Understanding Diversity and Its Denominational Implications: Unmasking Marginalization as Southern Baptists (Vinh T. Nguyen)

Many memories have been etched into my mind in both the years I’ve spent as a minister and an academic, but one memory stands out in particular. I had just finished my third semester as a bible student at Ouachita Baptist University and was visiting the church I grew up in where my father-in-law was serving as the student pastor. The youth group looked different in at least two different ways. First, it was quite a bit larger than it was when I was a teenager growing up. Second, the room now had just as many, if not more, African-American and Asian teenagers as it did Caucasians. Like many first-year bible students, I was excited to hear the bible lesson (aka offering my two cents from what I had learned in an introductory hermeneutics or exegesis course). Little did I realize how much I would end up learning on that night, from the most unexpected person, in the most unexpected environment.

Sitting in the corner was a young black teenager (we will call him Zane because that was his name). In typical fashion, the lively and talkative group of teenagers began to quiet down when the student pastor (we will call him “big Mike” because that was his name and the adjective was accurate) asked “who wants to read our bible verses today.” As every eye sheepishly looked to their left and right to see who would rise up to the challenge, Zane—who at this point was halfway sunk into the all familiar donated youth room sofa—slowly raised his hand. Panic and perhaps a bit of embarrassment began to set in as Zane frantically flipped through the pages in front of his peers, scrambling to find the book of Acts. After being reminded to use the table of contents, Zane located Acts 13 and began reading the passage. A snicker and quiet laughter filled the room as Zane began stuttering and stammering through the passage. With his voice booming above both the reading and the laughing and snickering, big Mike interjected and said, “and which one of you guys volunteered to read—I didn’t think so.” Suddenly panic and embarrassment seemed to switch places and the room was attentively listening. Big Mike, as far as I could remember, seemed to have this effect on people. Zane, now full of confidence, resumed to stutter and stammer through the reading mumbling over the words he couldn’t pronounce. As Zane approached Acts 13:1 and began reading through the names of the prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch, he got to Simeon with eyes wide and jaw dropped and said, “Simeon called ‘and a word I can’t say’….”

I share this story for two particular reasons. First, I was struck by Zane’s thinking concerning the word Niger, that is, his acknowledgment, whether conscious or not, about the negative connotations that have come to be associated with the word even as an African American. Second, the ability (and arguably unlikely nature) of a six foot something, bald headed youth pastor with little formal theological training, to grow a ministry full of diverse students whose thinking about life and God were even more diverse. I think there is something to be said and to learn about diversity in churches when it comes to this, considering that same ministry is now only a fraction of the size it was and only has Caucasian student since undergoing new leadership.

It has become apparent, at least to me, that one major reason, though there are others, diversity continues to be an issue in churches is because people have limited it to what a person looks like. I would like to suggest that marginalization will continue to happen in churches, particularly in Southern Baptist life, if such a limited understanding of diversity persists. Merriam-Webster, for example, offers two glosses for diversity:

1) the condition of having or being composed of differing elements: variety; especially: the inclusion of different types of people (such as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization.

2) and instance of being composed of differing elements or qualities: an instance of being diverse; a diversity of opinion.

The first gloss, while offering a description of what diversity often involves (i.e., different types of people such as races or cultures) is quite limiting—I think. The second gloss, while a bit vague, does a better job at capturing what diversity is about. A diversity of opinion relates to how one thinks about matters more so than what one looks like.

Let me first explain what I mean by diversity having to involve more than what a person looks like before offering suggestions for a way forward. I was honored to be asked to write a quick post about the important topic of diversity (which I suspect happened first because I was Asian and only second because I might be able to offer a different thought on the topic). In many ways; however, I fulfill the role of what some may consider a “token” Asian because I pretty much grew up in America and think a lot like many American Christians do. This is one of the glaring problems in the understanding of diversity seen in many churches today (even those who claim to be multi-ethnic, though I have witnessed particular churches do multi-ethnic well). Christians often mask marginalization by describing their churches as being “diverse” simply because they have a few different races represented. In 2008 in Indianapolis, Indiana, Southern Baptists celebrated the “growing ethnic diversity” of their churches and LifeWay Christian sources. But “ethnic” on what grounds and growing in what way? Nearly a decade later, SBC messengers denounced the “alt-right” movement as a “virulent and destructive form of racism.” Perhaps we took one “small step” in 2008 and one “giant leap” in 2017, but I doubt it. Perhaps the celebration came prematurely considering Jarvis Williams 2010 book “One New Man” along with his recent contribution (along with Kevin Jones) in 2017 “Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention.” Diversity needs to include differences in thinking and not just differences in appearance (backed by the familiar and often cited Rev. 7:9 passage describing the innumerable multitude standing before the throne) if there is going to be a reason to celebrate.

