still the minority and are often restricted and persecuted. How do we stand with them without attempting to dominate the conversation? Dr. Molly Marshall has led Central Baptist Theological Seminary to find ways to work with believers in Myanmar with love and respect. This is a pattern that can be replicated in many places around the world.
As we work with adherents of other major world religions, we must come to see that they are far from monolithic. There are many sects, power groups, and interpretations within very faith. How do we develop the relational and dialogical skills to approach others with humility and honest curiosity while maintaining a commitment to our own beliefs?
We can no longer avoid this challenge. These are the kinds of issues that creative ministers and lay leaders are facing. These are the concerns that every program of theological education must address. To fail to do so is to become irrelevant.