I (Joseph) am a Seventh-day Adventist and teach at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. The seminary has some five hundred people from all over the world—including countries I have never heard of before! In attendance are men and women, students of different colors, cultures, backgrounds, and tastes in music and with many different theological persuasions. Yet all of these people love the Lord, love the church, and want to see the fulfillment of the mission of God’s kingdom. They study and discuss with one another both in classes and common areas, and once a week they come together to worship the Lord. This is why I celebrate diversity in the Lord’s church.
For the last 20 years, I have been traveling all over the world, conducting seminars and training men and women to have healthy churches and spiritual experiences. In my travels, I have seen all kinds of diversity: in styles of worship, music, preaching, and even in potluck meals. However, in all of these varied places and on these occasions, I saw people who love Jesus and are committed to the church. They reach out to their neighbors; engage in ministry; and, to the best of their ability, try to fulfill Jesus’ commission. This is why I celebrate diversity in our church.
I appreciate that the church has a big umbrella that accommodates different views and persuasions. In spite of these differences, I have seen the beauty of diversity. Most of the time, I see people getting along quite well with one another and supporting each other. In addition, they pursue growth in God and His purpose for their lives. Here are some celebrations of the differences I have found in the church.
Differences in lifestyle
One of God’s greatest gifts to us is a day devoted to enjoying Him, and this is meant to be God’s gift to the world. Yet we vary greatly in the way we worship. There are contemporary services, traditional services, and blended services. But all the churches are striving to provide a space for worshipers to have an authentic experience with God and to encounter His presence and grace. How one can best enjoy the Sabbath can vary from person to person and place to place. Some people may want to minister, some may want to fellowship, and others choose to delight in the day by going out in nature.
We also differ from one another with regard to our individual practices. Scripture offers much instruction on how to live a healthy life, and practices vary all the way from enjoying sugars and fats to eliminating both, from exercising daily to not exercising at all, and from eating meat to raw veganism.
Scripture also emphasizes simplicity, and some have been selective in what we consider simple. Some oppose what they consider the lavish purchasing of houses and cars while having a preference for jewelry and ornaments. Others have the opposite view. In some places churches are ornate and extravagant, while elsewhere people worship under the shade of trees. We all say we believe in simplicity, but the interpretation of that term varies greatly.
Differences in practice
While baptism by immersion is offered to all who decide to turn to Jesus and live for Him, I have seen many differences in practice when it comes to baptism: the age of the baptismal candidate, what the candidate needs to believe prior to baptism, how much pre-instruction the candidate should receive, and how long the candidate needs to attend church before getting baptized. These are all dealt with differently throughout the global church. They are often tailored to the context of the local situation, intending to help the individual who is seeking after God.
Even church potlucks vary greatly depending on where you are in the world. Some churches serve meat while others serve only vegetarian fare. Some potlucks are seen as incomplete without desserts, and others do not see them as necessary. All of these meals are extensions of the culture, needs, and ministries within the local context.
Differences in theology
There are several different views about the nature of Christ. Some believe in a prelapsarian Christ who was like Adam, just in a weakened form. Others believe Christ was postlapsarian, fully like us yet, despite His sinful propensity, still able to overcome sin.
The majority of believers hold that God is the Creator and Ruler of the universe and that life on the earth has been relatively short. But the church has allowed for diversity in thought concerning microevolution and the length of time that life has been on the earth. With the intersection of Scripture and science, the church has allowed for ambiguity and contradiction while still maintaining faith in the credibility of Scripture and the Creator of all.
In spite of all of these differences in lifestyle, practice, and theology, the church still believes in unity and may have even become more effective in its mission because of this diversity.
Thriving through diversity
As a young adult church member, I (Katelyn) have seen a number of my peers walk away from the church. But what has been a common factor for those who have stayed? I believe it has been a community with open, nonjudgmental dialogue. The young adults of our church supremely value authenticity as well as the ability to openly address controversial or difficult ideas. When we are given a safe place to discuss doubts, ask questions, and engage in deeper conversation, we are much more likely to latch onto the church community. This is the beauty of diversity.
Unfortunately, there can often be a perceived unfriendly attitude toward doubt within the church. If a member is toying with different ideas, this can be interpreted through a lens of fear: fear that the individual may be swaying away from the truth. However, nothing is gained and no one grows when there is no diversity. There is no dialogue when we all think and act the same. But when we can come together in our differences, create a caring space to share our thoughts, and genuinely listen and engage with one another, we are given the opportunity to learn, grow, and connect.
The last church I (Joseph) pastored was quite unique. We had many different kinds of people, some very conservative, some very liberal, and some anywhere in between. There were some who appreciated the traditional, some who desired the contemporary, and some who sought common ground in blended worship services. But there were two things that the church members agreed upon: their love for Jesus and the mission of the church. Through regular fellowship and small groups, the reading of Scripture, intentional prayer, and a focus on mission, despite our differences we were united into one community. We worshiped diversely: one week our service would be very traditional, the next it would be quite contemporary, and still another week it would be blended. We evangelized diversely: we engaged in public evangelism as well as personal and friendship evangelism. Even theologically we were diverse. We differed in how we viewed the nature of Christ, the sanctuary, and even simplicity. Through this unity in diversity, we were not only able to become closer as a church family but also to reach out effectively to a greater number of people.