In what ways, then, should we understand diversity? I would like to offer just a couple of preliminary suggestions that are meant to be less controversial and more to spur on the conversation. First, true diversity can only take place in the presence humility. In my experience, learning best takes place when one takes a posture of humility. First, I emphasize humility because I think it should be the prerequisite to any theological conversation. Second, I emphasize conversation because, in my estimation, it is significant and needs to take place if we want to see true diversity in our churches. Conversation necessarily involves listening to others and asking questions rather than dismissing those whose opinions and perspectives don’t align with our own. In many ways, humility undergirds the points I emphasize because it leads one to engage in conversation, then to actively listen during the conversation, and (perhaps most important) shift one’s positions if need be. This by no means implies that one should abandon all of their own convictions, but to listen in such a way that the breaking of bread, and the bond of fellowship, is not so easily broken or abandoned on the grounds that some people just don’t think about matters of theology, the church, and the world in the same way as others do. While this is not the place to have a discussion on matters of soteriology, the SBC has faced numerous consequences because of the insufferable behavior of some of its members (from both sides) concerning their thinking the topic.

Understanding diversity as something worth celebrating, particularly as Southern Baptists, means no longer marginalizing those who do not think about things in the way we want or would like them to think. I would challenge all of us to be more willing to practice humility, engage in conversation, actively listen, and to not be afraid to move from our long-held positions if need be. If, as Southern Baptists, we cannot do this within our own convention, how then will we embrace true diversity from those whose theology and perspectives are not shaped by our own Western American context? Sandra Maria Van Opstal, in her book The Next Worship: Glorifying God in a Diverse World says it well when she comments:

As long as our worship makes people feel excluded or in constant visitor status, we are not accomplishing the ministry of biblical hospitality. . . . However, when we are creating an inclusive table in which there is room for all, the meal and the experience will represent all who sit at the table. . . . In a multiethnic community no members should be made to feel like they are perpetual guests.

I have the privilege of studying alongside Koreans, Africans, Lithuanians, and Christians from other countries whose thinking on matters of theology, church, and the world do not align with my own views. I have listened and I have learned from brothers and sisters all around the world, and my own understanding has grown along with my ability to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which I have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1–3). Some of them have become my closest friends and conversation partners, and even in the midst of disagreement, I never feel like a “perpetual guest” at the table. While much more could be said and expanded on the notion of diversity, I hope this will spur on the conversation in a way that we, as Southern Baptists, can begin to see a bit clearer what the biblical picture of the saints around the throne in Revelation 7 might actually look like.

 


Vinh Nguyen is a New Testament PhD student at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario Canada. He also holds an M.A. in Biblical Languages from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and a B.A. in Biblical Studies and Christian Ministry from Ouachita Baptist University. He is married to Michele and is the father of the two of the prettiest little girls you’ll ever meet, Ali and Autumn.

An Uneven Banquet

While trying to wrestle with a friend’s question about pastoral ministry, I began thinking along the lines of this illustration. I share it here because it might be useful to you. If it’s not, then feel free to have the same old argument about everything in the comments. Here’s some words to help you with that: alcohol, Calvin, Conservative Resurgence, Great Commission Giving, Women, Trustees, Yankees, SEC (not the government agency).

I’m sitting here on a Saturday morning pondering what it is to pastor a normal-sized Southern Baptist Church. Actually, we’re on the high side of normal, but about 80% of Southern Baptist-affiliated churches run our size or smaller (based on the cool information-display thing the Caskey Center was handing out at #SBCAM18hashtagSBC18). So, I’ll claim normal status for us. All the statistics you see, all the proclamations from on high lead one to believe that churches like this are doomed. We need to either adopt the latest and greatest new craze or go back to the old ways, and that will save us. Perhaps we need to become satellite locations of the regional mega-franchise, or join a better network, or show up for another round of meetings that simply rehash what the last half-dozen meetings were about, and that will get us on the right track. Who on earth knows? For every expert opinion, there’s an expert opinion on its wrongness. For every success story of implementing New Program A, there’s a church that invested a chunk of time and money into New Program A and now has a closet full of unused material from it. (For the record: if you are looking for lost treasures of the Bible, check the average Baptist church closet. There’s got to be some real relics in there. I found a new-in-box CWT kit one time.)

