Guest Blog: Chris Smith on Diversity

One of my favorite things about Tokens is that, as a variety show, it pulls together a diverse selection of acts for any given show—music, comedy, preaching, interviews—and all these acts are woven together around a central theme. One of the images of the healthy local church that we here at Englewood Christian Church keep coming back to is that of a polyculture farm. In contrast to a monoculture farm, which only produces one type of food—be it corn, tomatoes, turkeys, cattle or some other type of crop or animal—polyculture farming produces a diversity of crops and animals and is attentive to the ways in which the things grown can benefit each other. As a boy, I used to help my grandfather on his modest, polyculture farm in Iowa, and I remember him feeding some of the grain he grew to his cattle and spreading manure from the farm animals on the fields in which grains would be grown. Crops were rotated from year to year and animals were likewise pastured through a rotation of different fields. The nature of industrialization is specialization, that is focusing on a single thing and learning to do that one thing better and faster. So what’s wrong with specialization, you ask? The problem is that is in focusing so narrowly, we become inattentive to things outside our focus. And so, we have massive chemical runoff from all the fertilizers and pesticides that a monoculture farm requires that erode the land and pollute our waterways. Specialization has also infected our churches over the last fifty years. Perhaps the most egregious example is the church growth movement and its focus on the homogeneous unit principle, which as a means to growth encourages churches to focus on a very narrow demographic slice. In many places in the US, this recipe has been really effective in producing large congregations, but it also has served to propagate racial and economic injustices with those outside the target demographics. In the book Slow Church, that I am currently co-writing with John Pattison, we urge churches to reflect on the damage done by our cultural lust for speed and efficiency. With regard to the methods of church growth, we ask, what kind of witness do churches shaped around the homogeneous unit principle bear to God’s reconciliation of all creation in Christ? When we consider the vast diversity of creation, even if we limit our scope to the planet Earth, there are so many diverse places from the Arctic tundra to the most brutal of deserts and all kinds of places in between, and human cultures have adapted to life in places all across this spectrum. And yet God is reconciling all humanity across the broad sweep of our diversity and all creation across the vastness of its forms of life and landscape.

I’m a little skeptical of diversity as an end unto itself, but we should be attentive to the sorts of diversity inherent in our local congregations and the sorts of diversity that are noticeably absent. When we hear the word diversity, our minds often jump to racial diversity, but we should also be attentive to diversities of age, economic status, ethnicity, gender, language, political orientation, etc. A good starting point is to ask ourselves if our congregation reflects the sorts of diversity that exist in our particular place? Additionally, we should commit to having our churches stay put, even when we grow too large (developing practices of birthing and planting new churches) and especially when the demographics of the neighborhood begin to change.

Diversity is not a thing to be feared. Certainly, it can be difficult, as we struggle to be reconciled and work alongside those who differ from us. I recently re-read a passage in Gerhard Lohfink’s book Does God Need the Church?, in which he pointed out that in calling disciples, Jesus’s selection of Simon the Zealot and Matthew the tax collector were just about as diametrically opposed as two people could be among the Israelites of that time. If Jesus went out of his way to gather an intentionally diverse group of disciples, shouldn’t we at least be attentive to the sorts of diversity that both exist and are absent in our local congregations? I appreciate media like the Tokens show that gently remind us of the great diversity inherent in God’s reconciliation of all things. Similarly, as editor of The Englewood Review of Books, I try to choose a diverse selection of books to review from inside and outside the "Christian market": ecology, theology, philosophy, poetry, history, all these and more, if done well, can point us in the direction of God’s reconciliation. Ultimately, we must face the brutal question of whether we prefer the narcissistic homogeneity of those who are like us, or the vast diversity of God’s kingdom? I thank God for the work of the Tokens show, which points us in the direction of the latter!

Chris Smith is a member of the Englewood Christian Church community on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis and editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He has recently published an ebook that tells the story of Englewood’s experiments with conversation, The Virtue of Dialogue: Conversation as a Hopeful Practice of Church Communities (Patheos Press 2012). He is also the co-author, with John Pattison, of Slow Church (forthcoming IVP/Likewise 2013), and he blogs about this new book on Patheos.com.