We provided a place where people could connect with God no matter their preferences of service. We gave opportunities to minister in whatever way a person felt called—with prison ministry, community outreach, child evangelism, and more. Through dialogue we learned to appreciate one another’s thoughts more. For example, those in the church who emphasized grace learned more about the importance of holiness, and those who emphasized holiness learned more about the significance of grace. We became a richer, fuller congregation, learning and growing from one another. As a result of tapping into our diversity, the church approached the completeness Paul wrote about in Galatians 3:28, we “are all one in Christ Jesus.”1
The necessity of growth
In one of her letters, Ellen White wrote about the necessity for diverse thinking: “As there are divisions every-where in society, the Lord Jesus would have the unity of His workers appear in marked contrast to the divisions. In unity there is strength; in division there is weakness. . . . Diverse in mind, in ideas, one subject is to bind heart to heart—the conversion of souls to the truth, which draws all to the cross.”2 We may be diverse in thought, but we are united in Christ. Our differences should not be a cause for disunity because we are bound together by the Cross. The more we dialogue with each other, discussing different ideas, the closer we are drawn to Christ. In essence, diversity helps us grow and brings us closer to God. This is where true unity begins to take form.
Unity requires an attitude of flexibility and growth. A good question to ask ourselves is, Do I have a fixed mind-set or a growth mind-set? Someone with a fixed mind-set believes that his or her personal qualities are fixed traits, viewing the world from a singular perspective. An example of a fixed mind-set can be seen in Luke 16:31, where Jesus spoke of the Pharisees, “‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’” Peter also demonstrated a fixed mind-set when, even after receiving a vision explaining what his attitude toward Gentiles should be, he reverted to his previously held stance toward them. Paul had to rebuke him to change his ways (Gal. 2:11–13).
People with a growth mind-set believe they can and should learn and grow, not being restricted to any set of ideas. Growth mindset allows us to dialogue with one another, having a meaningful conversation that allows both of us to be better off after our conversation concludes.3 Paul, then Saul, demonstrated a growth mind-set when Jesus appeared to him and called him to minister on His behalf. He turned from persecuting Christians to cultivating them (Acts 9:1–19). When the angel appeared to Mary to tell her she would give birth to the Messiah, the young woman hesitated at first but quickly accepted the impossible, saying, “‘Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word’ ” (Luke 1:38). Peter wrote of a growth mind-set when he stated, “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and forever. Amen” (2 Peter 3:18).
The Pharisees approached life with a fixed mind-set, stuck in their rules and regulations. Hence, when the crowds encountered Jesus, they were amazed because He spoke new, fresh words.4 On the other hand, a good example of a growth mindset can be seen in Caleb and Joshua, who saw an opportunity when 10 other spies saw only impossible obstacles (Josh. 14:6–15). When Saul’s army saw an enemy too big to take down, David saw a giant who was too big to miss (1 Sam. 17). Growth mind-set allows for God to speak new light and truth into our lives, and, of course, this fits perfectly with our Adventist understanding of progressive truth: God continues to reveal new light in His time, and we must be ready and eager to accept His new light, which may mean new interpretation or application.
We are told in Scripture to keep pursuing understanding. “Incline your ear to wisdom, and apply your heart to understanding; yes, if you cry out for discernment, and lift up your voice for understanding, if you seek her as silver, and search for her as for hidden treasures; then you will understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding; He stores up sound wisdom for the upright; He is a shield to those who walk uprightly” (Prov. 2:2–7). The Word of God is urging us to study, learn, and expand our minds. We are not to be fixed in one mind-set; we are to allow God’s wisdom to grow and change us.
Paul echoes this sentiment in Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” It is in choosing to approach life through a growth mind-set that we truly are able to let God transform us.
Diversity is worth celebrating. It can be incredibly helpful in bringing us together in dialogue, love, and mission. By engaging with our differences, we can not only reach more people effectively for the kingdom of God but also be more united as a church body. When we choose to listen to, dialogue with, and learn from one another, we allow ourselves to be humbled. We cannot be united in our diversity and remain proud of heart. It is a spirit of humility that allows us to truly connect not only with those with whom we agree but also with those with whom we differ.
1 Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture passages are from the New King James Version.
2 Ellen G. White, Letter 31, 1892.
3 Jason Flom, “Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets,” Q. E. D., December 12, 2012, qedfoundation.org/fixed -vs-growth-mindsets/; “Decades of Scientific Research That Started a Growth Mindset Revolution,” Mindset Works, mindsetworks.com/science/.
4 See Matthew 12:23; 15:31; 21:10; Mark 1:22; 9:15; Luke 2:47; 4:36.