What are some of the problems with cultural diversity?

Yesterday, I outlined some of the reasons why we would avoid planting homogeneous churches and we reject the Homogeneous Unit Principle. You can read that post here.

To listen to some folks who advocate for cultural diversity in the church, however, you would be left with the impression that it is a silver bullet. Pursue diversity and your church will be awesome. Others want to say that cultural diversity is superior effectively because it works. Unlike Homogeneous Unit Principle (HUP) churches, they can reach a wider group of people and retain future generations. The reason to reject HUP is because it doesn’t work.

As far as I can see, both of those positions are wrong. Whilst I do think HUP churches are inherently flawed in their conception, I can point to some examples that, depending on how you calculate success, appear to work pretty well. They may well operate within the dominant culture of exclusive white Britishness, but they’re operating just fine as HUP churches. I doubt some intended to be HUP churches, and others might not be able to avoid it given their makeup, but HUP they are and, in certain ways, functioning very well.

What is more, churches that are genuinely diverse – it seems to me – do not win many arguments on pragmatic grounds. They are not a silver bullet for very much. You don’t have to look very far in the New Testament to see some of the problems that emanate when different cultures try to worship together in the same church. Things have not gotten much better since then. Pragmatically speaking, homogeneous churches do not have to content with a whole host of problems faced by diverse multicultural churches. The witness of scripture, and that of experience, tells me that cultural diversity creates more practical headaches than it resolves. If pragmatism is our driving principle – as it is for so many – HUP is not only credible, it is the inevitable outcomes.

Just to be clear, the reason I reject HUP is because it cuts against important gospel imperatives. First and foremost, it is theologically flawed and should be rejected entirely apart from any pragmatic considerations of whether it appears to work or not. Whilst, as I outlined in my previous post, there are pragmatic issues on which I think HUP does not work, we must be clear that those things are relevant inasmuch as they have theological implications. For example, an inability to reach beyond your minority constituents (which may appear to be a pragmatic concern) must be weighed against the theological imperative of the Great Commission. An inability to reach beyond our own kind has clear implications for our obeying Jesus’ command to go into all the world and make disciples. The practical issues I raised do not constitute the reason to reject HUP of themselves, it is their theological implications that are at issue.

So, I don’t reject HUP because ‘it doesn’t work.’ In some circumstances, that may well be true, but it won’t be in all cases. I reject it because I think it is theologically flawed. This position frees me to recognise that cultural diversity is not a bed of roses. It comes with real and evident difficulties. I maintain that it is right and it is the best reflection of gospel priorities within the church. But I want to be clear that it is not without difficulties. Here are some of them.

Translation

Anybody who has spent any time trying to communicate with somebody who can’t speak your language will know what a curse Babel really was. Human interaction is a such a basic thing that is entirely frustrated by a language barrier. In our efforts to communicate the gospel and teach the scriptures, it only gets worse.

The problems with translation are legion. At the vanilla end, there are timing issues. Depending on how you translate (and you don’t always have the luxury of a multiplicity of choices), things typically take twice or three times as long when everything must be said at least twice. This has knock-on impacts for relational dynamics and bible study discussion. Many find such things too slow because of the translation while others using the translation frequently feel left behind and sense they only receive summaries of content.

At the worse end, you may find that those translating aren’t competent or you simply don’t have adequate translation available. Translators may fail to translate what you say at all or, worse, undermine you by translating wrongly. If you can’t speak the language directly, this is impossible to correct in real-time. It is usually only later, as misunderstandings surface in different contexts, that it becomes clear that mistranslation has caused real misunderstanding. There are other issues too, but these will suffice to give you a sense of what can be problematic in translation.

Cultural misunderstandings

There are frequent opportunities for cultural misunderstandings and the ability to cause grave offence. This is not limited to those who speak different languages, it cuts across all cultures. It applies to people from other countries with the same language, but a different culture, to yours as well as the different regional and class cultures that can exist within the same country. If your people are drawn from different class, ethnic and regional backgrounds there is scope of great deal of misunderstanding.

As I have mentioned in other posts, these things become a greater problem when your church leadership is drawn from the same class, ethnic and regional backgrounds but lead a church with a diverse makeup. It is easy to assume things as a leadership that are misheard or misunderstood by large swathes of your congregation. What we assume to be true may not be assumed by everyone in the church and the messages we send by our practice may well be heard differently by those in the church.

