John 17:22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.
by Mara Joy Norden
I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb as a visitor in this small-town church, which was odd, because I was surrounded by people who looked like me, talked like me, and dressed like me. Even though I had all the right demographics to fit in, even though I grew up in a church just like this one, sitting in that pew with those people felt like wearing a too-small glove.
I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb because of a woman named Eileen. After finishing college I found that church shopping as a single person was lonely and depressing. I was about to give up when I stumbled upon Servant’s Community Church, an urban Reformed Church in America congregation on the west side of Grand Rapids. As soon as I walked in the door, Eileen walked over me. “Hi, I’m Eileen. You’re new here. Would you like to sit with me?” Eileen had hair like a brillo pad and sharp eyes, but a warm smile and blue suede shoes, the same kind I had worn to church in middle school. I never sat alone in church again.
Eileen didn’t talk to me (I later learned that Eileen had, in addition to the gift of hospitality, a developmental disorder and mental illness) — but that was fine. I was content to watch in awe as the full spectrum of humanity entered: the guy who slept under the bridge, the guy with the office on the top floor of the Varnum Building, a schizophrenic man talking into the air, the single mom whose kids smelled like poverty, and the family in khaki pants and gingham dresses.
The people were loud, joyful, and unassuming. The kids, all of them together, ran around in the sanctuary until (gasp!) the second verse of the opening song. Only a few people looked people like me, and yet this place quickly became my church home. Because of the way God used this glorious diversity to transform me, being back in the polite and polished small town church filled with people who looked like me felt pretty uncomfortable.
How did most of our churches end up so homogeneous? Since the 1960s people in the United States increasingly choose to live in neighborhoods and worship in churches where people look like them, talk like them, and view politics like they do. Because of this sameness, Americans have fewer and fewer real-life relationships with people whose perspectives, experiences, and viewpoints differ from their own. As people encounter differences less often, they become less able to navigate those differences, and those differences become more and more threatening.
As a result, the Church in the United States has gotten mixed up about what it means to live in unity. We’ve come to think that unity means uniformity, or sameness. We think that the oneness that Jesus prayed for among his followers means having the same opinions. We’ve forgotten that the early church began in diversity, not uniformity: a diversity in approaches to Old Testament laws (whether circumcision was necessary or not), a diversity in understanding how good works relate to faith (Paul: salvation is by grace alone; James: faith without works is dead), and even a variety of perspectives on Jesus, resulting in four gospel accounts rather than just one.
When Jesus prays for his followers to be one, he prays that they would be one “as we are one.” Remember, God dwells as One and Three at the same time: three distinct ways of being operating in perfect unity, which we call Trinity. Jesus’ prayer for oneness was not for agreement, uniformity, or sameness. It was a prayer for unity in diversity. What if it was actually God’s design for our churches (and denominations) to be diverse in skin color, financial status, and political views? What if the Holy Spirit isn’t threatened by our differences, even on things that really matter, but delights in this diversity and uses our differences to grow us toward love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?
Prayer: Dear God, Turn our fear of those who are different from us into curiosity. Humble us so we can experience your delight in diversity. Amen.
**Of course, unity isn’t the only thing that matters in our life together. In my denomination, the Reformed Church in America, when we take vows for church membership, ordination, and installation, we vow to “seek the things that make for unity, purity, and peace.” Each of those virtues when pursued on their own can become an idol that allows us to harm others and turn us away from Christ. It’s the interplay of those three Christian virtues together that keep us on the path of following Christ within our congregations. Stay tuned on Sundays for the rest of this month for explorations on the interplay of unity, purity, and peace in life together.
Mara Joy Norden pastors The Community in Ada, Michigan.