Cultural Diversity and the Gospel

Tim McKnightChurch, Culture, Tim McKnight

(Originally appeared in the October edition of the Baptist Courier as “Kingdom Focus: From All Tribes and Peoples and Languages.“)

Growing up, I had the privilege of living in West Berlin, Germany during the Cold War (1981-1986). While in Berlin, my family attended Berlin Baptist Church, an international church whose members came from England, Lebanon, Vietnam, Indonesia, Eastern Kentucky, Georgia, Germany, and Cambodia. Being a part of such a diverse body of believers. taught me two important lessons about cultural diversity.

First, I learned to celebrate the beauty of cultural diversity as a gift of God.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”Revelation 7:9-10 ESV
Each culture at our church possessed different customs and cultural expressions. Even though we had English in common, our native languages differed. We listened to different styles of music and ate different food. Rather than ignore these cultural differences, we celebrated them. We came to worship in different styles of dress in accordance with our cultures. Worshiping at Berlin Baptist reminded me of a scene from the book of Revelation where Christians “from all tribes and peoples and languages” surround the throne of Christ in a heavenly worship service (Revelation 7:9).

If we Christ followers seek to pursue racial equality and reconciliation, we must start by acknowledging and celebrating the diversity we find in people from different racial backgrounds represented in our communities. In our efforts to pursue racial equality, we must avoid failing to recognize the cultural distinctives and characteristics of neighbors of different ethnic backgrounds. In an article in Relevant Magazine, journalist Trillia Newbell warns against overlooking these cultural differences in the pursuit of racial equality. She writes, “Because we have tried to move past color, we’ve minimized our cultural differences, which can lead to a lack of understanding and grace.”

Rather than looking past color and culture, we must seek to understand the victories and challenges our neighbors of different cultures have experienced. We need to listen to their stories to seek to understand the pain and anger they may have experienced due to racism. We must practice the admonition in Scripture to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” Such understanding comes from dialogue between believers of various cultural backgrounds. Are you participating in such dialogues in your church and your community?

Second, I learned, while celebrating the beauty of cultural diversity, to celebrate the greater beauty of the unity the gospel brings within that diversity.

If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.1 Corinthians 12:26 ESV
We find our ultimate identity in Jesus Christ. The heavenly scene in Revelation, while revealing the diversity of Christians “from all tribes and peoples and languages,” paints a picture of unity in worship before the throne of Christ. Paul explains that the Body of Christ is comprised of many members who work together for the glory of God and the advancement of His Kingdom. Regarding their interdependency, Paul explains, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”(1 Corinthians 12:26 ESV) This picture of the unity and interdependency of the Body of Christ prompts a number of questions regarding the issues of racial equality and reconciliation as they relate to the church.

Does your congregation reflect the diversity of cultures evident in your community?
Is it a picture of the heavenly scene where people “from all tribes and peoples and languages” are worshiping and living out the gospel together?
When you see brothers and sisters in Christ from different cultures suffering, do you suffer along with them?
When they experience persecution and tragedy, do you stand with them? Do you celebrate with them when they rejoice?

Such unity only occurs when we live in relationship together in Christ Jesus for the glory of God and the advancement of the gospel.

So, let us celebrate the beauty of cultural diversity as a gift of God. Let us join our brothers and sisters of different races in dialogue, seeking to understand our differences, victories, challenges, and pain. Let us reach out to people of every race and culture in our communities with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Within our diversity, let us find our identity and unity in Christ. Let us work together, as unique members of one body, for the glory of God and the advancement of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Dr. Tim McKnight is Assistant Professor of Missions and Youth Ministry at Anderson University. He has over 21 years of experience in ministry, serving churches in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, North Carolina, and South Carolina. He served in youth ministry for 12 years and in the pastorate for 9 years. In addition, Dr. McKnight served as an infantry chaplain in the U.S. Army, deploying on Operations Noble Eagle and Enduring Freedom in 2001. He holds a BS in Criminal Justice from Bluefield College, and a M.Div. and PhD from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. His primary field of study for the Ph.D. was in evangelism, with additional studies in missions and church history. He has also co-founded Carolina Family Planning Centers and founded Twin Vision Consultants, a church consultation team that helps congregations become healthy and growing churches. He has also served as a disaster relief chaplain in multiple settings in recent years, including in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake and Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina.