Diversity, Church Growth and God’s Kingdom
by Lawrence Downing
The roots of the contemporary Church Growth movement that has led to the mega-church phenomena reach back into the 1960s when Fuller Seminary professor Donald McGavern and others began to research how churches grow. I was a student at Fuller and attended McGaven’s inaugural chapel presentation where he presented the basics of his research and his initial findings on church growth.
In his studies, McGavern and other scholars, many of them based in Southern California, discovered several factors each growing church shared. One of the most consistent was that “Like Attracts Like.” This finding was developed into a principle: Target those who are most like you. Many mega-churches, Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, have implemented this principle with significant effect.
From a corporate perspective Saddleback Church is among the most successful church organizations in the world. Many other mega-churches follow the model Rick Warren perfected: define your audience, discover their needs, design programs to meet those needs.
From a social and psychological perspective there is an argument to be made that diversity is not the ideal. We are more comfortable with people like ourselves. There is often an inverse relationship between the diversity of people and the comfort of those in the mix: the greater the diversity mix, the less the comfort. Think of the potential for a Church of the Cloned Saints!
Notice: in the above account there is no reference to ethics or theology. Bring either ethics or theology into the discussion and complications arise. True, there are passages in the Older Testament that inhibit diversity. Kill all those foreigners. Spare none! (Deuteronomy 20:15-20). This passage and others like it do not tell the complete story. The same corpus of which this text is a part includes Isaiah, Ezekiel and other voices that promote inclusiveness and diversity. There is more. We Christians take serious the teachings of the Newer Testament. We pay attention to how we apply our theological conclusions—the oneness of humanity, for example. There is within our belief in Trinity the affirmation of equality; all have equal worth. There is the mandate that separation one from the other is not an option. And within this Trinitarian oneness there is diversity. One is not sublimated into the other nor are there degrees of significance among the separate individuals.
The teachings and practice of our Lord and his apostles affirm that within the construct of our faith there is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female. There is no shibboleth between or among races, nationalities, languages or other demarcations that we have invented to define one person or group from another. We listen to Jesus’ prayer recorded in John 17 imploring the Father that his followers might be one as he and the Father are one.
With the New Testament writers as our guide, we affirm that God’s family is expansive in its embrace. All are loved by the Almighty and each person has equal opportunity to share in God’s kingdom. There is a right thing to do, and an ethical way to be. To do or be otherwise is to violate the essence of what our Lord taught. The system that values and promotes exclusivity or separation from others of God’s children does violence to Jesus’ example. He welcomed the outcast. The followers of Jesus, therefore, have no truck with corporate mindset that promote rules or policy; efficiency or production while ignoring the more important measurement: response to those who need help, Matthew 25:31-46.
With the above factors as context, we celebrate the ethnic diversity within Adventism. Our diversity is to be celebrated. The racial, social and ethnic mix of people in our congregations demonstrate our belief that we are to be governed, not by corporate interests, nor are we to be defined by those practices associated with corporate mentality. The follower of Jesus accepts scripture as our handbook and guide as we form and work out our theology. It is our obligation, under God, to turn round any practice or policy that limits or diminishes another person’s standing before the Lord. Likewise, it is our mandate to support and promote any practice or policy that enhances the oneness of the body of Christ.