The Upside-Down Kingdom Chapter 10: Inside Outsiders
Here, in this chapter, Donald Kraybill argues from the New Testament that Jesus defiled himself, knowingly and deliberately, by associated himself closely with people many Jews of his time and place considered impure—at least for close, personal interactions. I don’t think there can be any serious doubt about that.
Then Kraybill extrapolates from that to a stringent criticism of the “birds of a feather flock together” paradigm of church growth today. Those old enough and involved enough (in the American evangelical world) will remember that during the 1980s especially there was a strong movement called The Church Growth Movement that emphasized growing churches by focusing on homogeneity. That is, target a specific demographic and build a church based on that.
I was always opposed to that movement and its advice and strategy for church growth. In about 1982 the Baptist church I was attending invited a church growth expert to hold an all day Saturday workshop for the members. The message was, as expected, forget diversity and focus on the demographic strongest in the church: white, middle class, suburban, upwardly mobile, English-speaking, etc., people. I attended and challenged the “expert” about this strategy by arguing that our unity as God’s people does not lie in homogeneity but in the Holy Spirit as our unifier.
The church believed in women deacons and even women ministers and preachers. It had been expelled from the Southern Baptist Convention for having women deacons. It was an evangelical American Baptist Church. One time, during a business meeting, the nominating committee brought a slate of candidates for the deaconate that was all males. I openly opposed it, arguing that half the congregation or more were women and they did most of the real work of the church and we needed to include some women in the slate of candidates. They ignored me.
Kraybill spends much ink in this chapter on Jesus’s associations with women and how unacceptable they were to the religious leaders. He also talks about Samaritans and other “outsiders” to his own “community” and how he went out of his way to associate with them as equals.
The principle Kraybill rightly calls for is real diversity in church life, a total rejection of the “birds of a feather flock together” principle, but without totally rejected the reality of the habit. In other words, here and there, in this chapter, Kraybill sounds a bit more realistic than the thrust of the chapter would indicate.
When I teach theology to seminary students (and I still do), I strongly emphasize what I believe to be the wrongness of “special interest” churches based on common interests and demographic profiles. Where I taught for many years, “cowboy churches” were numerous and well-attended. To me, such are ministries, not churches, at least not in the ideal sense. Cowboy churches are also often called “Western Heritage churches.” Of course, they tend to be all white. People not having a “cowboy mentality” would almost certainly feel like they do not belong.
However, I observed over my years in church life (attending, visiting, speaking, consulting) that the vast majority of churches are similarly homogeneous. But is that what Jesus intended for his followers?
A big clue that it was not is the New Testament’s emphasis on the inclusion of gentiles along with Jews in the churches. Many of Paul’s epistles, for example, emphasize this diversity, almost certainly much to the dismay of many of both groups.
A question not directly touched on by Kraybill, however, is that of immigrant churches and Black churches. Their existence seems justified by language issues and experiences of oppression. Having lived in the South for 25 years, I heard numerous stories from students about their home churches, or churches they pastored, refusing to grant full membership to people of color. And, of course, of refusing to allow women gifted by God to preach and lead.
I remember how, in the 1980s, two Baptist churches in St. Paul, Minnesota voted to merge. One was predominantly white and the other predominantly African-American. The local newspaper ran a series of articles about the merger and how, after a couple years, it fell apart. The conclusion was that the merger did not work primarily because of differences of worship styles. I suspect there may have been deeper issues leading to the failure of the merger.
I agree one hundred percent with Kraybill, but I also think his proposal is a bit unrealistic. One point he makes with which I strongly agree is that churches tend to develop their own “insider language” that excludes visitors and newcomers who don’t understand the phrases and letters being used. For example, during my time among the ex-Southern Baptists (CBF, BGCT) most pastors and lay leaders threw around letters and phrases that meant absolutely nothing to me or my wife because we did not grow up SBC.
Inclusion, diversity, unity based on belief and the Holy Spirit, all great ideals. It seems to me that American culture militates against it so profoundly that it will probably always be an impossible ideal for most churches.
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