One of the things we were excited about (and still are!) when we all started at Living Hope was the possibility of glorifying God while growing ourselves through deep biblical friendships with people from various cultures and ethnicities and socio-economic status.
It is important to emphasize deep biblical friendships because otherwise when I say that people are tempted to simply hear instead, start a church where people come and sit there with people of all sorts of different colors and cultures.
But we wanted something bigger than that.
We wanted to develop real transformative relationships. And this was something that was important enough to us, that we thought, we had to be intentional and deliberate about it.
Not so much because it in and of itself is so hard, but more because in and of myself, I am so selfish.
It’s hard for me to develop a real friendship with anyone, especially someone that is a little different than me.
Give me an excuse to divide, and you know, left to myself, apart from the grace of God, I will take it.
I am so stupid that if I don’t think about it, if someone doesn’t press the issue, I won’t usually intentionally work on developing friendships with people who are different than me. And so we wanted to put this in front of us, to remind ourselves as a church, not to give ourselves any excuses for selfishness.
In fact, someone told me a while back that when we started the church, I had even put this on the vision document. Something about multi-cultural relationships. I didn’t remember that, but he did, and I apparently had put it on the list somewhere underneath the value of expository preaching. And that was a concern because perhaps there might be someone who would see that and wonder whether I was saying having biblical relationships with people of different cultures was as important to me when it came to planting a church as biblical preaching.
Like they were equals.
Now for me, that sort of question, feels a little like a cheap shot.
I mean, biblical preaching is a fundamental requirement for a church. You can’t have a biblical church without biblical preaching. Is having transforming relationships with people of different cultures backgrounds and ethnicities in a church on the same level as that? Of course not. You can have a biblical church without it. Otherwise you might have a hard time starting a biblical church in a village somewhere in Malawi, because everyone there might be the same ethnicity.
(But maybe not! Africa is more diverse than we imagine. And probably not of the same socio-economic status. There’s a lot more variety in some of these places than we think.)
Anyway, the point is though, for us, we are not located in like, Iceland, we are located, in South Africa, and given our particular context, we felt like this was an important enough value that we wanted to be deliberate about it, not because it is necessarily on the same level as expository preaching, but because we knew if we weren’t intentional, we would probably not pursue it and actually, again, to take this a step further, in our particular context, we felt like not pursuing it, in our context, see how I stressed that twice?, would likely be a symptom that we are conforming to the culture around us, to the worldly way of thinking around us, and would likely be an indication that we were thinking in self-centered ways, and so it would likely be a spiritual problem for us.
Now again someone might become concerned, ‘should that be a goal or a result?’
In other words, should you say it is a goal for us to have these kinds of friendships or is it a result of biblical preaching? And part of me, I kind of understand what they are asking, but mostly, I just kind of scratch my head when they say something like that. Should it be a goal that my people love their wives or a result of biblical preaching? Ok. I am not sure what you are getting at. It is a result,I would think, but if I am a pastor and I am concerned about my people’s holiness, I also sort of think I should probably kind of want it.
And also, now that I am thinking about it, doesn’t Paul say something like the aim of our charge is love from a pure heart? But isn’t the aim Paul, the glory of God?
Maybe this is where a little Edwards would help. He often talks about the ultimate end, I think that is how he puts, and something like subordinate ends. So there are goals and then there is the goal. The goal for a church is the glory of God. That is the ultimate end. Some of these other things are also goals, but there’s some order of priority, of course.
And in a context, where there are people from all sorts of different cultures around, and socio-economic backgrounds, and where there is often a lot of unspoken hostility between people from those different backgrounds, while at the same time, many of them are even saying they are Christians, how upset are we really going to get with someone who says, I would like to help the people in my church, develop loving friendships with people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds?
Now, wait a second, did you say that was a goal or a result? (Maybe it is a result, that will happen best, if I intentionally challenge my people to pursue it?)
But, I am getting a little bit distracted, so trying, to get back to the point, sometimes, when people think about these kinds of friendships and this kind of church, they think primarily in terms of one ethnicity making sacrifices to have friendships with another. So, if I am an American missionary, and I talk about this, sometimes people might think first in terms of me making sacrifices, but really, I think it goes the other way more often. In our church, people have had to make lots of sacrifices to have a relationship with an American pastor. My accent, my English, my honestly, self-centered individual way of thinking, there’s just a lot that people from African cultures have to put up with if they are going to have a long term relationship with me.
And I am just so glad they did and do and are.
I know, I personally have grown so much through these kinds of friendships. I told my church recently, I am a better pastor because of my friendships within Living Hope.
Reading John Piper recently, he agrees.
That’s what got me thinking about all this.
“One flesh-and-blood relationship with another ethnicity” he writes, “is worth a hundred conferences and panels and books.”
Now he was speaking specifically in terms of some of the tensions people are feeling in America recently surrounding the issue of race. Apparently they had a panel discussion on racial issues in Memphis this past week.
“One of the clearest outcomes of the two hours of panel discussions in Memphis was that to have a true friend of another ethnicity, with authentic give-and-take, is a powerful transformative action. This is what the gospel frees us and inclines us to do as a means of revealing our blind spots and creating real empathy with others.
Christ-exalting relationships at this deeper level are the means and the goal of racial harmony. They protect us from what Pastor Rick Villojas of Queens, New York calls “Esthetic multi-ethnicity” — that is, the kind you have on the subway. Lots of diversity, lots of proximity, but no relationships. It can even be that way in the church. But that is not the goal. Intentional, authentic friendships go beyond “esthetic diversity.”
If you have a chance, you might want to read the rest of Piper’s thoughts. And actually when I started writing oh so long ago, believe it or not, I was just intending to give a quote from Piper and then point you towards this link, Preempt the Next Newsflash: #Overflow from ATimetoSpeak