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Building a House for All God's ChildrenDiversity Leadership in the Church
By Jeffrey S. Rogers
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2008 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA DIVERSE NEW WORLD—AND OLD
The way I see it," said the dentist, "we're all climbing the same mountain. We're just taking different paths up the side. What's wrong with looking at it that way?" Before I could respond, a young woman standing behind me exclaimed, "What's wrong? I'll tell you what's wrong. Jesus is the only way! There's no mountain, there aren't any paths, there's only one way, and it's Jesus." As I stood between these two members of the congregation I serve, I recalled Lyle Schaller's observation in The New Context for Ministry: "From a pastoral perspective, the most difficult assignment is to serve a theologically pluralistic congregation that also includes great diversity in the level of Christian commitment." Diversity is more expensive than homogeneity, Schaller says, and at that moment the three of us were experiencing one of its intangible but real costs.
On the face of it, this Sunday-evening encounter reflected the familiar tension between the theological perspectives of "pluralism" and "exclusivism." But beneath the surface of this exchange were other powerful currents of diversity. There were diversities of generation, gender, faith-development, family dynamics, personality type, spirituality type, and congregational connectedness, to name the most obvious ones. These two committed Christians also had diverse expectations of me, their pastor, to whom they had come for conversation. Instead, they found themselves in a pointed exchange with each other.
Novelist Cassandra King's engaging exposé of the pastoral household and vocation, The Sunday Wife, captures another minister in a diversity tangle. The Reverend Dr. Ben Lynch arrives late on a Sunday evening at the beachfront home of his parishioners Maddox and Augusta Holderfield, who have befriended his wife, Dean, the title character of the novel. After reprising his sermon on Jesus' walking on the water that the three vacationers had missed, Lynch says:
"Preaching about the miracles in the Bible can be like walking a tightwire." "How so?" Maddox asked. Ben shrugged. "You know. Some folks are strict literalists when it comes to the Word of God. Others—like you two, I'm sure"—he nodded toward Augusta and Maddox—"are uncomfortable with the idea of miracles." "Wait a minute, Dr. Lynch," Augusta said. "You're making an assumption, aren't you? I believe in the Virgin Birth. I believe Jesus turned water to wine, and have no doubt that He walked on water and calmed the seas. And I certainly believe He arose from the dead." ... "Oh," he said lamely, then chuckled. "Nowadays, it's unusual for people to think that way. In this modern age ..." He shrugged, letting the idea drop, and looked to Maddox for help. Maddox leaned back in the rocker. "Miracles in our modern age. Fascinating subject, isn't it? What do you think, Ben?" "Me? Well ..." He rubbed his hands together and frowned, as though deep in thought. "To tell you the truth, Maddox, I have no problem with whatever theory my parishioners embrace. I can relate to both literalists and the skeptics." Augusta gave a whistle. "If you ever give up preaching, you could go into politics."
Confronted with theological diversity in his congregation, Ben Lynch chose to straddle the fence. But as Augusta Holderfield's reaction to his evasiveness indicates, equivocation— fence straddling—will not suffice in a church composed of diverse constituencies who expect authenticity and integrity rather than political expedience from their leaders.
Obviously, pastors are not alone in facing the challenges of diversity in the church. A six-year-old finished his Mother's Day card, turned to a teacher in his Sunday school class, and asked for another sheet of construction paper.
"No, Marcus," she said nicely. "Now that you are finished, you can go over to the rug for the Bible story. We'll start as soon as everyone else is done."
"But I need to do another one," he insisted.
"Why?" she asked. "This one is very nice. I'm sure your mother will love it."
"But I need to make one for my other mommy."
As the woman stood with a slightly quizzical look on her face, another teacher in the room stepped in with a fresh piece of construction paper in hand. "Yes, you do, Marcus. Here you are. If you don't get this one done before we start the story, you can listen in from over here while you finish it." She turned to the other teacher and said with a smile, "I'll fill you in later." While preparing the Sunday school craft for the day, no one had anticipated that one youngster in the class would need to make a Mother's Day card to take home to both of his mommies. To deal wisely and well with the diversity in and around the church today, pastors, staff, and congregational leaders need a framework for understanding diversity that few congregational settings currently exhibit.
