A diversely united church
We sat silently at a downtown coffee shop, swirling the Rwandan brew in our cups, the Cincinnati skyscape towering over our sidewalk table — two Ohio Assemblies of God pastors sharing hearts and vision.
He asked, “How would you counsel me to lead my (midsize, suburban) congregation into a multiethnic future? I feel a profound burden to do this. We can’t stay where we are. Our city needs this. Our church needs this. But I don’t know what I don’t know.”
This wasn’t the first time I’ve heard this. It seems God is burdening many hearts these days for church reflecting heaven on earth.
Our own story as Peoples Church Cincinnati involves a 20-year transition from a 98 percent homogeneous white commuter church to a 50 percent nonwhite congregation comprising 30-plus nations. And despite the racially charged times in which we live, we are 25 percent African-American. The Lord has done this.
As I contemplated my friend’s earnest question, I felt stirred to reply, “Start with theology. Whatever you do, root it in Scripture. Hell will fight you on this, and when it does, you want this vision anchored in God’s Word.”
I shared from Ephesians 2 and 3 about a biblical model of a multiethnic church. The intensity of God’s mind on this matter captivates my heart and astounds me.
The Ephesian Model
New Testament Ephesus compares to today’s American society. With a mix of Gentile God-fearers, conservative zealots, marketplace liberals, idol worshipers, indigenous people, and internationals, the city was ethnically, economically, religiously diverse. This port population center on the western edge of what is now Turkey flourished as a cosmopolitan melting pot, the Roman Empire’s third most influential city.
The Ephesian church was also a collective — united in Christ, Spirit-filled and gospel-rooted. This diverse congregation was making known the “manifold wisdom of God” — in the city and “in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 3:10). Did you catch that? Not only was the church influencing society and spreading the gospel, but its Christ-centered existence in diverse unity was capturing attention in the spiritual realm.
Paul calls this diverse unity of formerly disparate and hostile Jews, Greeks and Romans the “mystery of Christ,” which the Holy Spirit revealed (Ephesians 3:4-6). As this church came together, the mystery of Christ, hidden for ages, became apparent. Let that sink in.
Our fractious United States could benefit from the same prophetic, reconciling Kingdom congregations. Such a movement would shake the gates of hell.
In Ephesians 2, Paul provides a compelling vision and model for diversely united churches in our day. After unpacking the gospel, he links it to the idea of a diversely united local church. This message is applicable to your church setting — whether rural, suburban or urban.
Paul writes in Ephesians 2:1-2, “you were [all] dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you [all] used to live ... .” Before Christ, we were unable to follow God’s perfect plan; we were spiritually dead. “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions. ... For it is by grace you [all] have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (verses 4-5,8).
So far, we have what we understand as the essence of the gospel. In verse 10, Paul transitions to the purpose of this salvation, showing the impact of redeemed people united in Christ from diverse backgrounds. “For we are [all] God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works ... .” So, God saves us to do things. Good things. Society-affecting good things through God’s creative handiwork in and through each of us, by Jesus.
Most of my life, I read Ephesians 2:1-10 as only to me, an individual. Of course, it does apply to me personally, but there’s another level of import when we also read it as a model for the collective local church. Every “you” in Ephesians 2:1-10 is plural. Paul is addressing the ethnically and culturally diverse Ephesian congregation.
The next portion of Ephesians 2 demonstrates this. Without skipping a beat, Paul moves from our traditional understanding of the gospel — once we were dead in sin and now we are alive — to the reminder that we are God’s handiwork, which He designed to do good works. He wants us to do and experience amazing things together as His redeemed, blood-bought, diversely united local church.
The Gospel and the Church
Before Christ came, there was ethnic and cultural separation (Ephesians 2:11-12). “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13). The gospel brought Jews and Greeks — groups that previously hated each other — near to Christ, near to the promise and near to each other.
“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility. ... His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (verses 14-16).
Remember, Chapter 2 starts with a restatement of the gospel. On the heels of it, Paul declares the power of a diversely united congregation. Some reading this may raise a couple of objections:
1. “This is specific to the church at Ephesus. We don’t have both Jews and Gentiles in our community.” OK, but it’s also about ethnic and cultural differences, religious differences and worldview differences. Are there no such divides in your community?
2. “This refers to the Church universal. What does it have to do with the local church?” Paul didn’t say “Church” (ekklesia); he said one body (soma). He’s writing to a local congregation: the church at Ephesus, a local fellowship he personally pastored (Acts 20:31). Yes, Paul’s words apply to the Church universal, but not at the expense of the local Ephesian congregation.
Of course, God would never require local church inclusion of diverse people who are not available to us, but what about those who are? If your community is not ethnically diverse, what about other kinds of diversity — such as socioeconomic diversity?
Paul always writes to a specific situation, even as he writes to the Church universal through the ages. I believe the Spirit of Christ through Paul envisions congregations of diversely united redeemed people wherever the Church goes.
This revelation of a diversely united, one-congregation vision is what Paul calls the “mystery of Christ.”
