The Call—and Cost—of Beautiful Church Community
This article is by Irwyn Ince and published by The Gospel Coalition
Humanity, as the image of God, is stamped from the beginning for beautiful community. That is, we’re marked out for a God-glorifying life of unity in diversity. This is where God is taking humanity. We’re fractured and divided, but he’s going to knit the human race together under the lordship of Jesus Christ. And the church is called to pursue beautiful community in the here and now as a witness to the world of the Holy Spirit’s reconciling power.
Experiencing community means experiencing a sense of belonging, of welcome and embrace, a sense of being at home. It’s the exact opposite of feeling you’d rather be someplace else. Since beautiful community is a matter of the Spirit and can’t be engineered, there’s a cost to becoming the kind of people who welcome and embrace fellow image-bearers across lines of difference.
Hospitality and Our Need for Others
Patrick (pseudonym) immigrated to America from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He’s a member of a diverse church in a Midwestern city. When I interviewed him several years ago, I asked him to tell me about a time when he experienced an awareness of his cultural difference at church. He said:
I remember one day a really good friend of mine [at church], a white guy, said, “I have clothes to give you.” I said, “Sure, yeah, that’s good.” Then he came with a bag of old T-shirts. I took it because I didn’t want to shame him. But I didn’t wear those T-shirts. I tell friends of mine, “If you want to give, don’t give something you’re tired of, give something you have in your heart.” [My friend] devalued me by giving me old T-shirts. Did he think that I can’t afford $10 T-shirts?
Patrick’s friend was operating with some assumptions, implicit biases, about him as an African immigrant. It’s not likely that his friend was intending to offend him. And it’s evidence of the Spirit’s work in Patrick’s heart that he didn’t leave in a huff and cancel his friend for offending him.
You and I would be hard-pressed to find a church that openly says, “We don’t believe in hospitality here. We’re not interested in welcoming people who are different from us.” Churches strive to welcome and embrace people. This need is so common and understood that developing hospitality for the community falls on some group. It may be the usher board. It may be the diaconate. Or a church may create a specific hospitality team or welcome committee. This is a key facet of loving our neighbors. People have a God-given longing for intimate community. We were made by God for community and connection. We want to belong and experience a sense of being at home.
People have a God-given longing for intimate community. We were made by God for community and connection. We want to belong and experience a sense of being at home.
While churches place a high value on being a welcoming place, though, we’re regularly unaware of the ways that our preference for sameness hinders that welcome from being fully experienced by those who are different racially, ethnically, socio-economically from the majority of the congregants.
In his November 4, 1956 sermon, “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” Martin Luther King Jr. said, “You must face the tragic fact that when you stand at 11 a.m. on Sunday morning to sing In Christ There Is No East or West, you stand in the most segregated hour in Christian America.” There’s a reason why the gist of this statement remains far too true more than six decades later. I posit that at least part of the reason is that we don’t believe that we’re incomplete without those different neighbors finding belonging among us. Hospitable communities recognize they’re incomplete without other people—and they believe others have a treasure to share with their community.
Community for the ‘Edge People’
Research shows that turnover rates within religious organizations are higher for numerical minority groups than for majority groups. In their book Against All Odds: The Struggle for Racial Integration in Religious Organizations, Brad Christerson, Korie Edwards, and Michael Emerson differentiated “core” members from “edge” members in each religious organization they studied. Edge members are those who are atypical of the organization. Core members are those who belong to the largest group, the group having the most influence and power and sharing a visceral connection with the identity and mission of the organization. While edge people experience a continual pull to leave, hospitality and welcome drew edge people in toward the core.
Edge people usually pay a price to experience and pursue belonging to the core. I’m privileged to have frequent opportunities to preach and speak at a variety of churches across the country. In most of these churches, even the statistically diverse ones, whites are in the majority. It’s typically the case that the people of color in these churches want to meet with me for a time of fellowship and conversation while I’m in town. They want to discuss the challenges of navigating life as ethnic minorities in a majority-white church context. For different reasons, they feel called to their church and embrace a life of unity in diversity. Yet, they struggle. I always ask some form of this question, “What does it cost you to be here?” I want to hear their story. Invariably, they respond that no one at church has ever asked them a question like this. The church typically assumes it’s welcoming, and is painfully unaware of the cost paid by minorities to be a part of their communion.
Hospitality also involves a cost for core or majority-culture congregants as well. In Luke 14:25–30, Jesus is describing for his followers the cost of discipleship. Jesus is focusing on the need to be sober-minded about persevering in the faith. Salvation is free, but it’s not cheap. Cultivating the beauty of hospitality isn’t cheap because it’s also about discipleship. It’ll cost you some preferences. Put another way, there must be a dying to self for the sake of extending grace to your diverse neighbors. The cultivation of a beautiful community is a cruciform pursuit.
Living for One Another
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced our churches to push pause, to readjust, and to imagine the road back to a new normal.
The cultivation of a beautiful community is a cruciform pursuit.
What if, as we regather for worship, we also reimagine our pursuit of beautiful community? What preferences have morphed into idols that need to be destroyed? What preferences do we need to loosen our grip on for the sake of extending the grace and love of Christ to diverse neighbors? Our freedom in the Christian community is the freedom to lay down our lives for my brothers and sisters. Our liberty as Christians is the liberty to die to our preferences, the liberty to die to our disordered desire for our pleasure. Our freedom as Christians is the freedom to say to our neighbors, “We want to see you grow toward maturity in Christ. Our heart’s desire is to do everything we can to edify you, to build you up in the faith, to see you come to maturity in Christ.” And this is something we are to pursue: building each other up, edifying one another, and pleasing one another.
That’s beautiful community.
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