James M. Harrison on the Value of Being Uncomfortable with Others
As we entered the building, I felt both familiarity and a distinct sense that I did not belong. Not all of the people seemed so very different from me. By outward appearances, some would have fit in quite well on a Sunday morning at my church. Others, however, appeared as if they had stepped into my world from a place quite foreign.
Much of what then occurred seemed both familiar and foreign, as well. There was prayer, scripture reading, and a sermon that, with a few key alterations, could be heard in any number of Christian churches across the nation on any given Sunday.
This particular service wasn’t taking place on a Sunday morning, however, but on a Friday afternoon. I was not in a church, but in a mosque near the campus of Wayne State University, in Detroit, Michigan. The scripture being read was not the Bible, but the Koran.
The prayers were not addressed to the Father, in the name of the Son, but to Allah, with the attendant proclamation that Muhammad is his prophet. The sermon, focusing upon the dangers of sending children to public schools where they would be indoctrinated with secular humanism, proposed the alternative of Muslim, not Christian, schools.
A True Rainbow
The people themselves made the greatest impact. Here was a true “rainbow coalition.”
To be sure, many fit what most Americans consider Muslim. They looked vaguely “Middle Eastern,” wore skullcaps and had scruffy beards.
But there were others who did not. Americans of European ancestry, or who were European-born, sharing something akin to my Irish complexion, knelt beside African Americans, North Africans, Persians, and Arabs of various stripes. It was apparent that they were converts.
From my visitor’s perch in the rear of the room, one young man in particular caught my eye. He appeared to be in his early twenties and as American as apple pie.
He stood out for two reasons. First, he did not match my ill-informed idea of what a Muslim should look like. Second, he clearly did not yet have a clue about how to be a Muslim. This was made evident when, in the middle of the service, one of the older Middle Eastern men made quite a scene loudly and harshly rebuking him for placing the Koran on the floor as he knelt for prayer.
Curious, I approached him after the service. What was it, I wondered, that would make an all-American boy like himself convert to Islam? Anyone expecting a theological response will be disappointed. John (he had not yet chosen an Arabic name) was happy to talk.
“I grew up in church. My parents took us to Sunday school every week. They even went to church themselves, on and off. And what I remember about church is that no matter where I went, everyone was just like me. As I grew older, I noticed, too, that people who were not like me all had their own churches, as well.
“Islam is different,” he said. “I’m sure you noticed that. It’s the first thing I noticed when I began to investigate Islam. And that’s what prompted my conversion. If Islam can accomplish that, it’s something that I can commit myself to.”
I understood what John was saying, and I admired him for it. I must confess that my natural instincts take me in another direction.
I like people like me. Well, maybe “like” isn’t quite the right word. What I mean is, I’m comfortable with people like me. It’s understandable, I suppose. I have much in common with those who are like me. We have no problem finding things to talk about. We’ve had common experiences and share a common background. We may even share the same friends and acquaintances. We speak in the same way, and in many respects, we think in the same way.
All these commonalities work together to make me comfortable with people who are like me. There’s nothing right or wrong with that. It’s just the way I am. I think it’s the way we are. To his credit, John was consciously trying to overcome that natural tendency.
Unfortunately, “the way we are” can sometimes cause us to act in ways that are, indeed, matters of right and wrong. When our natural sense of comfort with the familiar morphs into bigotry and hatred for those who are not like us, our comfort has become sin. When we allow our comfort to cage us in when we should be reaching out, we refuse to be and to do that which Christ has commanded, and our comfort has become a less obvious kind of sin.
This is particularly true for the church. There was a time when various denominations were distinguished by the national origins of their immigrant membership. The Swedish Baptists and the German and Dutch Reformed Churches are but three examples in the Protestant tradition, but many Orthodox and Catholics have also lamented what they see as the over-emphasis on ethnic identity in many American congregations. Eventually, many came to see this desire for comfort as a hindrance to the mission of the church.
How things have changed. Much of the philosophy of contemporary ministry is now based upon the reality that we are more comfortable with those like us. The same trait that came to be seen as a hindrance to ministry is now seen as a key to successful outreach.
