A Culture of Christian Growth – Ernest Eby – Anabaptist Perspectives Ep. 126

Apr 29, 2021 10:30 · 3958 words · 19 minute read

Welcome everybody to another episode of Anabaptist Perspectives. I’m your host Myron Eby, and I’m here again in State College with Ernest Eby, and we’re not related that we know of, but it’s good to have you here, and today we’re going to be talking a bit about an article you wrote a few years ago entitled Nurturing a Culture that Inspires Christian Growth. One of the questions I have before we get started that I think is important to just define a little bit is what is Christian growth as you are defining it? Let’s get a working definition for what Christian growth means to you.

00:47 - Good. So I’m talking about growing in knowledge of the Scriptures, growing in wisdom, growing in holiness, growing in love, and growing more useful and usable in the Kingdom of God. This is done together as a church - especially a church that’s seeking to integrate people from other cultures.

01:05 - Speaking of other cultures you are talking about diversity in some way, so could we say maybe that diversity and growth are not quite synonymous here, but they’re definitely related? Are you saying we need to grow the local congregation and support what’s already there? That’s right.

01:29 - As well as integrate other cultures and bring those in and integrate those? That’s right.

01:34 - What kind of diversity then are you calling for if we’re going to use the term diversity and growth somewhat closely here. What diversity are you calling for in this article and in this interview here today? Well, maybe we could start with the book of Revelation. In the book of Revelation, we read about people from all tongues, tribes and nations being gathered around God ’s throne, and I believe that our churches here on earth should be a taste of heaven, so if we are living in a region where there are multiple ethnicities and cultures present, I believe that our churches should reflect some of that diversity.

If we can only attract and keep people of our own ethnic bloodlines we are not giving our communities a very good picture of what heaven is going to be like, so it seems to me that there are three ways to build strong church communities. First way is for a community to somewhat isolate themselves from the rest of the world and develop a strong teaching program aimed at convincing themselves and the younger generation that of all the different church options available our way of doing church is the best.

The younger generation is taught to pass this same world view onto the succeeding generation. The second way to build strong communities is to bring Christians together who are agreed on certain values and ideals. This may be a group of people from similar Christian heritage or maybe a group of people with very different growing up experiences, but ones who have arrived at similar ideals. This is the birds of a feather flock together type of community.

Again there’s a strong emphasis on convincing themselves that their way of doing church is probably the best and in these churches those with minority viewpoints tend to get pushed to the edge of the group and those who affirm the vision of the leaders are given positions of influence. These groups are strong, but their strength is also their weakness. I have visited and interacted with a wide variety of old order and conservative churches and both of these types of communities that I just described, and there’s a pattern I’ve observed in both of these groups.

People from these churches will visit another church slightly different from their own, and when they return to their home church they will comment on their visit to this other church, and say something like, I’m so thankful for what we have here at our church. We don’t have… Then they will name something that they observed at the other church that they did not like, or they may say, I am so thankful to be part of a strong church community. Then they will give an example of what they like about their church.

Seekers who join these kinds of churches either adopt the proud spirit and begin repeating the same rhetoric themselves, or else they become repulsed by this attitude, and it’s not just seekers who are repulsed by these attitudes. Often there are thinking young people who are also repulsed. Now there is a kind of gratitude that is good and healthy, and I’m not dissing that at all. It is possible to be humbled by one’s community and one’s heritage and not be puffed up by it, but most of the comments that I’m referring to do not come from a healthy attitude and spirit.

As you know most people don’t like being around proud people unless the arrogant person is saying the kinds of things they like to hear. Well, God doesn’t like proud people either. This is why He says He resists the proud, and that’s why He says that pride and arrogance are sin, and it’s an abomination and something He hates. Well, there are a third kind of strong church communities who have sprung up all over the world in the last two thousand years.