DIVERSITY: A NEW ISSUE, AN OLD ISSUE
"Diversity as an issue is new," R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr. wrote in 1991. The founder of the American Institute for Managing Diversity and a leading expert in the burgeoning field of diversity management, Thomas identified three turbulent forces buffeting American businesses and institutions: global competition, changing demographics, and an increasing reluctance of individuals to assimilate or "fit in" by shedding their identities. In Beyond Race and Gender, he included the following scenario as an example of an emerging "diversity tension."
A new suburban church, founded as a nondenominational organization, attracted members from a variety of denominations. For a time, there was harmony. But before long, individual members began to push for traditions and practices that they had experienced in their own denominations. The various practices were at odds with each other, and with the nondenominational concept. Some members felt that the church had tilted too much toward one particular denomination. In the resulting tension, many members left the church.
Individuals "switching" churches—and denominations and nondenominations—has contributed to a new degree of diversity in local congregations, as Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney documented in American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future. Roof and McKinney identified an increasing "internal institutional pluralism" in local congregations now beset by "diversity in ideas and styles, changing definitions of common beliefs ... and fluidity in personal commitment and organizational structures." Roof subsequently collaborated with Jackson W. Carroll to explore the shape of generational diversity—preboomer, baby boomer, and generation X—in local congregations in Bridging Divided Worlds. Their research explores how these three generations form distinct cohorts in the church with varying values, views, beliefs, practices, spiritual styles, priorities in the church, and ways of relating to organized religion and to one another. Carroll and Roof depict the swirling mixture of diversity currents when they suggest that a local congregation
represents a thick mix of world views, values, symbols, meanings, and practices that participants bring to them. Gender, ethnic, lifestyle, regional and social class distinctions are among the most important that are reflected in a single congregation's gathering. The mix also includes generational difference as members of a cohort bring their experiences and expectations to the congregation. This diverse combination of perspectives is often cross-cutting and cross-pressuring, creating a complex set of popular undercurrents beneath the congregation's surface.
From a wider angle of vision, Robert Wuthnow charted the transformation of spirituality in America since the 1950s with the emergence of a new spiritual freedom that has significantly expanded the theological diversity of local congregations as well as American culture at large.
At the same time, another powerful diversity current has emerged in and around the church in the form of "identity politics." The late William Sloane Coffin sounded the following warning in A Passion for the Possible: A Message to U.S. Churches:
The challenge today is to seek a unity that celebrates diversity, to unite the particular with the universal, to recognize the need for roots while insisting that the point of roots is to put forth branches. What is intolerable is for difference to become idolatrous. When absolutized, nationalism, ethnicity, race, and gender are reactionary impulses. They become pseudoreligions, brittle and small, without the power to make people great. No human being's identity is exhausted by his or her gender, race, ethnic origin, or national loyalty. Human beings are fully human only when they find the universal in the particular, when they recognize that all people have more in common than they have in conflict, and that it is precisely when what they have in conflict seems overriding that what they have in common needs most to be affirmed.
In contrast to Coffin's call for affirming what human beings have in common, combatants in the current "culture wars" raging around and within the church frequently absolutize attributes and then lionize or demonize persons on the basis of those attributes.
Coffin's warning, Thomas's scenario, and the analyses of Roof and McKinney and Carroll and Wuthnow are all grounded in the contemporary American religious landscape, but the tension and turbulence of "internal institutional pluralism"—diversity—is as old as the church itself. The following scenario in a local congregation predates Thomas's example by more than 1,900 years.
A new congregation is started by a church planter in an unchurched environment. For a time, a clear sense of identity and unity prevails as the perspectives of its founder continue to inform the group's theology and worship. Before long, other Christian teachers pass through, and individual members begin to push for the adoption of practices commended by these teachers. The congregation's theology, worship and identity start to shift. In the resulting tension, its founder writes an angry letter accusing the church of "turning to a different gospel." (Galatians 1:6)
The apostle Paul's Letter to the Galatians reflects a bitter controversy in the early church that is a clear indication of the antiquity of diversity tensions in local congregations. A critical fault line in this dispute that featured Paul on one side and Peter and James on the other (according to Paul in Galatians 2:11-14) can be traced in part to their respective communities of origin: Paul in a Hellenistic Judaism of the Diaspora and Peter and James in a more insular and conservative Palestinian Judaism. In a sense, each "began to push for traditions and practices" closer to what "they had experienced in their own denominations."