All this pondering has me back to this question: where have we gone wrong? And what is the Biblical model that we’re missing? We have leadership consultants, preaching consultants, growth consultants. The aim is to make pastors better at everything.

And I think that this is part of our problem: in the bulk of our churches, pastors are trying to do everything. Some of us are trying to do everything because we’re control freaks and dictators. Some of us are trying to do everything because not enough others step up and do. Some of us are trying to do everything because we perceive that to be the expectation of the church we are accountable to (perhaps because it’s written that way in the church’s by-laws). We shouldn’t be.

If we take as an illustration the Parable of the Banquet in Matthew 22, what can we see about service in the church? Now, traditionally, we keep the focus of interpretation on the evangelistic bent of the parable, and I do not intend to argue with that. Rather, I want us to contemplate banquets. Since Jesus uses a banquet as an image of eternity, it is perhaps also a valid image for us to think about the church. Let’s take it as one:

When you contract with someone to prepare a banquet, typically you engage a team of people to do the work. Some of the team are good at decoration; some are good at table settings and arrangements; others make salads; some make drinks (SWEET TEA AND LEMONADE, YOU HEATHENS!); some make desserts; some cook main dishes and others vegetables. True, there is one person responsible for coordinating it all, but that person does not accomplish it all. He may even be hopelessly incompetent at salad preparation! (If you have me do your banquet, you’re getting the salad-in-a-bag from Sam’s Club.)

At the moment of your banquet, the success is based on every person doing well what they are good at, what they are trained to do, and what they are assigned to do. If the steak-griller insists on meddling with the salad-makers, then you’ll have burnt steaks and meddled salads, causing a problem in both areas. Where, though, do you assign your best person? Salads or steaks?

It’s a nonsense question. You assign someone gifted with steak to steaks, and the one gifted with salads to salad. Likewise with desserts, drinks (TEA AND LEMONADE!), decorations… (and training applies the same way.) If you took someone who was a genius at preparing desserts and stationed them grilling steaks because you think the most important person should be doing steaks, then you may have frustrated the whole process. Further, each person needs to be valued for what they bring–and celebrated for what they do rather than belittled for what they do not do.

The work of the local church is not unlike the banquet preparation: there is plenty of work to be done, and plenty of people to do it. But we get wrapped up in expecting folks to fill responsibilities outside of their skillset, giftings, and training. We make a specific spot, like preaching, out to be the most important possible thing to do in the church–and then we expect someone who is skilled with that to also be skilled with a dozen other tasks. Or to split his attention among those dozen other tasks which he’s really not good at! Meanwhile, we sideline someone who would be good at encouraging the fellowship of the church because she’s not a preacher, so we do not let her lead out in developing ways that we do that whole “encourage one another daily” concept.

In keeping with the illustration, we take the person who is supposed to be working the grill and insist that he grill and bump the salad person out of the way, fiddle with the desserts, and decorate the room. Meanwhile, the grill is not being used well. And then the banquet is unsuccessful because one person cannot do everything and do it all well.

But we operate our churches this way, expecting someone to be both a great teacher and great organizer, not stopping to consider that a great teacher may need someone to do the organizing–and that the church must value each one equally. Perhaps this is our drawback? We continue to structure our churches in a way that puts a single person at the head, involved in everything, whether or not his gifts, training, and personality are equal to it all. And believe they: he’s not up to the whole task.

Yes, there are definite aspects of pastoring: if a man cannot preach at all, then someone else must take up the pastorate of that church. But is there no room for the pastor of moderate preaching who organizes well and empowers others to service? Or for the pastor who preaches and teaches well, but needs others to wrestle the administrative and even long-term leadership ideas of the church?

I am not advocating giving license to sloth in the work, but in the coming years it may behoove us to rethink our approach to church leadership. I firmly believe every church needs a trained, growing-in-experience pastor who handles the Word of God rightly. But not every man who fits that bill will also be a lively, outgoing, people-person who is great with all the other aspects we’ve attached. And we need to not belittle those who handle the other parts of leading the church but instead find a way forward that celebrates and engages all the gifts God has given in His people.

 

An Uneven Banquet

While trying to wrestle with a friend’s question about pastoral ministry, I began thinking along the lines of this illustration. I share it here because it might be useful to you. If it’s not, then feel free to have the same old argument about everything in the comments. Here’s some words to help you with that: alcohol, Calvin, Conservative Resurgence, Great Commission Giving, Women, Trustees, Yankees, SEC (not the government agency).

