Rich in diversity, one in belonging (a two part series)

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Part 1: Why diversity?

When I first moved to Asia I didn’t belong, but not for the obvious reasons you may think of. Of course my grasp of the language wasn’t very good, I didn’t understand a lot of the cultural issues and I didn’t look like a local. Most locals I met didn’t understand why I was there. In that realm I expected not to belong. I knew it was going to be a hard road of language and culture learning. I was lucky to have a handful of local Christian friends who took small actions to welcome me and help me navigate the world around me. This really helped me feel like I could belong. The bigger issue I found myself facing was the team of cross-cultural workers I was serving with. There I was supposed to belong. We were all passionately on mission together. My immediate team was comprised of Americans, Brits, Singaporeans and a South African. My wider team had Koreans and Indians and Canadians and Kiwis. I had been well prepared for this moment. Pre-field training had detailed modules and in-depth readings on cultural differences and working in cross-cultural teams. Yet, I still felt baffled by many of the ways my co-workers thought and acted. I longed for my Aussie corporate world where I knew how things worked. I missed my atheistic, libertarian boss who I knew how to work with. I suddenly felt like I didn’t know how to speak my mind, how to share ideas, how to give feedback. It turns out this is not an uncommon experience among cross-cultural workers. Often there are more conflicts and misunderstandings between fellow missionaries than between missionaries and locals.

As I have been researching the unique characteristics of multi-national, cross-cultural and support-raised mission organisations and the impact those characteristics have on team dynamics, I realised that challenges of complex, diverse teams in mission was becoming more and more the reality for all kinds of teams regardless of organisational context. Being a cross-cultural worker currently stuck back in Australia, I’ve had an opportunity to look at my own culture as a bit of an outsider. As I’ve talked with people about their work teams, their church or volunteer groups, many seem to be struggling with the same challenge: wanting to welcome and work with people who are different. 

Why is diversity important?

In Leading Across Cultures, James Plueddemann says, “You don’t have to travel from Australia to Afghanistan to bump into cultural leadership differences. Remarkable variations exist in the same country, even a few blocks from each other.” Given the rapidly changing and diversifying nature of the world, intercultural intelligence is becoming more and more necessary everywhere not just in the lives of missionaries and expat workers. There are a lot of ways we are diverse: gender, religion, ideology, age, education and abilities. Culture is the probably the biggest and most deeply ingrained category of diversity. Cultural practices, cultural values and worldviews make for differences that are sometimes stark and sometimes subtle but almost always baffling. 

In the mainstream or secular world diversity is either an ideal to pursue or reality to accommodate. We seek diversity and create policies to encourage it. It’s seen as a philosophical good in pursuit of humanistic goals of equity and equality. It’s also been shown to have immense pragmatic and practical value. More equitable representation in politics, workplaces and other public spaces creates better wellbeing in underrepresented groups. Charlan Nemeth, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, has done research that shows that a lack of diversity actual leads to poorer decision-making and less creativity or innovation. 

As Christians we can look to the Bible and see that diversity is more than just a lofty philosophical ideal or a practical good that will make your company more effective and profitable. In 1 Corinthians, Paul wrote to a church facing many difficulties. In Chapter 12:12-27, he focuses in on diversity, drawing out what it means for all the different parts of the body of Christ to be unified and diverse. When I was growing up in very white churches I always heard this passage taught as a way to encourage people that their contribution – maybe it was stacking chairs or washing up or sitting in crèche – was as important as the person who preached or led worship. While this is part of what Paul was trying to teach about spiritual gifts, I think there is a much deeper truth here that got missed. It is who we are, not just what we do, the ways in which we contribute, that is needed. It is our very diverse beings that are needed, not just our different skill-sets. 

Very early on in the grand biblical narrative in Genesis 11 we see God respond to the arrogance and pride of the people trying to build the Tower of Babel by creating division and confusion. Shortly after Jesus ascends to heaven however we get Pentecost where the exact opposite happens and the Holy Spirit enables every to understand the message. This was a powerful symbol that the gospel was indeed for everyone. God didn’t erase the language differences but made unity possible despite the divides. Yet still the early church struggled with diversity; Jews and Gentiles, language, status, culture diversity was everywhere. You can see it very clearly in some of the disagreements Paul mentions in Chapter 10 of 1 Corinthians as well as in a number of Paul’s other letters. But in Chapter 12, Paul makes it very clear that we don’t just have to tolerate one another or accommodate diversity for diversity’s sake. We need each other as the eye needs the hand and the head needs the feet.

All the many ways in which we differ are beneficial and necessary in the global Christian community. As Plueddemann says:

“The worldwide body of Christ will move beyond conflict and compromise towards beautiful harmony as we understand the weaknesses of our own culture and seek out the strengths of the other. The more we move toward becoming like Christ, the further we move away from the limitations of both high context and low context cultures while incorporating the strengths of both. The closer we come to being transformed into the image of Christ the more we develop as individuals while also becoming more deeply embedded in the richness of the global family of God. 

The business world is zealous about learning to function in a globalizing society. “The global leader is open and flexible in approaching others can cope with situations and people disparate from his or her background and is willing to re-examine and alter personal attitudes and perceptions. How much more should the church be passionate about working together as the worldwide body of Christ in a culture of grace.”

Plueddemann talks about many different cultural variants, one of which is cultures that have a high or low tolerance for ambiguity. I personally grew so much in my capacity to tolerate ambiguity through the example of my Asian colleagues and in turn it taught me so much about God. This has been so helpful during this pandemic year where our plans to go overseas are on hold and we have had to wrestle with what it looks like to serve God right here in this situation. One of the beautiful things I experienced in our team was watching those colleagues help other western workers learn to let go of the need to know everything, plan everything, predict everything, but also watching those Western workers help them appreciate how and when to provide clarity. 

As Christians we pursue the richness of diversity, not just because it’s a good idea but because it also reflects a deeper reality. That is the coming reality of the Kingdom of heaven, that is hinted at in John’s vision in Revelation 7, where he sees the great multitude, some from every tribe, tongue and nation all together worshipping together. That is not something reserved for the future but something we can and should strive for right now. 

I think it helps us live out the new commandment Jesus gives in John 13:34-35 “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” This is what we are to be known by.

Read Part Two about getting from diversity to belonging here

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