Monday, February 21, 2011

On Sunday School - Diversity

This is the latest in a multi-part series on Sunday School. For more, click on Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

There's a little sign as you walk into our classroom, put there by the church, to denote a bit about who we are. It simply says, "Co-Ed 30-40, Wade Phillips, The Loft." The sign is simply there to give us some simple identifying marks of the people who are in the class. We are both men and women, between the ages of 30 and 40, I'm the teacher, and we meet in this room, the loft above the kitchen. There's only one problem with it. It isn't really true.

I mean, most of it is. I'm the teacher. We meet in the loft. Men and women are both welcome. But there's one little problem. I have people who range from their early 20's, all the way up to their 50's in my class. So the 30-40 thing is really not true. They come in all ages. And frankly, despite the misnomer on our sign, I'm pretty pleased with this fact.

As long as we have been a class, we have really made strong efforts to have diversity in our class. Now, I know this is a word that brings up some strong connotations, some positive and some negative. But we have felt from the very beginning that the more different kinds of people we have in our class, the better. To that end, we have people, both black and white, married and single, single again and married with husbands who don't come to church, couples with "full quivers" of kids, and couples with no kids at all, people who have lived in our area all their lives, and others who just moved here. We have people who are well-off financially, and people who are struggling, and people in between. And all different kinds of ages. It's something that we feel very strongly about.

Now, if you are familiar with church growth strategies at all, you may look at this with some amount of concern; maybe even a bit of horror. For many years, a strategy called the "homogeneous unit principal," has held sway in many church circles. There are a lot of different ways to define that very large term, but the basic idea of it, I think, is that people like to be around people who are like them. People will naturally gather with other people who are like them, so we should just use that fact, and grow with it. Now, there are obviously some ways in which this almost has to be true; it's hard for people who speak different languages to worship and study together regularly. I can even see a need for some age segregation in a Sunday School class; it would be difficult for an 8-year old to get the things we are talking about (though we've seen a few of those in class over the years, too.) But the bottom line is this: I believe diversity is not only acceptable, but that it is good and should be encouraged.

Here's what I mean. The Bible has a lot to say about the right kind of diversity. Revelation 5 talks about how God "ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation . . ." God made a point, not just to save as many people as possible, but to make sure they represented all of these different kinds of people. God made the diversity, he likes it, and he wants to redeem all of it. We should embrace it too.

Maybe the most important verse when we talk about the subject of diversity is this one: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28) What's the point here? It's simply that the differences that we see on the outside, those differences in race and gender, social and economic status, marital status, and age, among others, aren't really that important as compared to the similarities we have as people ransomed by Jesus. We all unite under the Cross. We all possess the same Spirit. And those similarities are infinitely more important than any differences we might have.

Now, I don't think it's enough just to say this: we must believe it in a way that it actually makes a difference. We must welcome people who don't look like us or act like us, or think like us. We must make sure the people in our class know that this is not a class for one particular "people group." We must teach on the importance of this kind of diversity, when it comes up in the texts we are studying together.

And here is what might be the most important thing: when we study the Word, those barriers come down. God's people unite around God's Word. This is why our studies are centered on the Word. It applies to everyone. It pierces hearts and minds, and cuts through joints and marrow, and gets deep inside people. And it shows us our similarities, while helping us appreciate our differences.We are not perfect at this. We're still working on it. But it's important to us.

Let me end by making something clear: the sign on the wall doesn't bother me. I'm fine with it as a guide. I just hope it never becomes a fence. I hope the common theme of the Gospel continues to help unite all kinds of people in our classroom, and for that matter, in Sunday School classrooms everywhere.

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