John Piper is never one to shy away from controversy or difficult subjects. This week has been no different. He has sent out an e-mail entitled How and Why Bethlehem Pursues Ethnic Diversity that is also published on his website—the main point of which is that he is looking specifically for non-white people who could be appointed to the pastoral staff of his church.
Piper gives five reasons to admire ethnic diversity in a church, and by extension these are the reasons he has determined to be intentional about pursuing this at Bethlehem:
- It illustrates more clearly the truth that God created people of all races and ethnicities in his own image (Genesis 1:27).
- It displays more visibly the truth that Jesus is not a tribal deity, but is the Lord of all races, nations, and ethnicities.
- It demonstrates more clearly the blood-bought destiny of the church to be “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).
- It exhibits more compellingly the aim and power of the cross of Christ to “reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Ephesians 2:16).
- It expresses more forcefully the work of the Spirit to unite us in Christ. “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13).
John Piper — How and Why Bethlehem Pursues Ethnic Diversity
This is all very admirable, and shows that Piper is a step ahead of many of us who, whilst we might agree in theory that aiming to build a multicultural church is a good goal, have not given serious thought to exactly what needs to change in our church in order to make that a reality.
It is interesting that Piper seems to have determined that pursuing an ethnically diverse leadership should be a major part of that strategy. I wonder, however, if I am the only one not entirely convinced by the wisdom of Piper’s plea to the readers of his website to find him “ethnic persons” who might be suitable members of his pastoral team.
I struggle with this appeal at a more basic level than that of any concerns some may have about “positive discrimination” or “affirmative action” (although I am very open to people debating both sides of that argument in the comment section if they so desire).
My issue is that I am not convinced that any form of advertisement is the best way to find new staff members for a church. Interviewing and appointing applicants for vital church leadership positions who are strangers to the existing church leaders seems so alien to New Testament practice as to be very questionable in any circumstance. New Testament leaders were raised up through personal friendship and discipleship—they were hand-selected.
I am surprised that Piper’s church (like many other thriving churches) still feels the need to go outside their own local congregation for its pastors. As I read the New Testament, I am left with the impression that Paul quickly established teams of elders in each church with the goal that they become self-sustaining and self-replicating, and so that in the future the subsequent leadership would be raised up from within the local church. As an example of this process, we have the repeated urgings of Paul to Timothy and Titus to find men to whom they could pass on doctrine and appoint to leadership roles so that they, in turn, could do the same.
I firmly believe that God has very frequently already placed the future leaders He intends for a local congregation within that very same church congregation as a specific gift from Him. It is the existing leaders’ role to find them—they can seem quite hidden at times—and then befriend, train, and release them.
Now, my understanding is that Piper’s church often does just that. Perhaps, however, he has been unable to identify enough ethnic diversity in his pool of leaders locally. Without wanting to speculate precisely why that may be the case at Bethlehem, it strikes me that there are a number of reasons why a local church might find itself unable to establish an ethnically diverse leadership team:
- It is, of course, impossible to raise up a multiracial leadership team from within a local church if that church is, in fact, an entirely monocultural congregation. Sadly, all too many churches are made up not only of one racial group, but one tribe, one social class, or even one age group. In my opinion, unless that honestly does reflect the profile of the local population of the town in which the church is based, this is not something which we should be content about.
- There may be fundamental changes to the way we “do church” or the way we relate to each other that are needed before people from different backgrounds are able to feel comfortable being members, let alone leaders, in the church. The precise nature of these changes will differ—and often we simply do not know what they need to be unless we ask an unusually honest member of another culture. I am convinced that it is very costly to make such radical changes.
- Where churches do have the beginnings of a multicultural congregation, identification of leaders who are not from the most frequent grouping within the church can be hampered because of cultural differences. A potential leader may just feel a bit uncomfortable socially there, like they don’t quite fit. They might behave in a different way from the way in which the church leaders expect them to behave. They might be quieter or louder than a potential leader “should” be, according to cultural norms existing in that specific church. They might well suppress their gifts, beli
eving perhaps that since they are relatively new members, more established people have the ministry needs covered.
I thank God that there are individuals who are seeking to make a home in churches where they are culturally in the minority. Some of these may be future leaders. Some may even have specifically decided they want to attend a church where they feel less comfortable so they can learn more about that different culture and how it “does church.” Being in that “learning” phase may make it seem as if that person is not interested in any ministry role. I have certainly seen some very gifted people take a back seat for a season because they felt that was what God was calling them to do. The challenge for church leaders is to have the eye of faith to see beyond how someone may look on the surface to what God may be doing secretly on the inside as He is training that person for future leadership. How many gifted leaders are currently sitting on the back rows of churches just waiting for someone to notice, encourage, and train them?
How do you get that eye of faith? Well, I guess it has to be a combination of prayer and taking the time to get to know someone. If you are a pastor, just maybe the answer to your prayers for God to send you someone to help you have already been answered and the person is right there in your church just waiting for you to find them, befriend them, train them, and finally release them into the role to which God is calling them.
I have moved quite some way from what Piper himself was saying, and I hope that you will all see this for what it is—it certainly is not intended as a criticism of Dr. Piper. I certainly welcome his desire to build a multicultural church for that is, I am sure, something very much on the heart of God.