(Appeared first in July 2012, The Mennonite. Reprinted with permission.)
By Ervin Stutzman
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.—Revelation 7:9 (TNIV)
The above verse from Revelation has led some of us in Mennonite Church USA to embrace a “Revelation 7:9 vision.” That is, we long for a church that includes the many peoples who will be represented in heaven. At the same time we have this lofty vision, we live with the humbling realization that we often struggle to truly incorporate even a second language, racial/ethnic group or culture into the life of our church.
Stuart Murray’s book The Naked Anabaptist is a serious attempt, with a touch of humor, to encourage a growing group of Anabaptist believers who do not wear typical Mennonite “cultural clothing.” At the same time, it is an implicit call for “cradle” Mennonites to embrace a more diverse group of believers as true Anabaptists.
I occasionally hear “new” Mennonites say they feel like second-class members in their congregations. Ouch. A truly missional church eventually reflects the makeup of its neighborhood or nearby community—at least on the interchurch level. That’s the focus of the seventh signpost on our missional journey:
Missional character trait: The members are engaged in a community that practices reconciliation and embraces the diversity that God has created here on earth.
Signpost: The church community is moving beyond restricted cultural expressions toward becoming a community that is more diverse in its racial, ethnic, age, gender and socioeconomic makeup.
One of the most diverse Mennonite congregations I have visited is Capital Christian Fellowship near Washington, D.C. Nelson Okanya, featured in this issue, was a pastor in this congregation for several years, including a short time as lead pastor before being called to his role at Eastern Mennonite Missions. Nelson told me that people from 45 different nations attended the congregation while he was pastor. That’s diversity.
That doesn’t mean congregations can’t be missional without having people from many nations in attendance or that the primary measure of a congregation’s missionary impulse is its demographic diversity.
Nevertheless, a primary emphasis in the New Testament is the thrust of the gospel to reach everyone in the world, regardless of their demographic category. This impulse has led to the great diversity of expression we see in the breadth of the Christian family across every continent. As part of God’s worldwide family, Mennonite Church USA embraces people from many different nations—people who worship in more than 20 different languages.
I am sobered, however, when I observe that few of these new churches are represented at our conference assemblies on the area or national level. Those of us from the majority culture have not yet found a way to truly welcome or embrace the sweep of diversity in our assemblies.
Some view the desire for diversity as a misguided social agenda. Of course there are social dimensions to diversity because the gospel of Christ has profound social implications. But to the extent that our longing for diversity reflects God’s call to reconciliation and repentance from cultural exclusiveness, as Revelation 7:9 says, it is a profoundly spiritual measure of our missional health.
I’m grateful that Eastern Mennonite Missions chose Nelson Okanya as its new president. His intercultural adeptness, like that of Mission Network’s Stanley Green, can help our church embrace our missional calling, with all the diversity that God has in store for us.