The majority of church leaders in Britain have a great vision to reach our nation for God. Our offices are filled with books on how to do mission in a postmodern, pluralist society, and we stress the importance of positive human relationships to our overall mission.
Unfortunately, we have not always done so well in modeling our Christian faith in the way we relate to each other. Some observers might find it hard to accept our gospel message since we struggle with issues of class, gender, culture, national origin, and race.
A case study
In western Europe, where many are highly distrustful of organized religion and have a rather negative picture of God and the church, tolerating poor human relations within our ranks is a luxury we can ill afford. By default, we Christians make our unchurched constituency feel fully justified in their close, critical scrutiny of the consistency between our profession and practice of how we get along with fellow members from diverse backgrounds. The Seventh-day Adventist Church in Britain today might well qualify as a case study in human relations. Hundreds of thousands of individuals have come from other lands to settle here since the 1950s: people from Central America, Ghana, India, Kenya, South America, Nigeria, the Philippines, Rwanda, South Africa, South America, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and others. In more recent years, a new wave has come from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Romania, as well as territories of the former Yugoslavia.
Because a sizable number of Adventists were among these immigrants, the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Britain (particularly in larger towns and cities) has become, more than ever before, extraordinarily multiracial, multinational, and multicultural. While our community in this region is in no paragon of perfection, by God’s grace, we are, today, displaying something of the universality and diversity of the body of Christ. Mistakes have been made, of course, but we have learned from them. Thus, what I want to share are six principles that have helped us over the years to find the unity in diversity that is so essential to our witness—lessons, at times, we have learned through previous mistakes.
In the early days, when challenges in the domain of human relations arose among us, such matters were generally discussed only within one’s own people group. Long ago, we discovered the enormous value of open dialogue on points of contention. Through difficult experiences, we have come to view the ignoring or denying of conflict within our ranks as irresponsible. Fortunately, we have become confident enough in the strength of our intercommunity relationships to speak openly and frankly to each other about perceived sources of conflict. It is obviously a considerable strength for the church to be able to demonstrate its capacity to deal with ethnic conflict in ways that are radically more constructive than those typically exhibited by the world.
Merger and integration
Broadly speaking, two approaches have been followed in relation to integrating new communities within the fellowship of the church in this country: (1) direct assimilation, and (2) culture or ethnic-specific church planting. Both approaches have elicited endorsement as well as objections. The assimilation approach has tended to result in many mainstream congregations undergoing rapid and radical changes in ethnic or cultural makeup. Although there are several instances where assimilation appears to have worked well (increased levels of diversity being affirmed and celebrated), there have been other cases where hurt, resentment, and alienation arose because some felt that they were being “taken over” and were losing a way of “doing church” that they had come to value.
On the other hand, others have viewed with alarm the planting of ethnic-specific churches on the grounds, as they see it, that this runs counter to the gospel of unity and reconciliation in Christ.
Though we have made great progress in this area, we are still learning and growing together as a church in regard to this important issue.
Members of newly arrived Adventist communities have, in the majority of cases, been characterized by unmistakable energy and a commitment to mission. Many of these new arrivals are in the forefront of our work in unreached areas. In most cases, such endeavors succeed largely in reaching people from similar backgrounds as themselves, a result that we, of course, celebrate.
Support has been necessary for new communities as well as for native Britons. The following represents just a few examples of support needs: relevant pastoral and evangelistic aids and resources beyond what was considered adequate when diversity was less pronounced; training of the right individuals for leadership and pastoral care; suitable premises to conduct meetings; and finances, as well as other resources.
Those of us already based here have been helped by denominational leaders to negotiate the contours of our new situation. They have organized seminars and workshops for us that deal with crosscultural and racial awareness matters. Additionally, books, CDs, and DVDs, as well as other learning opportunities, have greatly helped us in this area.
As the new demographic shifts work their way through our territory and new subconstituencies emerge, church administration has to ensure appropriate representation for such constituencies. The message is clearly conveyed that we positively welcome the responsible participation of all. Thus, individuals from across our diverse territory have been appointed to all major advisories, boards, and committees. In recent years, responsibility for the operation of an office of human relations has been assigned to the secretariat at the union conference level.
The host community
As noted above, the church has undergone enormous changes. Despite mistakes in the handling of human relations, members of the church from the majority population have generally shown understanding and cooperation. Though intrachurch community tensions often simmered in times past, today differences among us are respected and celebrated.
This does not mean that there are no new challenges. Though tremendous improvements have taken place in human relations, hardly any improvement has occurred in the size of our indigenous membership since the 1960s. The majority population has become a minority within the church. Of course, this presents us with enormous challenges and opportunities in respect to human relations. At the risk of being misunderstood, one might suggest that this sector of our church needs “safeguarding.” How to offer this kind of special support without giving rise to misunderstandings, remains a challenge for church leadership.
For the apostle Paul, the marvel of the gospel was that Gentiles and Jews could experience genuine fellowship and solidarity in Christ. All cultural and traditional hostilities could be surmounted by the dynamic power of the gospel. The New Testament calls for the demolition of all enmity and alienation. The current composition of our church community here in Britain provides us with a great opportunity to demonstrate biblical ideals as seen in Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek [division based on ethnic differences], there is no longer slave or free [division based on class and status differences], there is no longer male and female [division based on gender differences]; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (NRSV).
In a world confronted by all sorts of discordant tensions, we are grateful for the opportunity to respect and value the presence and contribution of diverse groups within our community as we work to attain the common aims and objectives of spreading the gospel throughout Britain. Indeed, our sense of belonging to one British Seventh-day Adventist Church continues to grow stronger as we recognize that what unites us is far more important than what separates us. Today, the vision of a united international church at the end of time, as presented in the book of Revelation, demands that Christ’s redeemed community live in ways that demonstrate its capacity to transcend barriers that exclude, divide, or separate. This truth becomes even more important when we realize that people within our society will often make up their minds about the character and claims of the God in heaven largely on the basis of their perception of His family here on earth.