Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Church unity

These are some musings not on universal unity or the question of denominations, but on what unites believers in a local congregation.

Is it perhaps class?
In many Western societies, alas, class plays a large role. A friend of mine was a pastor in Canada for some years, and the first church he served was a very wealthy congregation. The members were rich white people and rich Chinese people, who were known as “banana Chinese” – yellow on the outside, white on the inside – a nickname they apparently enjoyed. Today in the UK many conservate churches – particularly the commuter churches in southern cities – are very middle class, with roots or aspirations to the upper middle class.

Maybe it’s politics?
In Northern Ireland we see a common language, and more social mixing between people of different income and ‘class’, but politics divides. If Catholics find a living relationship with Christ and join local evangelical protestant churches it is also frequently assumed that they will exchange their Republican political views for something more supportive of the Orange Order.

Is it ethnicity?
A local congregation to where we live has recently begun to collect together believers of different social standing (professionals and low-skilled workers) and different denominational background (conservative Fundamentalist baptists and pentecostals). The thing is, they are all from one ethnic group. The trouble is that most of them are leaving “British” churches in order to commit to believers who are like them in culture, nationality and language. Ah, language, a powerful uniting force - and perhaps a necessary one!? Unfortunately the language card is undercut by the presence of a few Brits in the group who don’t speak the national language (husbands or boyfriends) and so much of what they do publicly as a church happens in English… which makes the casual observer wonder what the point was exactly…

In each case some barriers have been overcome by the gospel – but others have not. It always pains me that the radical UNITY that the New Testament speaks of is being undone in practice by the ‘natural’ (but anti-Christian) drift towards homogeneity.

For mission purposes there can be no doubt that the Homogeneous Unit Principle (make your groups mono- anything and they will grow faster and be more attractive to people from that group) has a lot going for it. But for how long does it work? For what part of the lifecycle of a congregation? And what if the congregation is merely homogeneous out of preference and does not have a vision for mission to their, e.g., language group?

Maybe it should only ever be on a question of language?
Language is a necessary ‘divider’; one can always claim that to worship and hear the Bible in English/Spanish/Arabic/Vietnamese/whatever is not easy, and that one’s heart cries out for hearing and praying and singing in one’s first language. 

OK, but when we are talking about peacetime migration, a fluid coming and going of peoples who make temporary homes on economic grounds (so without the special sympathy that arises in the difficult cases of being a persecuted minority or persecuted for their faith back home) questions quickly arise as to the desirable level of integration into the host culture and its existing churches. The question does not just confront the migrants, of course – more important for the hosts is the question of why their churches seem to be so much “of” their surounding culture that economic migrants wish to set up groups for themselves. The responsibility for welcome and flexibility and inclusion lies more than 50% with the (relatively) powerful and established.