Party Like It’s the First Century A.D.
By Russ Siders
There is a lot of buzz in church circles these days about how important it is for a local congregation to look like its community and to become more diverse, both culturally and racially. Some congregations are modeling this value, while still others may feel they have a long way to go in embracing the broad spectrum of people groups in their neighborhoods.
Every church can take comfort in this—we are all latecomers to the party!
Acts 11 tells us how the party got started. Some Greek-speaking Jewish Christ-followers from the island of Cyprus and the North African city of Cyrene traveled to Antioch, in present-day Turkey. Not content to share Jesus with only their own people, they took the audacious step of communicating the good news to Greek-speaking Greeks. It was a novel, radical, Spirit-led step.
Soon, another Jew from Cyprus, Joseph (also known as Barnabas), comes on the scene and brings along a fiery new believer named Saul of Tarsus to disciple converts in this emerging community. Acts 11:24 tells us that a great number of people came to the Lord. From what we can tell, these were people of both Jewish origin and Gentile origin; they were from Africa, Cyprus, and Asia. They included people who spoke Greek and Aramaic, and perhaps Latin and other languages. It was a hodgepodge of classes, tribes, tongues, and skin tones coming together around the person of Jesus. It was quite a party!
Twenty years ago, I arrived in central California with this picture of Antioch in mind. By God’s grace, I have enjoyed a front row seat in the formation of a special group of people known as Sunrise Community Church. On a typical Sunday morning, our gathering includes a wide range of folks who represent the diversity of our city—people whose first language is English, and others whose mother tongue is Spanish. We sing praises not only in these two languages but also in the varied styles of gospel, country, contemporary, and traditional music. We are Latinos from many nations, African Americans, Asian Americans, and people of European descent. It’s quite a party!
Parties are fun, but parties are also messy. If you’ve ever put on a party, you know that hosting can be a lot of work. And when people you don’t know and who are different from you come to a party, it can be tempting to leave and find another party, one with people who are more like you.
We’ve experienced all of this at Sunrise. Navigating language barriers can be messy. Try reciting the Apostles’ Creed in two languages at once! Naming prejudice and addressing injustice can be uncomfortable. Relating to people who have more resources or fewer resources than you can be unnerving. Weaving English and Spanish into one sermon can be a chore. And when people exit the church because they want a church where people are just like them, it can be downright deflating.
But there’s more to this party than meets the eye. Acts 11:26 tells us that it was in Antioch that people began to use a different hashtag to designate the unique group that had formed: #Christians, that is, “Christ-ones.” Something caused people on the outside to see the image of Jesus Christ reflected in this ragtag body. That “something” was a unity that came from the reconciling power of the cross.
That’s not all. The party continues in Acts 13 when the diverse leadership of the Antioch church gathers for a meeting. This team includes Simeon, called Niger (maybe from Africa), Lucius from Cyrene (definitely from Africa), and Manaen, who was a childhood friend of the same King Herod who tried to interview Jesus. While they are fasting and praying, the Spirit tells them to send Barnabas and Saul on a church planting mission, a mission to the diverse and unreached Gentile world. God’s desire is to spread the party!
It’s God’s desire that the church would spread the gospel of Jesus Christ in our increasingly diverse world. That means opening ourselves up to becoming more multicultural and multiethnic in our ministries. A number of RCA congregations are doing just that. Some are graciously hosting ethnic church plants on their campus. Others are developing ministries for their changing neighborhoods. Still others are hiring staff that reflect the future, rather than present, makeup of their congregation.
The bottom line is, it’s never too late to join the party of multicultural ministry. It’s a 2000-year-old celebration that promises to continue forever.
Russ Siders is pastor of Sunrise Community Church (RCA) in Tulare, California. This article originally appeared on the Far West Region’s blog. You can read it in its entirety at www.rcawest.org.