Paul concludes this section of Chapter 2 with these soaring ideals for the Ephesian church. In verse 19 he says, “Consequently, you [Gentiles in Christ] are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people [the Jews in Christ] and also members of his household ... .”
They are no longer foreigners or strangers to Him, nor to each other. Imagine the influence of churches like that in racially, ethnically and politically fractured communities across America!
Watch where the model goes next: “In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too [all indeed] are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by His Spirit” (verses 21-22). Talk about a fully Pentecostal church. One Spirit-filled body emerged from formerly divided groups.
Have we perhaps missed this crucial New Testament emphasis? This revelation of a diversely united, one-congregation vision is what Paul calls the “mystery of Christ.” It’s like the Holy Spirit through Paul is saying, “This is the secret recipe of my Kingdom!”
Paul adds in Ephesians 3:10, “His intent was that now, through the [diversely united] church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” In other words, God expresses His variegated wisdom through a diversely united Church — and not only on earth, but in the spiritual realm. If only we realized the stage on which we stand.
The rest of Ephesians 4–6 explains how to walk out this mystery together. Reading the entire epistle through the 2:15 lens adds contextual richness and reveals a foundational model for a church reflecting heaven (Revelation 7:9). I believe this is the strategic plan of God for every local church.
Paul, in his farewell meeting with the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:27, says, “I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.” In other words, Paul gave the Ephesians something special. Only with them did Paul spend three years teaching with tears night and day, to nourish and protect the blood-bought diversely united body, keeping watch over the flock (Acts 20:28,31). The Book of Ephesians details this whole purpose and sheds a spotlight on the church model.
In light of this understanding of Ephesians 2, how do you apply this model in your context, especially if your community is not diverse? (See the diagnostic questions at the end of this article.)
Your Local Church and the Gospel
Every church and pastor should study carefully the surrounding community to understand what really is there — demographically, ethnically, historically, economically, spiritually, generationally, socially, etc.
We must think like missionaries among unreached peoples, prayerfully considering how to plant and water gospel seed, faithfully, contextually, relevantly and effectively. Jesus purchased with His blood persons from every background, tribe and nation to become one household (Ephesians 2:15; Revelation 5:9). While it’s important to ask how many people came to church on Sunday, what if we also considered the diversity of those in attendance?
If you believe your community has no diversity, are you thinking only ethnically? What about diversity in political, income or age demographics? What about reaching addicts and their family members? What about refugees, migrant workers or foster families? What about ______ (you fill in the blank)?
How can we possibly do this? Preach Jesus and His kingdom among everyone. Make sure it’s His kingdom that you and your people are proclaiming through words and actions, and not another gospel (such as a politicized gospel, watered-down gospel, nationalistic gospel or religious gospel). Jesus said it like this: “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
Paul likely wrote 2 Corinthians shortly after leaving Ephesus, from where he’d written 1 Corinthians. Perhaps with the Ephesian model freshly influencing his thinking, Paul penned 2 Corinthians 5, the great reconciliation chapter of the Bible. In verse 17, he wrote, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”
Right before this, in verse 16, Paul said, “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view.” This is for us as leaders, too. If we struggle to walk free from our old-nature prejudices, we will struggle to reach all people with the gospel. Our cultural preferences, prejudices and politics cannot define our ministry. Otherwise, we will attract only people just like us, and not the Church Jesus paid for on the cross.
We must no longer serve our local communities through a worldly point of view, but from a gospel-powered, Christ-centered, Kingdom view. Once we were dead in our transgressions and sins, but now we are alive with Christ. Those who were far away and those who were near have become “members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 3:6).
Lost people in America today are yearning for churches reflecting this reality. The Ephesians 2 church model is exactly what our society needs.
My pastor friend later emailed me with a thoughtful plan. This fall, he will launch a sermon series, “Vision:ONE,” based on John 17:20-23 and Ephesians 4.
He is also developing a three-year strategy of laying a biblical foundation, introducing careful changes of diverse inclusion, and sharing stories of reconciliation, highlighting the heroic efforts of lay leaders. He has initiated intentional friendships with the few diverse members he already has, with an open heart to learn from them and get their input and help for the next steps.
I smile as I think about the rewarding work ahead of him. I also pray more often for him now. After all, when we lead from the biblical vision of the Ephesian church model, hell fights back. Why? Because our communities will experience the healing impact of the diversely united Church, and Jesus will get more of what He paid for (Revelation 5:9-10). The enemy hates both these outcomes.
Use the following diagnostic questions for reflection, prayerfully considering how your church can better apply the Ephesians 2 model.
- How do the demographics of the church I serve compare with the demographics of my community (economically, ethnically, politically, generationally, educationally, etc.)?
- Does our church leadership reflect the demographics of our community?
- Does my social media inadvertently offend or scare off any part of my community with cultural or partisan preferences? Do people feel they have to agree with me on nonessentials before they can attend my church and experience the gospel?
- Am I crying out to God for a harvest among all people within our 10-mile reach?
- What do I know about the different people groups of my community?
- Have I studied the social challenges and spiritual history of my context and how we might address those from a Kingdom view?
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2018 edition of Influence magazine.