For the first time in my life I’m serving a church with the word “international” in its name. “First” has shown up a lot in church names where I’ve been pastor, and that fits with my competitive nature. (I would never want to serve a “Second” or – God forbid – a “Third.”) But I’ve never served a church that claimed to be “international.”
I wonder why it’s taken so long.
I’ve served churches along the way that aspired to what the word suggests. Those churches wanted to be something other than what they were, but somehow couldn’t quite get there. Those churches, as many of my readers know, were mainly white – northern Europeans, English speakers, all very homogeneous, all very safe and reassuring, if you happen to be white, northern European, and English speaking.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But those churches – often in settings like leadership retreats – would express regret that they were not more multi-cultural. They would hear Martin Luther King’s words about Sunday morning at 11:00 being the most segregated hour of the week in America, and they would nod as though guilty as charged.
I was at one leadership gathering where the desire to be less white was expressed, and the facilitator – surprisingly – pushed back. We expected that she would agree, I suppose, and join in our collective guilt, but instead she said, “Is that really what you want? Because if that’s really what you want, then you’ll have to change just about everything you do and the way you do it.”
We quickly erased “multi-cultural” from our list of goals. We didn’t come to a leadership retreat to make changes in our church, after all.
The church I serve now uses the word “international” in its name – and seems proud of it. Started by American expatriates a few decades ago, those American founders are now a minority, and today the membership seems to come from every continent on the face of the earth. (Well, not Antarctica, but you get the idea.)
A couple of weeks ago I watched as members came forward for communion, and I was astonished about the diversity to the point of tears. This is the “kingdom of heaven,” I thought. And in a way it is. This church gets as close to what the Nicene Creed expresses – one, holy, catholic, and apostolic – as any church I’ve ever served.
But, not to get all misty-eyed about it, that diversity carries with it some disturbing challenges. When you come from so many different points on the globe, you inevitably bring some strong opinions about what the church should be and how it should be run and what worship should look like and how the Bible should be interpreted and so on.
Really, the kingdom of heaven can be very messy.
So, I’m curious to see what the next few years will bring. I love that word “international” right now. It seems charged with everything that the church should aspire to. And I love that Nicene Creed thing about it too. But will I feel the same way a year from now? Two years from now? We’ll see.
And as for that other word in my church’s name – “Protestant” – I’ll need another blog post (or two) to sort that one out.
In the meantime, as we say in this part of the world … ciao.