Friday, January 28, 2011

A "not like me" Congregation

Australia, Canada, England, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Germany, Ghana, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Iran, Jamaica, Malaysia, Nigeria, Scotland, Sierra Leone, The Netherlands, Ukraine, USA…

No, this is not a list of UN member nations! These are the lands from which the members of Immanuel Baptist Church come! It is a kind of tossed salad of cultures, primary languages, and traditions. In fact, I’d say that a majority of members and attendees not only come from differing cultures, but from differing denominational traditions as well! Many are coming from community churches or nondenominational traditions. Others have a Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican, or Catholic background. Several come from no church tradition at all—everything is new for them. So, when I stand to preach each Sunday, I look out upon a pool of diversity. The faces tell of distant lands, and strange ways, and a host of various denominational backgrounds.

The sometimes curious and puzzled looks remind me that this congregation is not just like me. I am used to “just like me congregations.” Throughout my ministry so far I have preached, counseled, and cared for people who predominantly grew up in the southern United States. Many were either reared within, or at least knew quite a bit about the Baptist tradition. And, they almost always spoke English. Here, this is joyfully not the case.

I say joyfully. Does that surprise you? The truth is I find it extremely freeing! Yes, I have never been so aware of the words coming out of my own mouth, always internally wondering if they make sense, are clear, and not too filled with American-isms! I constantly ask myself, do these words make sense to a non-Baptist? This can sometimes feel limiting. Yet, in the diversity, I ultimately find freedom. At Immanuel Baptist Church, we have to work hard to work together, pray together, worship together, in a pattern that brings us all together in healthy ways. Without this healthy unity, we could not be effective as a church. We could not be a church at all! By focusing on the unifying aspects of our traditions we find not simply peace, but strength! By celebrating each other’s various cultures, languages, and traditions, we find a wealth of resources to do the work of the gospel! In the strangeness of variety, I find myself increasingly free to rely on this multi-faced community as the Body of Christ, rather than simply relying on myself and those exactly like me. It turns out, Jesus speaks more clearly in the variety than he ever can in the single mindedness of a “just like me congregation.”

I think most of the time in my life, I have sought out the churches that are “just like me congregations.” Maybe we all do this. Maybe I do it because I think my way of doing church is always best. Maybe I do it because I think there simply could not be any right answers, save the ones I already have. Maybe I do it because I want church to be comfortable, easy, and just the way I like it. Maybe this is why any of us tends to only join churches that are just like us. Maybe. Maybe we are a bunch of Goldilocks children who want our porridge just right! This has become my personal conviction over the past few weeks, for myself anyway.

Please pray for the continued unity of this wonderful family called Immanuel Baptist Church. Join me in celebrating the mystery and wonder of God’s Spirit binding us together in deep love! As Immanuel looks toward the future, this unity and diversity, this variety and single heartedness is more important than ever! And, as you pray, ask yourself, “How can all Christians, the children of God, learn to better hear and see each other in ways that allow the Church universal to do better at reaching the World for Christ?”


  1. What wonderful insight. I couldn't agree more with you about Christians seeking out the people like us congregations. I know I tend to do this in my own life because I am afraid of change and afraid of not knowing what to expect in worship. I like being comfortable and knowing what to expect and what is going to happen next but this blog gives me pause and reason to rethink all that so Thanks!


  2. To Sarah: Sometimes living well means keeping a playful balance between comfort and challenge. It is good to have ritual comforts. Yet, it is also good to go beyond those comforts and become stretched. Good luck to you as you consider ways of balancing your comfort with the adventure of unfamiliar ways! :)

  3. The truth of Christ doesn't just transcend culture, but fulfills it. That is why Christianity looks a little different in every nation, even as we confess the same bedrock truths. Worship in Kenya looks a little different than worship in D.C., because both cultures are finding their unique, ideal expression in Christ. I think this phenomenon is unique to Christianity - in virtually every other world religion, the context of worship mirrors the culture of origin (Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc). Only in Christ do we both die to ourselves and yet find a fuller, more real expression of our cultural diversity.