These are churches that are comprised of a cross-section of people living in the same geographic area. People in these churches are not necessarily of the same family or cultural background although they may be neither are they folks who have congregated together into one location because their values and ideals were similar. In these strong communities the thing they have in common is their love for God and their love for their neighbor. They don’t necessarily consider their church one of the best expressions of Christianity here on earth.

That isn’t necessarily a concern of theirs, so they don’t need to try to convince each other of their strong points. Everyone in the group has a sense of what their strong points are, and they don’t need to make a big deal about it. They know what they’re doing well in. At the same time these church communities have the confidence that they are being the hands and feet of Jesus in accomplishing the work that He placed them here to do. They don’t see everything alike.

Some observe special days. Others don’t. Some eat meat. Others eat vegetables, so they aren’t all riding the same bandwagons, yet they bless each other as each one strives to fulfill the purpose for which God created them. They’re not in competition with each other. They’re just out here doing the work of God. This is the kind of diversity that I believe a church community needs in order to be fully functional according to the New Testament pattern, and it’s the kind of unified church community that I believe Jesus prayed for in John 17.

06:58 - Am I hearing you say then that the first two types of churches that you described where they’re building a very strong culture that’s essentially looking to just pass things down from one generation to another within their own insular community or the second type of church where it’s maybe a little bit broader than that, but not really very broad. You’re saying that those two attitudes which I’m hearing you say you don’t approve of and feel there’s possibly a lot of pride or arrogancy there.

Are you saying that those two church groups should try to become the third type of church group and become more diverse? Are you saying that’s the answer to the problems you feel that the first two groups have? I think it’s part of the answer, yes. There’s maybe other things that could be done as well, but I think learning to appreciate and cultivate love in the midst of diversity is something very healthy. I think one of the fears of a lot of the churches in these first two groups that you’re talking about.

I think one of the fears is that by interacting on a broader scale or interacting with people whose values may differ a lot from my own or our church’s that somehow we’re going to be deluded or drawn away, and I think that’s a valid concern. I’d like to hear your thoughts about that. So I guess the question is won’t having this diversity and having this close contact with these people who do differ from us in a lot of ways isn’t that going to harm the integrity of our group? So if our integrity is based on what those around us are doing I suppose people with other values could threaten our integrity, but if our integrity is rooted in the truth of Scripture and is guided by the living Word of God then we should be able to pass our values onto others if they are good.

Some of our values are very good. Others have very little value and some of our values have no real value at all. People from other cultures help us identify values that have little to no value as well as values that are actually toxic. They can help us get rid of these values or they can at least help us put them where they belong if they’re something of little value.

09:49 - I think what I hear you saying then is that having more diversity is really actually a good thing and helps us distill what our priorities and values should be and help us realize that maybe some of the things that we believe or hold to or practice really are just traditions or don’t have as much merit as what we might have thought you know building up generation after generation of this tradition - might help us realize, oh, that’s not quite as important as what we’ve made it to be.

10:25 - That’s right. Yes. In this article that you wrote you talk about equality in churches and you spend some time discussing that in the article. What do you mean when you talk about church equality, and is that Biblical? Does the New Testament provide a basis for this equality that you discuss at length in your article? Yes. I think the New Testament does. Churches should not have caste systems like we find in Hinduism. Unfortunately many churches have something very similar to a caste system, but the castes are not as pronounced.

In India the caste system is quite obvious. In Christian churches you may have to attend the church for a while in order to understand the social dynamics that are going on within the group. If the core group of a church is primarily people of similar ethnic or cultural background, they will tend to put themselves at the top of the tier and look at believers from other backgrounds as being slightly inferior and much of this is subconscious. They may even do this ranking among themselves even if they’re all from one particular ethnic group or culture.

So here’s an example. Those of us who are raised in strong Christian communities have many connections and skills and investors who make it easy for us to start a business or find a job. Most people in the world who need to leave father and mother to cast their lot with the people of God are not going to have these kinds of advantages. So some time ago I heard a brother from what we’re going to call a “higher tier” make a negative remark about a brother of a different ethnic and cultural background, and he said, why doesn’t that man have a job? So the brother from this higher tier didn’t take the time to learn what the other brother was doing with his time.