I’m sitting here on a Saturday morning pondering what it is to pastor a normal-sized Southern Baptist Church. Actually, we’re on the high side of normal, but about 80% of Southern Baptist-affiliated churches run our size or smaller (based on the cool information-display thing the Caskey Center was handing out at #SBCAM18hashtagSBC18). So, I’ll claim normal status for us. All the statistics you see, all the proclamations from on high lead one to believe that churches like this are doomed. We need to either adopt the latest and greatest new craze or go back to the old ways, and that will save us. Perhaps we need to become satellite locations of the regional mega-franchise, or join a better network, or show up for another round of meetings that simply rehash what the last half-dozen meetings were about, and that will get us on the right track. Who on earth knows? For every expert opinion, there’s an expert opinion on its wrongness. For every success story of implementing New Program A, there’s a church that invested a chunk of time and money into New Program A and now has a closet full of unused material from it. (For the record: if you are looking for lost treasures of the Bible, check the average Baptist church closet. There’s got to be some real relics in there. I found a new-in-box CWT kit one time.)

All this pondering has me back to this question: where have we gone wrong? And what is the Biblical model that we’re missing? We have leadership consultants, preaching consultants, growth consultants. The aim is to make pastors better at everything.

And I think that this is part of our problem: in the bulk of our churches, pastors are trying to do everything. Some of us are trying to do everything because we’re control freaks and dictators. Some of us are trying to do everything because not enough others step up and do. Some of us are trying to do everything because we perceive that to be the expectation of the church we are accountable to (perhaps because it’s written that way in the church’s by-laws). We shouldn’t be.

If we take as an illustration the Parable of the Banquet in Matthew 22, what can we see about service in the church? Now, traditionally, we keep the focus of interpretation on the evangelistic bent of the parable, and I do not intend to argue with that. Rather, I want us to contemplate banquets. Since Jesus uses a banquet as an image of eternity, it is perhaps also a valid image for us to think about the church. Let’s take it as one:

When you contract with someone to prepare a banquet, typically you engage a team of people to do the work. Some of the team are good at decoration; some are good at table settings and arrangements; others make salads; some make drinks (SWEET TEA AND LEMONADE, YOU HEATHENS!); some make desserts; some cook main dishes and others vegetables. True, there is one person responsible for coordinating it all, but that person does not accomplish it all. He may even be hopelessly incompetent at salad preparation! (If you have me do your banquet, you’re getting the salad-in-a-bag from Sam’s Club.)

At the moment of your banquet, the success is based on every person doing well what they are good at, what they are trained to do, and what they are assigned to do. If the steak-griller insists on meddling with the salad-makers, then you’ll have burnt steaks and meddled salads, causing a problem in both areas. Where, though, do you assign your best person? Salads or steaks?

It’s a nonsense question. You assign someone gifted with steak to steaks, and the one gifted with salads to salad. Likewise with desserts, drinks (TEA AND LEMONADE!), decorations… (and training applies the same way.) If you took someone who was a genius at preparing desserts and stationed them grilling steaks because you think the most important person should be doing steaks, then you may have frustrated the whole process. Further, each person needs to be valued for what they bring–and celebrated for what they do rather than belittled for what they do not do.

The work of the local church is not unlike the banquet preparation: there is plenty of work to be done, and plenty of people to do it. But we get wrapped up in expecting folks to fill responsibilities outside of their skillset, giftings, and training. We make a specific spot, like preaching, out to be the most important possible thing to do in the church–and then we expect someone who is skilled with that to also be skilled with a dozen other tasks. Or to split his attention among those dozen other tasks which he’s really not good at! Meanwhile, we sideline someone who would be good at encouraging the fellowship of the church because she’s not a preacher, so we do not let her lead out in developing ways that we do that whole “encourage one another daily” concept.

In keeping with the illustration, we take the person who is supposed to be working the grill and insist that he grill and bump the salad person out of the way, fiddle with the desserts, and decorate the room. Meanwhile, the grill is not being used well. And then the banquet is unsuccessful because one person cannot do everything and do it all well.

But we operate our churches this way, expecting someone to be both a great teacher and great organizer, not stopping to consider that a great teacher may need someone to do the organizing–and that the church must value each one equally. Perhaps this is our drawback? We continue to structure our churches in a way that puts a single person at the head, involved in everything, whether or not his gifts, training, and personality are equal to it all. And believe they: he’s not up to the whole task.

Yes, there are definite aspects of pastoring: if a man cannot preach at all, then someone else must take up the pastorate of that church. But is there no room for the pastor of moderate preaching who organizes well and empowers others to service? Or for the pastor who preaches and teaches well, but needs others to wrestle the administrative and even long-term leadership ideas of the church?

