I recently had the opportunity to speak at a conference about living in gospel centered diversity – the kind of relationships that go beyond co-existing in the same space to friendships where both parties are known, respected, challenged, and delighted in.
While relationship with people who are different are a delightful gift in themselves, at the conference I argued that having these relationships result in additional gifts of greater sanctification, greater intimacy with the Lord, and a greater collective impact on society and eternity. These gifts should make Christ-followers want to not only pursue diversity but also see it as a non-negotiable in our lives.
However, it is vital for us to realize that just because we may acknowledge diversity is a gift, and assent to it being non-negotiable, that doesn't mean we will just fall into thriving diverse relationships. It certainly won't happen just because I share the same space with people who are different from me, hold hands and sing that we need each other and are all part of God's family.
Sin has broken relationships deeply. Even if we don't include the (past and present) injustice and oppression that deepens the chasm of brokenness, every person has varying ways that selfishness and arrogance taint their experience and create a gravitational pull, dragging us away from people who are different and towards our own comfort, safety, and sense of familiarity.
We may decide we want to "be friends" with people who are different, but we need to realize that the differences are not merely skin deep. While we cannot strictly say that various people groups carry the traits of X, Y, & Z, it is true that different cultural norms do come with different groups of people. Each one of us is the synthesis of our geographic location, theological background, economic status, ethnicity, gender, the generation we grew up in, etc.).
As a result we may have differences in a myriad of ways – from what we consider good food and entertainment, to what we consider good worship, respect, kindness, a good relationship, correct means of conflict resolution, appropriate noise levels, what it means to be on time, whether tattoos are acceptable, how we address our elders, our approach to education, hair styles, fashion, norms on generosity, stewardship, parenting, decision making, and the list goes on…
I cannot decide I want to be friends with someone who is different without realizing that they WILL be different, WILL see the world in different ways, WILL enjoy something that I may not be used to, WILL have different values or perhaps different expressions of similar values, and WILL occupy different spaces than I am naturally drawn to or my life is naturally geared towards.
If I selfishly love my frozen yogurt, microbreweries, and Pinterest, or dislike tattoos, noise, slow decision-making, or fill in the blank, more than my brothers and sisters who are different; if I prefer this church, or neighborhood because of the schools, the safety or because the worship resonates with me; if I am committed to my ways of doing life; if I let me self-comfort, self-enjoyment, self-security, or self-convenience guide my decision making; I will never experience the gifts that accompany thriving relationships with people who are different from me.
Once I come to the realization that things may be different, that realization needs to be coupled with the realization that those differences aren't necessarily WRONG or need to be conformed to me. Every culture is made up of beautiful ways the image of God is displayed, ugly ways God's image has been vandalized by sin, and neutral ways that are simply just different.
We often fall into the grave mistake of moralizing our social and cultural worldviews and making them the standard of not just what is normal but also what is right and good. If we allow arrogance and pride to cause us to cling stubbornly to the way we are used to doing things, not only will we never take part in the relationships we say we desire but also we will miss out on every one of the glorious gifts that could be available to us.
In order to live in these thriving relationships it is vital that we are willing to live with discomfort; exercise intentional decision making about how to spend time, energy, money, and relational capacity; seek to understand "the other" and myself; communicate a lot (mostly asking questions) in a posture of humility; willingness to experience unfamiliar things, and give up some non-essentials that get in the way. But if we are willing, the results are stunning and amazing! We are introduced to wonderful things we never would have known, expanded and sanctified beyond our imagination, invited into understanding God in greater ways and given the opportunity of exponentially impacting eternity!
Here is the message that Ruth gave at the Evangelical Free Church national meeting: