I am encouraged whenever I learn of church leaders who believe the gospel calls them to invite and unite diverse groups. But along with calls to unity I often hear a lament: "We believe in pluralism, but we just can't seem to break through the invisible walls that separate us in this community." Such Complaints have caused me to wonder: Does having a primary commitment to pluralism actually impede the unity we seek?
I'm not suggesting that we retreat from pluralism. As a Euro-American who once was the the pastor of an integrated congregation with a large majority of African-Americans, and as one of many who was bruised on the picket lines for racial justice, I am not denying our Christian commitment to a God who transcends all worldly differences. God indeed transcends us all, and is "reconciling the world unto himself, ... making us ambassadors of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:19-20). We are one in the Lord.
Recently I visited two churches located in the same neighborhood just a few blocks apart. Both seek racial and cultural integration. One appears to be succeeding, the other does not. Many reasons might be suggested for this. Without engaging in an exhaustive study of the two congregations, let me offer these simple impressions of my visits as a way of supporting my claim about pluralism.
One of the churches meets in a Gothic building: its arches define the entrance, with a lovely rose window above and a steeple tower to one side. The worship music was soft and reassuring, and visitors received a warm welcome. The congregation supported the liturgy with conviction and energy. When the worshipers "passed the peace" the sanctuary exploded with the noise of more than 300 people reaching out to greet one another, and after the benediction many pursued these conversations in the social hall. In all I felt welcomed.
In his sermon the pastor of this mainline church urged members to accept everyone - especially those who are ethically and culturally different - because we need the gifts of our diversity and we recognize our common human frailties. In a well-crafted message, the pastor made it clear that he "believed in pluralism." Yet a visitor could clearly see that the congregation shared a single racial background. Pluralism was a wish unfulfilled.
At the other church a few blocks away, worshipers entered through a schoolhouse door. They found their way upstairs to a large gymnasium where they sat on folding chairs facing a makeshift platform for the preachers and the choir. The music, played on piano, organ and drums, had a heavy beat. The pastor's sermon emphasized God's intervention in human life. While preaching the pastor carried a Bible and spoke with authority about the condition of our lives and the promises of Jesus.
This evangelical schoolhouse church drew a congregation of roughly the same size as the other, but this group was evenly divided between blacks and whites. During the announcements, their warm and explicit welcome reached across racial and cultural lines. Their commitment to diversity was modeled by the choir and reflected in the sermon and prayers. There was no blurring or obscuring of obvious social differences. But for this church, pluralism was not a primary belief but a consequence. The congregation valued diversity highly, yet on a deeper level they affirmed a distinct religious faith that held them together: "On Jesus' precious rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand." The differences between these two worship experiences, in location, pastoral style, liturgy and theological orientation, are obvious; again, I do not intend to note all the relevant factors. But I want to highlight the central importance in each group of two terms: faith and pluralism. The Gothic church made clear its faith in pluralism. The schoolhouse church put its faith in Jesus, and for this congregation pluralism seemed a natural result. …