I am not advocating giving license to sloth in the work, but in the coming years it may behoove us to rethink our approach to church leadership. I firmly believe every church needs a trained, growing-in-experience pastor who handles the Word of God rightly. But not every man who fits that bill will also be a lively, outgoing, people-person who is great with all the other aspects we’ve attached. And we need to not belittle those who handle the other parts of leading the church but instead find a way forward that celebrates and engages all the gifts God has given in His people.

 

Giving as Witness

We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia (2 Cor 8:1)

In 2 Corinthians 8, Paul describes the Macedonian’s giving as an act of God’s grace. Their giving was a living witness to the grace of God in their lives. Giving is a natural expression of a life that has been changed by the gospel. True Godly giving is not of our own doing, but of the work of Christ through us. If you want to be a witness for Christ, one significant way to do that is to excel in the grace of giving.

As you seek to be a witness for Christ, note the characteristics of giving exhibited by the Macedonian church:

Grace leads to joyful giving
2 for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.

Paul begins by speaking of their “overflow of joy.” As God works in our lives, giving is the overflow of God’s working in us. The word “overflow” appears twice in the Greek, as both a noun and verb, so that it translates literally “their overflow . . . overflowed” or “their abundance . . . abounded.” The Macedonian believers give out of their overflow – not the overflow of their financial resources, but rather the overflow of the joy God’s grace had produced in them. Giving is the overflow of God’s work of grace in us. If you have the joy of the Lord, giving will be part of the overflow of that joy and a visible witness of that joy.

Grace leads to sacrificial giving
3 For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means

The Macedonians themselves faced financial hardship, but they graciously gave even beyond their ability to do so. They did not give what was left over or what they could afford after all their other felt needs were met. They gave sacrificially – they gave up something in order to give. When we give sacrificially to minister to others, we are witnessing to the fact that there is something greater than ourselves. Our desire to follow Christ is seen in our willingness to deny ourselves in order to give to others.

Grace leads to willful giving
3 For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord,

Paul explains in verse 3, that the Macedonian Christians did not give because they were compelled to do so (cf. 9:7). Rather, they gave of their own accord. In other words, it was their idea. When Paul presented the financial need of the Jerusalem believers, there was no arm-twisting, no passionate pleas for money, no guilt-inducing sermons. The Macedonians willingly gave. When we give willingly, we witness to the fact that following Christ is not out of obligation or duty, but out our love for Him.

Grace leads to eager giving
4 begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints 5 and this, not as we expected

If your pastor forgot to take up the offering, would anybody mind? When Paul was collecting an offering for the needy, the Macedonians though themselves poor said – “hey, don’t overlook us – we may not have much, but we want the opportunity to give.” What an unexpected response! Rather than being reluctant to give, they were eager and sought out Paul for the opportunity to take part in the offering. Such a giving spirit is the fruit of a life changed by God’s grace. We want to be a part of what God is doing. We look forward to the opportunity to give. Eagerness in giving is a clear witness of God’s grace in our own lives and the importance we place on loving others and ministering in Jesus’ name.

Grace leads to self-giving
5 and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.

Perhaps the most important aspect of giving seen in the Macedonian church is that giving of their financial resources was a giving of themselves. If we look for the reason for their gift – why they gave in such a remarkable way – we see the grace of God at work. As a result of God’s work of grace in their lives, the Macedonian believers gave themselves to the Lord and then to His mission. This is what the gospel does. It leads us to respond to the grace of God by giving ourselves wholly to the Lord. Earlier in the letter, Paul explains, “He died for all so that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and rose again.” Grace-filled giving goes beyond merely parting with our finances. We give of ourselves to the Lord and to others.

Paul concludes with a challenge to us. As the Macedonians have given us this example of grace-filled giving, what should be OUR response?

We must excel in the Grace of Giving

6 Accordingly, we urged Titus that as he had started, so he should complete among you this act of grace. 7 But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you —see that you excel in this act of grace also.

Paul does not negate the importance of faith, speech, knowledge, and the many other aspects of living the Christian life. If you’re going to live for Christ and be His witnesses, let me challenge you with this thought…

The best evidence of God working in your life is not what you believe,
The best evidence of God working in your life is not what you say,
The best evidence of God working in your life is not what you know,
The best evidence of God working in your life is not what you intend,
The BEST evidence of God working in your life is what you DO.

If you want to be a living witness of the Grace of God in your life, excel in the GRACE of Giving!