I am blessed to serve as a pastor with Butler Avenue MB Church—Butler for short. Butler is an incredibly diverse church on the southeast side of Fresno, Calif. That diversity is found in so many ways: ethnically, economically, generationally and culturally. Each Sunday we worship in four different services and three different languages (English, Lao and Spanish). You will find families worshiping with us from such places as Congo, Mexico, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Honduras, Argentina, Ethiopia and more. Yes, our potlucks are amazing.
Butler is a very special and unique church. We often joke with each other that our humble fellowship is a preview of heaven, and there might be more than a little truth to that.
A vision for unity in diversity
Many of us have memorized and often recited what we call the Lord’s Prayer. As part of that prayer in Matthew 6:10, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” But what do we know of heaven? If Jesus’ disciples are to invite heaven on earth, what are we asking for?
There are many images and ideas regarding heaven to explore, but I draw our attention to one specific image offered in the book of Revelation. Revelation 7:9 describes heaven as having, “a great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne [God] and before the Lamb [Jesus].”
Scripture points to a heaven where nations, tribes, peoples and languages of this earth are still intact. Together, an incredibly diverse assembly, standing united before our Lord and Savior. If that is heaven, what then might we the church expect and embrace on earth? If we pray with earnestness that God’s kingdom would come on earth as in heaven, might we expect to see his church assemble together in diversity and unity?
A plan for unity in diversity
In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul refers to the “mystery of the gospel.” What is the mystery? Here is how Paul explains it: “And this is God’s plan: Both Gentiles and Jews who believe the Good News share equally in the riches inherited by God’s children. Both are part of the same body, and both enjoy the promise of blessings because they belong to Christ Jesus” (Eph. 3:6, NLT).
The good news is that Jesus lives, dies and rises again so that we might receive new life by faith. The “mystery,” what God’s people have not understood previously, is that in Jesus the good news is for everyone, and everyone belongs equally to one body. In Christ, all are loved, all are joined together, all share in his blessings. This becomes difficult when all really does mean all. Paul himself is threatened, beaten and imprisoned because he dares to bring Gentiles into the church.
This “mystery” is one which we must continue to unravel and highlight today. As our world is increasingly divided and hostilities escalate along racial, economic, political and other lines, the church which embraces the mystery of the gospel can speak truth and bring healing, with a humble authority that cannot be ignored. Unity in diversity then is not just a good idea or only for a crazy few, it is central to the gospel.
Unity not uniformity
Paul says in Galatians 3:28 that in Christ, “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
“There is no longer….” What does this mean? Does this mean that we are to drop all labels? No. This is a statement about value and worth, not uniformity and sameness. In each pairing found in this verse (Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female), there is a clear disparity in value and worth in their society. There are those that have power and influence, and those who are given little to none.
Jesus makes clear that in him, all have been given new life and divine status as sons and daughters of God. There is no one superior to the other. The poor man is just as valued, gifted and important as the rich. The woman is just as powerful, called and authorized as the man. No ethnicity, culture or people is any more God’s people than the other.
Unity in diversity does not mean that we must be colorblind or that we cannot celebrate what makes us wonderfully unique. That would be uniformity not unity. Unity in diversity means embracing our shared worth, value and power in Christ, while also recognizing how uniquely and wonderfully made we all are.
Unity in diversity as witness
In John 17:22–23 Jesus is praying. He is praying for his disciples then and now. In these verses we find that Jesus prays specifically for a type of unity which cannot be ignored: “I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.”
The kind of unity Jesus prays for among his followers will turn heads. It is the kind of unity which can only be explained as an act of God. A boundary-breaking kind of unity. Jesus has a vision for a diverse church; a people who the world says will not, should not, cannot come together but by the grace of God call one another beloved.
Mark DeYmaz, in his book Ethnic Blends: Mixing Diversity into Your Local Church, makes a strong case for the church to take seriously this task of finding unity in diversity. He observes that, “in an increasingly diverse and cynical society, people will no longer find credible the message of God’s love for all people when it’s proclaimed from segregated churches. In these changing times, those without Christ will respond not to platitudes but rather to practice, not to words but only to an authentic witness of God’s love for all people that is daily displayed in life and action.” There is indeed great opportunity for the church to demonstrate love and unity in an increasingly angry and divided world.
Unity in diversity requires intentionality
True unity in diversity does not come easily or without sacrifice. It does not come quickly or cleanly. Butler Church has been working intentionally toward this kind of unity for over 25 years, and we still have much work to do.
In his book The Skin You Live In, David Ireland says—regarding building unity across ethnic and cultural divides—that, “It’s not enough to simply have good thoughts about people or even to merely show them respect. You have to venture into their social world as if Jesus’ command to ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ (Luke 10:27) really matters to you.”
Unity in diversity can’t just be a slogan or an ideal. It requires intentional effort toward building deepening relationships. This involves surrendering our own preferences, stepping out of our comfort zones and entering into the life and experience of others not like ourselves. We must come humbly and with a commitment to listen, to learn and to serve.
I have been so incredibly blessed to be part of a church that saw fit to pursue unity in diversity long before I arrived. I have learned the immense value of knowing and being known by others very different than myself. I have witnessed firsthand the wonder and joy experienced by those who for the first time encounter a church where the color of skin or one’s station in life does not disqualify them from the love and warm acceptance of the church. It is not always easy, and it certainly requires much more work, but it is completely and totally worth it to experience just a little more heaven on earth.
Scott Holman is the lead pastor at Butler Church in Fresno, Calif., where he has served for the last 12 years. Prior to coming to Butler, Holman grew up in Reedley, Calif., and served as youth pastor at Reedley MB Church for eight years. Holman is currently a student at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary in the online master’s in Ministry Leadership and Culture program. He has been married to Susan for 15 years, and they have a daughter and son ages 11 and 8.