The similarities today, however, are not consciously ethnic, but social, educational, and financial. And because our society is made up the way it is, this means that our similarities end up being ethnic and racial as well.
For the last thirty or forty years, the church has been chasing its own tail as it seeks to be relevant to the culture. The quote attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, “I must follow my people, for I am their leader,” is never more apt than when applied to the behavior of the church in its pursuit of the world.
The idea seems to be that if we can be more like the culture, or like a specific subset of the culture, the people will be comfortable with us. If they are comfortable with us, we’ll be able to convince them that not only are we just like them, but Jesus is just like them, too. And if they think Jesus is just like them, maybe they’ll want to follow him. Why they would want to follow someone who is just like them, however, remains a mystery.
As is usually the case, there is some truth in this way of thinking. Paul did try to be all things to all people. Part of the gospel message is that Jesus became like us in his incarnation. That is a glorious and necessary truth.
But what makes the gospel unique is the way in which Jesus is not like us. I don’t need someone who is just like me. I’m sinful. I need someone holy. I’m human. I need someone divine. I cannot stand under the wrath of God. I need someone who has stood there in my place. I cannot raise myself from death to life. I need someone who can raise me up because he himself has been raised.
The Incarnation is not a reason to associate only with those who are like us. It is actually a reason to associate with all those who share the life he came to bring us, because he made no such distinctions. The Paul who became all things to all people constantly spoke of the unity of the churches he founded and fought any kind of division.
A Bad Thing
From the very beginning, the gurus of the Church Growth Movement have contended that to grow a church we need to focus upon a specific demographic, and seek to make our churches reflect it.
The idea is that people will be more receptive to the gospel when it is presented to them in their own environment, within their own comfort zone. This has affected the way in which we “do church.” Church must be made to be a comfortable place, and since people are most comfortable around their own kind, their own kind should be encouraged to come (which means that other kinds will be effectively discouraged from coming).
The result has been a church-planting strategy focused upon specific groups: Baby-boomer churches, Baby-buster churches, Gen-X churches, GenNext churches, and on and on and on. And they are successful, defining success by church-growth standards.
Some would ask, “Isn’t that a good thing?” And I would answer, “No. It is not.”
I have no doubt that individuals have come to know Christ through these ministries. But that is not evidence of a correct, and by “correct” I mean a biblical, church-planting or church-growth strategy. It is evidence of the extreme graciousness of God in accomplishing his purposes even in the face of our errors. Moses was not only in error, but positively disobedient, when he struck the rock. In spite of this, God graciously provided water for his people.
Nonetheless, it must be said that this emphasis on similarity is not a good thing for the church. It runs counter to the biblical ideal of what the church is to be, and also counter to the biblical example of what the church is to accomplish before a watching world.
In the New Testament, whenever a problem of cultural or racial division arose within the church, the solution to the problem was not separation into compatible social or racial groups. The solution was to foster ever-increasing union around the gospel and its implications.
The church of Christ is to be a witness to the power of the gospel to change lives and minds and hearts, as Peter’s was changed when he saw the sheet descend from heaven. The church is to be a witness to the power of the gospel to break down walls of division between races and ages and cultures, between generations and social classes.
The church is to be an earthly representative, imperfect though it is, of the heavenly glory, in which men from every tongue and tribe and nation are gathered together, worshipping the One who sits on the throne, and the Lamb.
John Was Right
That is what the church is to be. But when we say that we are a church for this group or for that group, and that these labels form the identity of our church, we are defeating one of the very purposes for which God has established his church.
John instinctively understood that. His response to what he saw among Christians was wrong, but I have to give him credit for seeing the problem. Wherever we go, the people are often just like us, and most of us are happy to have it that way.
The problem is not that the church is full of bigots, and the issue is not always a racial one. The problem is that the church is full of pragmatists, and building a church around commonalities is a lot more “practical” than reconciliation will ever be.
I shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose. After all, if I’m honest about it, I know that the pragmatists among us are . . . well . . . my kind of people. The day will come, however, and quickly I pray, when we will all be his kind of people.
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“Church Complex” first appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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