Diversity-driven tension is probably as old as religious practice itself. The story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 is often interpreted sociologically as reflecting the ancient cultural conflict between herders (Abel) and farmers (Cain). But the flash point of the tension in the story arises not from the two brothers' occupations but from their differing religious experiences and perceptions.
In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.... And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. (Genesis 4:3-5, 8)
Interpreters have long haggled over the reason for the divine preference for one offering over the other. The great medieval Jewish commentator Rashi favored the interpretation that Cain offered "inferior [fruits]" of the ground, in particular mere "flax seed." Martin Luther preferred to locate the problem not in the offering but in the person who offered it. Luther wrote:
When Moses says: "The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering," does he not clearly indicate that God is wont to look at the individual rather than at the work, to see what sort of individual he is? If, then, the individual is good, his work also pleases Him; but if the individual is not good, his work displeases Him.
In whatever manner the divine preference is parsed, the two characters in the story became trapped in a religious diversity tension that eventually exploded in murderous rage. It is an ancient narrative with a perpetually contemporary plot.
DIVERSITY: A NEW CONTEXT, AN OLD CONTEXT
As Charles Kimball has pointed out in When Religion Becomes Evil, "the world has always been religiously diverse," but in the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001, there is a new urgency to our encounter with that diversity. Kimball writes: "The challenges posed by religious diversity combined with the inescapable fact of global interdependence are now as clear as the September sky over New York that fateful day." Quite understandably, in the post-9/11 context the global issues have attracted most of the attention, but "the turbulent forces connected with religion in our world" are every bit as local as they are global, and they are Christian as well as Muslim.
In May of 1997, a member of the South Carolina Board of Education was speaking to a group of concerned citizens in Anderson, South Carolina, about his proposal that the Ten Commandments should be displayed in every public school classroom. He argued that doing so would promote discipline in the schools and family values in society. When he was asked how Buddhist and Muslim children might feel about his proposal, he responded, "Screw the Buddhists and kill the Muslims." Evidently the irony was lost on him that it is a rather odd defense of the Ten Commandments that endorses rape and murder. Those who rallied to his support by suggesting that he had simply articulated publicly the way many Christians feel privately missed both the irony and one of the most important lessons of early twentieth-century European history: hate speech directed at religious minorities by officials of the state is a harbinger of fascism. Hate speech and hate crimes alike illustrate the extreme to which some people in religious communities will go "when faiths collide," in the expression of the esteemed historian of American religion Martin Marty.
Diana Eck's Harvard-based "Pluralism Project" has documented the fact that "the United States has become the most religiously diverse nation on the earth." In the last three decades of the twentieth century, she writes:
[M]assive movements of people both as migrants and refugees have reshaped the demographics of our world.... But nowhere, even in today's world of mass migrations, is the sheer range of religious faith as wide as it is today in the United States.... This is an astonishing new reality. We have never been here before. What were once called "world religions" are now "American religions." Our neighbors are Baha'is, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Muslims, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians, to name only a few. "Religious diversity," Eck writes, "is an observable fact of American life today." This burgeoning religious diversity of American communities has created a challenging new context of diversity for local congregations and their leadership.
It is quite correct to say of the American religious landscape, "This is an astonishing new reality. We have never been here before." But it is also true that in the history of Christian faith and belief this reality is neither all that new, nor is this territory entirely unfamiliar. Christian theology and practice have centuries of experience with contexts characterized by religious diversity. After all, Christian faith and belief were born on the continent of Asia and are as old in Africa as they are in Europe. Christian faith and practice flourished in Syria and Turkey and Algeria and Tunisia before becoming ascendant in Rome or arriving in Geneva. Christian practice and theology are no strangers to a context characterized by diversities of all kinds.
Excerpted from Building a House for All God's Children by Jeffrey S. Rogers Copyright © 2008 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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