Delighting in our Differences

I’ve just started working on developing a curriculum for use in the Sunday School class I teach (or perhaps a midweek Bible study). The original title that I came up with in conversation with some other members of the congregation was “Dealing With Our Differences”, but I’m becoming more inclined to go with “Delighting in our Differences”. You’ll see why in what follows. I intend to make the whole thing available online eventually, but I also want to post very rough drafts and make discussion and dialogue not only the intended end result in the actual series of studies, but also part of the process of creating the curriculum in the first place.

What follows is a rough first draft of the notes for the first session, written in a single sitting. I’d welcome (1) input on the content, and (2) suggestions for readings (whether online or in print format) that could be used, whether in whole or in part, to prepare for a discussion of this subject.

Topic One – Diversity: Dilemma or Delight?

It was the experience of a number of difficulties in our church that led to the production of this curriculum. On the one hand, my involvement in the search committee responsible for finding a new pastor provided opportunities I had not previously had to converse with other church members and to get a sense of the range of viewpoints there seemed to be on a variety of issues. On the other hand, the same period was one of decline in membership, and this led me to ask what our church had to offer that was distinctive. It was in reflecting on this question that I realized that our diversity of views was not a liability but a significant strength. Many churches tend towards or aim for the appearance of uniformity, whether along conservative or liberal lines. But in any given church there are likely to be those who don’t see things in quite the same way that they believe others in the church do, and who sit in silent frustration. Those of us who have been connected with the Christian faith for more than a few years will also most likely (indeed hopefully) have had the experience of having learned new things and even changed our minds about some topic or other. This being the case, why on earth would we expect there to be uniformity in the views held by members of the congregation? Aren’t churches to be places that foster the spiritual growth of Christians of many ages and at various levels of maturity? It is probably not going too far to state that if there is apparent uniformity (and the expectation that there should be uniformity) of views, then growth is most likely being stifled rather than promoted.

This is true for another reason. Personally, I know I’ve learned the most from conversations with those I’ve disagreed with. This has not in most cases resulted in my adopting the viewpoint of my conversation partner. But dialogue with those who see things differently allows one to have highlighted weaknesses in one’s arguments, alternative ideas one may not have considered, and in various ways stretches one to think and to evaluate why one believes as one does. At the end of the process, even if one holds the same opinions, they will ideally be conclusions reached after evaluating the evidence, rather than mere assumptions one held because one was not aware of alternatives. But for there to be this stimulating dialogue with those who see things differently, then we need to have a diversity of viewpoints represented in the church.

Our church is diverse, although I suspect there are many who are not fully aware of this diversity, and others who view it as a reason for dismay when they consider that there are people who think like that in the church. But if we have the courage to be honest about how we view things, and to listen to those who view things differently, then we can be a church that utilizes this strength for the benefit of all its members.

Questions and topics for discussion:
1) What have you changed your mind about?
2) Share an experience in which you learned from conversing with someone who had a different viewpoint.
3) How does openness to dialogue and humility about one’s opinions relate to having convictions and being willing to be outspoken about important matters?
4) Consider some instances of diversity in the Bible.

Suggestions for further reading:
James’ Fowler’s “Stages of Faith”
James D. G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament

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  • ulen

    Hi James,It seems to me that you have chosen to stress the ‘intellectual’ aspect’ of one’s faith. While that aspect is important, and the intellect does inform our faith, there are other aspects of our life that also play a significant part in informing our faith. for example: one’s personal experience. We ‘do faith’ through our particular life experience (and particular DNA ‘fingerprint’?), therefore diversity is a given not an option. Suggestions for further reading: Michael Goulder, A Tale of Two Missions, London: SCM Press 1994;You might also find Alan Kreider’s Conversation and Christendom useful see: Hans Lietzmann wrote a while ago now about early churches: “These numerous separate churches doubtless exhibited a host of differences in outer appearances and inner life. These differences derived not only from the personalities and the customs of their founders, but also from the geographical and ethno-geographical, the social and religious conditions of their members”. Hans Lietzmann, The Beginnings of the Christian Church, London: Lutterworth Press, 1937, 3rd edition 1962, p. 133.