A network church – diversity and unity

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When Grete and I fly into LAX from a trip, we typically take the Metro train back to Pasadena. Although it’s a much longer trip than taking a car, I love the experience. The crowd riding the Metro is incredibly diverse. You have high schoolers hopping on and riding one stop down together, men and women getting off work and heading home, people heading to sporting games, and a few folks who are probably homeless. It’s a place where every race and (almost) every class brush shoulders on the way to their next thing.

Why can’t church look more like the Metro?

Ryan Bolger has said that people shouldn’t have to cross cultures to come to Christ. In other words, they shouldn’t have to get used to a “church” culture before they can hear the message of Christ. We shouldn’t expect people to come to our turf, act like us, enjoy our music and understand our traditions so they can learn about God. They need to hear about God in a way they can understand.

At the same time, the Bible values diversity. Look at the mix of folks who Jesus considered friends. There were wealthy benefactors, rough and tough fishermen, government-sponsored tax collectors, zealots who possibly killed government-sponsored people like tax collectors. Would have made for an interesting dinner party.

Most of our churches today aren’t diverse. But part of the problem is that there are thousands and thousands of different sub-cultures in America. We’re drawn to people who are like us. And if people need to hear Christ within their culture, part of that should be ok, right?

So how do we reconcile this? How can we have a church that’s native to people’s cultures, but is at the same time diverse in age, race, socio-economic status and more?

A recent article in the LA Times says LA is “Pasadena-izing” – becoming a “collection of centers around which new housing (condos and apartments) and commercial spaces are being built.”

The “centers concept,” as it was called, was the brainchild of Calvin Hamilton, city planning director from 1964 to 1986. At a time when planning orthodoxy argued that cities had to be “mono-nuclear” — built around one extremely dense center, like Manhattan — L.A.’s plan was nothing less than revolutionary. Hamilton’s visionary plan acknowledged that L.A. was “poly-nuclear” — a place with many centers, of varying sizes, all of which had to be strengthened for the city to accommodate new growth.

Los Angeles is a large-scale example of this, but really, culturally, you can find this poly-nuclear approach in almost any city. There are different cultural hubs around which entirely different groups of people live, work and play.

Think about what this means for how we do church. In the past, when most towns had a similar culture within them, a big church downtown made sense. Everyone went there and worshiped. But what makes sense today?

What if you had a more network-based church with small-group type gatherings in each city center? Each sub-culture has a little “church” within it that makes sense to its people. What if those groups regularly gathered to worship and serve within their region? These more homogeneous groups would have the chance to worship and serve weekly, every other week with the larger body of Christ. Once people have connected to the church, diverse relationships begin to develop. What if the whole network gathered two to four times a year to have a big meeting/gathering/conference/festival/service?

Especially in America, we’re raised to think that church = a Sunday service of teaching and worship. Those things are good, but they aren’t the only thing the New Testament church was focused on. What if the church were decentralized so it could dig into each subculture and each region within a city, but it still held a unifying connection that allowed for a consistent vision and more resources to serve the city and world? What could it look like? What would it mean?

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A network church – diversity and unity

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