He didn’t ask whether the other brother is looking for a job and couldn’t find one. He didn’t stop to think whether the other brother might need help in finding a job. He didn’t inquire if there are health issues and family needs to keep this other brother from taking on certain jobs. The higher tier brother just quickly rushed to judgment of the other brother based on his own limited cultural perspective where it’s easy to find a job.

12:47 - So that means then that diversity can help us bring an awareness to ourselves or maybe we once brought judgment on somebody without considering the context or the background of what that individual may be facing. Diversity can help us learn how to identify with that and ask those questions before bringing a judgment or just condemning somebody for not having a job. Is that what I’m hearing you say? That’s right. It can. We know of many people who never get out of their own little world, but diversity can help people get out of their world and see the bigger perspective.

Many higher tier people lack compassion for people of certain nationalities or people from an unfamiliar cultural background. Higher tier people tend to look at those who are not as well developed in certain areas as being needy people in need of help, and they tend to treat them as a project rather than as friends, and what many higher tier people don’t realize is that they have needs that are just as great as those they consider beneath them.

When there are social tiers in a church most everybody in the church is going to remain dwarfs - spiritual dwarfs. So the New Testament has lots of instructions about not despising or looking down on others who are part of the body of Christ. In fact the writers of the New Testament tried every way they could think of from my reading of the New Testament to teach believers to view themselves as deficient people who really do need the gifts of many others in the body of Christ in order to be a whole person or become a whole person.

14:29 - I hear you saying that many of our churches need more equality or diversity. What does equality have to do with a culture - a church culture - that promotes Christian growth? How does equality play into that? So as I would see it equality in the body of Christ helps us to see that we need each other to develop those undeveloped parts of our lives. Practically speaking this means that we readily and willingly humble ourselves before each other. Some people may need help with finances or they might need help finding employment.

The same people though may be full of compassion for others, and they can teach higher tier people about being compassionate, and when this kind of dynamic is happening in a church, top and bottom tiers are torn down, and everyone becomes brothers and sisters one of another. When the tiers are removed brothers and sisters do not view themselves as being above others, but rather fellow heirs of the riches of Christ. This is the kind of church that newcomers - seekers - will want to join, and this is the kind of church where newcomers and seekers will want to stay.

It’s the kind of environment where they can actually grow and flourish.

15:50 - I’m guessing at this point that many of our viewers and listeners are like me right now and realizing okay I should probably be doing a better job of this than what I am and should probably be making a more conscious effort of accepting those who maybe I am viewing as needy, and not viewing them as an equal part of the body. What sort of vision or what sort of advice would you give to people who are part of a church group that may not be as diverse right now? Well, that’s a very legitimate question.

I’ll just start by saying that I’ve been a member of such churches for most of my life, and I’ve often wondered why, and I haven’t really come up with a good answer I don’t think, but leaving that aside, there are probably different ways to grow the body of Christ. In my article I’m simply explaining it the way I understand it. If a church can help people grow in a different manner may God be praised. That is great, but realistically some churches are going to reflect Jesus’ blueprint for the church more than others.

This is evident in Jesus’ letters to the seven churches in the book of Revelation. If you’re trying to bring someone into your church and the person’s not able to flourish in your church maybe there’s a social caste system in the church or there’s various tiers in the church - social tiers. Maybe there’s not much appreciation for diversity. Whatever the reason you may need to help a person find a church where they can flourish. At the same time you can be gently nudging people in your church toward greater wholeness and greater fruitfulness in God’s Kingdom.

Val Yoder reminds us in his book I Will Build My Church that we may not be viewing our local church the way God views our local church. There may be more gold there than we realize, and it may take some effort to dig beneath the surface and uncover the gold, so we shouldn’t be too quick to just discount our church and the work that God is doing in our church. So I don’t often encourage people to leave their church and go to another church where they hope to have a more fulfilling church experience.

