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Doing Diversity Well

by Gary Corwin

Five potential guidelines for achieving diversity while maintaining unity.

Diversity and its related concepts — multiculturalism and pluralism — have risen to the level of ideals in most modern social and organizational contexts. Sameness is considered unhealthy, a mark of narrow partisanship and bigotry — something to be avoided at all costs. And yet, there are circumstances and contexts in which unity (a by-product of shared ideology or “sameness”) is absolutely essential. Wherever common ends and means are being pursued, the importance of unity is hard to overstate.

But achieving diversity, too, is a wonderful social state. It reflects the character and history of God’s creation, and his interaction with the world. Whether one is thinking of flowers, insects, or peoples, our God is one who loves diversity and displays his commitment to it in practically all he does.

While it is possible to hold both ends of the spectrum in appropriate balance, a problem often arises where one is overemphasized or the other is anemically pursued. When any perfectly good concept rises to the level of a politically correct mantra, it tends to overwhelm all semblance of balance in its wake. Such is the challenge facing the unity/diversity spectrum in evangelical missions, not to mention evangelical church life in general. Rather than e pluribus unum (“out of many one”), the result too often is disunity, division, and chaos.

What then are the answers? How can diversity be achieved and unity be maintained so that both goals can be honored and the work be more effective? Five potential guidelines come to mind:

1. Acknowledge that diversity and unity are about different things. Diversity is about getting beyond the “givens” of life that have historically become walls that divide the human race—things like race, gender, ethnicity, etc. These are things that people do not choose for themselves. They are also dividing walls that the gospel is specifically designed to break down (Gal. 3:28). Unity, on the other hand, is about shared purpose and values, and it requires intellectual assent and commitment of the will. It also is a prerequisite for harmonious joint labor. “Can two walk together unless they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3)

2. Celebrate diversity but cherish unity. It is an unfortunate heritage of evangelical missions that we have not always valued and celebrated diversity as we ought. Thankfully, this seems to be changing, particularly with regard to race, gender, and ethnicity. Cherishing unity, on the other hand, may be suffering some devaluation as the focus has shifted to a proper revaluation of diversity. No doubt also at play is the current cultural trend that idolizes individualism and mavericks. This same trend instinctively questions the assumptions that undergird the necessity and value of various organizations and institutions, which in turn must place a high value on unity even to function. In short, it would appear that we might finally be improving our posture with regard to diversity, but at the same time losing our grip with regard to the necessity of unity. An intentional emphasis on the essential nature of both is much needed.

3. Recognize that unity is grounded in shared commitments, but nurtured in relationship. While diversity gets the right people in the room, it is the conscious pursuit of unity through regular mutual affirmation and relationship building that provides the energy that moves things forward. Commitment to common values, goals, and the means to achieve them is the stuff that makes unity possible; however, it is relationship that makes it an effective functioning reality. It is the community of faith, the Church (and those involved in its mission), who must show by their mutual love that unity and diversity are not opposites but the faithful partners of a holy marriage.

4. Resist diversity as a goal, but embrace it as a means. It is not an end in itself, but it is a significant part of the answer to the question, “How are we going to do this?” We shortchange ourselves by ignoring the resources God has provided for a particular task when diversity does not characterize how we do things. However, we have set our goals way too low when diversity is our primary focus. God has larger issues he wants us to address, but he wants us to do it the way he does things, by celebrating and benefiting from the diverse and uniquely valuable resources he has provided.

5. Base your commitment to both unity and diversity on the nature and commands of the God we serve, not on the dictates of groupthink or political correctness. The latter will fade like the late afternoon sun, but the former will last forever. While the latter change with a new day’s headlines, the former have stood, and will stand, the test of time. One Lord. One faith. One baptism. One God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And yet … some from every tribe, tongue, nation, and people. What a great God we serve!

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Gary Corwin is associate editor of EMQ and a missiological advisor to the leadership of SIM and Arab World Ministries.

Copyright © 2008 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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