Getting to a more diverse church

(At the invitation of NEXT Church, a network of Presbyterian leaders in the U.S., I wrote something about becoming a more diverse church, a subject to which I have given considerable thought. You can find the original here at the NEXT Church website.)

I’m no longer sure what got into me, but at the ripe old age of 59, after serving mostly white and mostly suburban congregations over the course of more than 30 years of ministry, I accepted the call to become pastor of the International Protestant Church of Zürich (Switzerland).

On my first Sunday at my new church, I looked out at one of the most racially and ethnically diverse congregations in the world. On any given Sunday, more than two dozen nationalities are present in worship at my church, every skin tone God ever imagined. There are also more language groups than I have dared to count.

Happily – at least for me – we have agreed to worship and do all of our church business in English.

I have had four years now to reflect on my experience, and I can report this much: If the church in North America is ever going to become more racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse, it has a great deal of work to do.

Studies show that there are shockingly few multicultural congregations in the U.S. and that most church members are fine with that. In fact, most Christians in the U.S. will say when surveyed that they are “doing enough” to become more diverse. And the more evangelical the church, it seems, the less interest there is in becoming diverse.

Frankly, I sense very little urgency about any of this, even though Jesus’ message seems clear that we are to “make disciples of all nations,” not just the people who look and act (and vote?) like us.

I knew on my first Sunday at the International Protestant Church that I had a story to tell, and my story was published in July with the title How to Become a Multicultural Church (Eerdmans). Among other things, I decided that North American Christians will have to rethink leadership, language learning, attitudes toward worship style, and a great deal more.

Because space is limited here, let me mention two further issues – one discouraging, the other full of hope.

By far the largest obstacle to getting along here in Zürich is our theological diversity. When I served Presbyterian churches in the U.S. there was diversity too, of course, but at least we had a Book of Confessions and a theological tradition to fall back on.

Even though the church I serve today stands in the shadow of the Grossmünster, where the 16th century Reformer Ulrich Zwingli once preached, there is no Reformed tradition to guide us. Our people come from all over the globe, and they bring with them a staggering diversity of theological positions and opinions. And when people are scared, maybe you’ve noticed, they tend to hold on even more tightly to those positions and opinions.

So, every day is a challenge, and to be honest I occasionally despair that we will ever find more common ground than “Jesus is Lord” and “the Bible is God’s Word to us,” though maybe in the end that’s enough.

Growing up where I did, however, I always assumed that the highest and best form of unity would be theological unity. During my first months here I thought we should write a statement of faith, and that would be enough to bring us together.

I now have a different perspective. Our unity, I have discovered, is not in a statement of faith, but it is found at the table, the Lord’s Table. In old age, much to my surprise, I have become much more sacramental. It is at the Table where we look our best, where we find common ground, and where real unity seems to lie.

The sacrament – I think this is the key – is not something we do, but something God’s offers to us. In the meal we respond to an invitation and find ourselves changed in Christ’s presence. I haven’t worked all of this out yet, but my sense is that the table is where all “tribes, nations, and tongues” will finally become one. May God hasten that day.

(Photo: I forget where this one was taken – some really old European church, I imagine – but notice how young I look!)

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.


4 Responses to Getting to a more diverse church

  1. mike September 19, 2017 at 10:25 am #

    Hi Doug – I’m in on that, partaking of the sacraments is a powerful common denominator. But, for me, serving them is even more so. I think it would be great if church membership included a way for all members/visitors to experience serving the Lord’s Supper. Restricting it to church clergy, elder and deacons (as Paul suggested?) limits the experience to a select view IMO. If being a deacon is about serving, then the opportunity to serve the sacraments by laity provides a greater momentary – and maybe lasting – connection. And maybe a step toward a life of greater service. On a different note, how about those Wolverines!

    • Doug September 19, 2017 at 10:38 am #

      The Wolverines really played a good game against Florida, but then struggled the following two weeks – against Cincinnati and Air Force? It’s a young team, so it’s gonna be a white-knuckle season!

      As for communion, I think you’re right. One of the delights of my ministry has been (and continues to be) the serving of the elements. I could probably remember the reasons that serving is restricted to elders, deacons, and pastors, but I don’t know if they’re very persuasive. If we passed the elements – and served each other – we could probably capture the kind of intimacy or connection that you’re describing. But of course Presbyterians like to be served while seated in the pews!

      Good to hear from you as always, Mike.

  2. Fred Anderson September 19, 2017 at 12:06 pm #


    Spot on! But then, you knew I’d say that.

    I’m convinced that the majority of the trouble in the American Protestant Churches today is two-fold: a combination of Gnostic Christianity, where it is all about what you think and believe rather than living into–incarnating–life in Christ, and the starvation diet the church has been on all these years. From 4 times a year to 12 was a significant improvement, but it will not help heal the patient (remember the patristic definition of the sacrament as “medicine for our mortality”?).

    In prep for my writing on Sacramental Atonement, I have been reading T.F. Torrance’s books on “Incarnation” and “Atonement,”–far, far better and more substantive that Rutledge’s “Crucifixion,” and was struck with his description of communion as “vertical parousia” (as opposed to the “horizontal” one at the eschaton) in which he speaks of our participation in the supper as the response to Christ’s embrace. (Torrance envisions a cruciform eschaton, a “horizontal” one on the linear plane of the fulfillment of time, and a vertical one in which we experience Christ’s presence via the Spirit in Word and Sacrament.

    One other thing came to mind as I read your blog: Do you remember what you said when you returned from your first meeting in Louisville in preparation for editing the General Assembly News? “Fred, I think the only thing Presbyterians agree on is ‘Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior,’ but then, I’m not sure we even agree on what that means.”

    That was what, about 1983 or so. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

    You’ve chosen a retirement date; when is that?


    • Doug September 20, 2017 at 3:17 am #

      Dear Fred, I knew I could count on you for a well-thought-out response. And I can’t quite believe that you’re still working on your response to Fleming Rutledge, though reading T.F. Torrance in retirement must be a rewarding exercise. My only other response concerns your memory of me coming home from GA. I will admit that despair has been a frequent response over the years to gatherings of Presbyterians. I wish I had discovered the deeper meanings of the sacrament much earlier. Am grateful for our friendship and conversations now spanning several decades. A blessing. Doug