Just as Matthew 7:21 states, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,” not every intercultural church will experience the fullest stage of reconciliation in fellowship with others, which is an ultimate goal of becoming an intercultural church.
There are levels of becoming a truly intercultural church, just as there are levels in the maturity of a Christian’s faith.
Level 1: Diversity in the pews. This means diversity in terms of race, culture, social status and class.
If the church lacks a desire to be intersectionally diverse, and is satisfied with the current level of homogeneity by interest and ethnicity, it fails to meet even my first criterion of becoming an intercultural church. It is a club and not a church.
Diversity in the pews can be easily observed by assessing with whom people sit and through whom the worship service is performed.
As the title of a book by New Testament scholar Scot McKnight suggests, a church and church service should be “a fellowship of differents,” not a fellowship of similars.
However, if the church stops at this level, it becomes no more than a display of cosmetic diversity. The church should strive to go beyond this as our faith journey advances.
Level 2: Diversity in the pulpit. We need to consider who is occupying leadership positions.
Are the leaders all the same race or ethnicity? If so, this level of church remains at Level 1. If the congregation has become diverse, that diversity should be reflected in its leadership.
Factors such as gender, age, education, social status, experience and ethnicity should be considered when choosing leaders.
Intercultural church leadership is about diverse individuals coming together with appropriate levels of tension and conflict, embracing them with gratitude and engaging in careful progress toward the light amid uncertainty.
Whether to succeed in pursuing an intercultural church begins with how the leadership of the church embodies such a disruptive, conflictual journey.
“Don’t rock the boat” isn’t a recommended coping strategy; it is a cop-out. Rather than the avoidance of conflict, anticipating conflict is the best policy. The church grows through conflict.
Level 3: Lived reconciliation by status inversion. Once both congregation and leadership have become diverse, the church should pass this final litmus test to see how much it has embodied the meaning of reconciliation.
The Greek origin of “reconciliation” goes deeper than simply keeping hostile parties from clashing. It literally means, “to change, or to exchange.”
According to theologian John de Gruchy, when we are reconciled, we exchange places with the other and are in solidarity with—rather than against—the other.
Reconciliation is not an abstract notion but an act of exchanging places with others—dismantling alienation and separation through a newly created humanity in Christ. More specifically, it brings about the radical inversion and transformation of people’s old statuses and perspectives.
We can imagine how the Roman centurion Cornelius’ life was changed after his encounter with Peter, the marginalized Jew.
The true reconciliation happened once Peter and Cornelius experienced “exchanging their places,” in which the marginalized Jewish apostle Peter crossed the ethnic boundaries and the Roman colonizer Cornelius discarded his position of power.
Once an authentic mutual exchange in status and perspective occurred between Peter and Cornelius, true familiar bonds were built.
Becoming an intercultural church involves a strenuous process of inverting our statuses and perspectives, and entering new relationships with others that shape us.
To make this noble process happen, our traditional identities should be flexible and inclusive. With impermeable boundaries in keeping our cultural and traditional identities, we will ultimately remain alone.
Only in a flexible, open and inclusive situation that allows the last to become the first, the weakest to become the strongest, the unfortunate to become the fortunate and the guest to become the host will true reconciliation bear fruit, and only then will the church have become truly intercultural.
Until a new intercultural haven unfolds, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23).
Joon Park serves as intentional interim co-pastor at Holyrood Mennonite Church in Edmonton. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more Riding the Waves of Intercultural Church columns:
Open communion and intercultural church
Invisible barriers to becoming an intercultural church
Beyond cosmetic diversity