In His letters to the churches in Revelation Jesus did not encourage the faithful to leave their lukewarm and troubled churches and join the good churches at Philadelphia and Smyrna. He encouraged the faithful to strengthen the good that remained. My observation is that many people who change churches hoping for a more fulfilling church experience end up losing more values than what they gain. However there were people who moved around in the New Testament churches according to the call of God.

It was a blessing to the work of God, so I think there are times and places for people to change churches if they have first learned what God wanted them to learn at the church where He placed them.

18:47 - We’ve been discussing so far this need for diversity, and I just want to read a question from one of our viewers - one of our audience members - and they say, “destroying churches by forced integration is not scriptural. Nations are not a result of the fall, and nations will exist intact in the eternal state. Revelation 22:2 says “down the middle of the great street of the city on each side of the river stood the tree of life bearing twelve crops of fruit yielding its fruit every month and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

” So this viewer was specifically promoting ethnic homogeneity or you know there being just one ethnic group being here. Another ethnic group being here, and that’s not what you’re saying. You’re arguing against that very much here, so what would you say to this audience member? What kind of diversity are you referencing? Does this have anything to do with racial inclusiveness in the church? You know that’s a big topic right now, so not just ethnically, but even racially is that something that you’re a proponent of integrating in that way as well, and having a diversity of racial and ethnic cultures? Yes.

I would say that I am, but churches should not be forcing anyone to do anything. Coercion always results in destruction of something. However the Scriptures tell us that if we know to do good and do it not, it is sin. We know that sin has consequences, so even if we’re not coerced, there may be consequences for our choices, so if God calls us to be part of a multicultural church, we had better do it or we might like Jonah get swallowed by a whale. In the New Testament we read about struggles between the Jews and gentiles in the Asian churches.

There’s no indication that Paul expected the Jews in these Asian cities to form separate churches from the gentiles. In fact when Peter went to Antioch and he separated and sat at a table with the Jews, Paul rebuked him for it. I’ve read that only about three percent of people enjoy cultural diversity. The remaining 97 percent of the world’s population prefer interacting with people who think and act just like they do. Church planters tell us that it’s much harder to start a multicultural church than it is to start a monolithic one.

Naturally people are going to be separating into clans and tribes if they follow their natural instincts, but I would say that what we read in the New Testament is the exact opposite. Part of becoming a Christian is learning to include people - learning to bring people in. There have been many people who had these natural tendencies towards exclusion, but they became part of a church with people in another culture. They felt the love coming from someone else in that church from another culture, and it really blessed them.

They developed a closer relationship with this person from this other culture than what they’ve even had with their family members before that, and so with all this kind of thing happening in the Christian history and with Paul and the other apostles telling people to be inclusive and seeing that we’re all of one race. We’re all of one blood. That’s the tone that I see coming from the New Testament. Now having said this, I would rather see a number of ethnic churches started in a multi-cultural city than no churches at all.

I would rather see a number of ethnic churches started in a multicultural city than have churches where people are coerced into integrating. Sometimes there are language and communication hurdles that immature believers are not prepared to deal with. However if you have these different ethnic churches, they should at least love each other and respect each other and treat each other as fellow citizens of the household of God. There shouldn’t be animosity or anything like that, so regardless of which way it’s done, someday we will all be gathered together at the marriage supper of the Lamb - those of us who love God and love others - and I’m looking forward to the diversity that will be present at that supper.

23:06 - There will be people from every nation and tribe and tongue like you mentioned. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Ernest. Is there anything else you would like to say to our audience today about churches or including other people? So I would encourage every church to have a procedure and plan for integrating people of other cultures into the church and ask themselves this question: are we a church who ends up driving most people away? Or is our church a place that people want to join and is our church a place that people want to stay? Well thank you, Ernest, for again sharing your thoughts and experiences with being a part of church planting and really being a part of an integrated church here, and I know you have a heart for church planting and for seeing all people come to Christ, and that’s definitely come through. .