Cliques & factions

The reality is that birds of a feather do (tend to) flock together. It is easier and many of us succumb to that beguiling idol of comfort without even realising we’re doing it. Whilst that is not a ground for planting separate HUP churches, it can be difficult to avoid it happening within our apparently diverse churches. It is difficult to try to communicate with people who don’t share your language, so we gravitate toward those who do. It is harder to communicate in various soft and subtle ways, or to have shared jokes, with people drawn from a different culture, so we gravitate toward those with the same culture. It’s not that either of these things are impossible to achieve, but they are more difficult. And so we lean toward what is easier and more comfortable.

But that, of course, leads to the creation of cliques. We get groups of people who are closer to some than others and who have little interest in interacting beyond their own group. Such cliques can be formed amongst either majority or minority cultures in the church. Whilst, of course, cliques can come to the fore anywhere – even in homogeneous churches and groups – they are much more difficult to address in diverse churches because they stem from ostensible (and, often, understandable) needs.

At their worst, these things can morph into factions. Groups of people who then begin to agitate for their own group’s particular vested interests. Again, these things are insidious because the clique that formed for friendly reasons to meet an ostensible need becomes the same ground for the faction beginning to agitate to have those needs met at the expense of another section of the congregation. Again, these things can come from either majority or minority cultures.

Culture of service providers/receivers

When everybody is drawn from the same background, class and culture, it is hard for one group in the church to appear to be a service provider for another section of the church. Everybody is, to all intents and purposes, the same. There is no ‘us and them’ and so our needs and our view of how those needs ought to be met are (largely) going to be the same.

But when the church is diverse, particularly when there are large groups within the church, a culture of providers/receivers can form. If there is a significant group with particular needs and another group who are viewed as the ones who can generally meet those needs, a particular culture can form. Rather than the church being a body of people who, together, meet one another’s needs as each is able – all giving in some ways, all receiving in other ways – the church may be viewed by some as one group there to provide services for the other.

In its worst form, this can end up as little more than a culture of dependence. The ‘haves’ (for want of a better term) exist to provide services for the ‘have nots’. Regardless of whether ‘have’ is a by-word for spiritual maturity, material wealth, local know-how or whatever, there is one group upon whom another relies which leads to a dependency culture of some sort and a wonky view of what the church is supposed to be. Minimally, this can lead to exasperation among those viewed as ‘service providers’ and unrealistic expectations from those who simply view the church as there to provide services for them as passive participants.

Discomfort

Whilst there are a number of other issues we might outline, I suppose the issue standing over most of the problems that come with diversity is discomfort. Most of us are simply more comfortable with people who think, act and even look just like we do. To belong to a church full of people just like me is much more comfortable than having to think through what the Bible says about other people’s approach to gospel principles that we hold in common. When our church is diverse, we are frequently met by things that make us feel uncomfortable because they are different to the way that we have always done things and that everybody we have known has largely agreed upon. We are then forced to ask, again and again, ‘is this a legitimate outworking of that gospel principle or not?’ We then have to contend with the fact that, sometimes, we will conclude that there is no gospel issue but then be left with a general feeling of discomfort about the thing we know is not wrong.

Let me give you a small for instance. I was once in a church with somebody and another guy was sat in the congregation, throughout the service, in a baseball hat. The person commented to me afterwards about how they felt uncomfortable about that. When I asked why, they alluded to some of the comments in 1 Corinthians about head coverings. When I noted their wife wasn’t wearing a hat, and they affirmed that they did not take those verses as an imperative to do so, I asked why it therefore be a problem for a bloke to wear a hat in church? The answer, in my view somewhat honestly, came back that they couldn’t really justify it biblically, it just didn’t sit rightly with them. I had a fairly similar conversation with that same person (in fact, I’ve had it with a few people) about wearing shorts in church. It can’t be justified biblically, but it does sit uncomfortably for some.

Now, those are just two small examples. Two people, in the same church, coming from different cultures with a sense of what is acceptable. And, when the theological questions are worked through, they recognise there is no credible biblical rationale to insist upon their view. But they equally remain uncomfortable. There is a sense of disquiet that something is not quite right but they don’t really know why.

The more diverse your church, the more widespread that problem will be. There will be a lot of people, from a range of backgrounds and cultures, who all feel a vague sense of disquiet about the appropriateness of whole bunch of things and the way they are done. They will not necessarily have a theological or biblical ground for their discomfort, but they will feel it nonetheless because they have been culturally conditioned to feel that way. The more leeway we give to cultural differences (and if we are genuinely culturally diverse, we will do) the more that feeling will be felt amongst a wider range of people across the congregation.