The Threat of Chaos in Diverse Churches

A year and a half has gone by since I last wrote “Pursuing Ministry while Reformed & Chinese.” Perhaps it’s time for a reflection.

If you’re new to my story or need a memory jogger, in 2018, I accepted an invitation to serve as pastor-in-residence at the Berkeley location of Christ Church East Bay

Now, there are a few things you should know about us.

Christ Church Berkeley is an Evangelical Presbyterian Church in the San Francisco Bay Area. We’re just one block south of the original Peet’s Coffee, and two blocks north of the University of California, Berkeley.

If I could describe Christ Church in a word, we’re eclectic.

We are multiethnic (60% white). We are multinational (China, India, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Canada, Colombia, Sweden, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Taiwan).

We are also multigenerational. We have newborns and middle schoolers whose parents hope they can get into Cal. We have undergrads, postgrads, and faculty at Cal. We have retired alumni from Cal. And of course the rest of us who couldn’t get into Cal, we too exist at all stages of life.

However, our diversity is most pronounced in our religious backgrounds and ideological convictions.

Those in regular attendance have included agnostic nones, conservative evangelicals, post-conservative evangelicals, Roman Catholics, liberal Episcopalians, conservative Episcopalians, Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, charismatics, former PCA elders, former PCUSA elders, at least one fundamentalist-type street preacher, members of the Chinese Communist Party, and at least one member of the Church of Christian Science.

Some are heterosexual, others are not. Some politically and/or theologically affirm gay marriage, others do not. Some insist upon the legitimacy of women’s ordination, others remain undecided or unconvinced. Some love the Catholic contemplative tradition, others like Hillsong. Some affirm universalism, some reject inerrancy, and others would be scandalized to learn much of this.

Some voted for Trump, others are triggered by him. Some are vegans committed to saving the environment, and others spend lots of time and money on golf and barbeque. Some live in the Berkeley Hills, others live in a Roman Catholic convent, others live in university dorms, and yet still others formerly lived in homeless encampments.

Christ Church is on many counts a diverse church.

Now in this cultural moment in which diversity is prized and valued, it could sound like I am boasting. Trust me, I’m not.

I’m interested in real talk.

And if I’m being real with you, I have to admit it. I am just as confused and frustrated by my church’s diversity as I am encouraged and thankful for it.

But of course, in a fallen world this is to be expected. Chaos, the counterfeit of diversity, is just as real as uniformity, the counterfeit of unity.

As much as people laud the real beauty and potential of diversity in the American church, few mention the equally real possibility of disaster at every turn. Few mention the tiptoeing and the tight-rope act required of the leadership at all times. And few mention the enormous amounts of time and energy spent on sensitivity, balance, and harmony, often at the cost of other values.

We cannot ignore this reality. The chaos latent within every eclectic congregation genuinely threatens its cultivation into what it was meant to be – a family on mission.

Think about it.

It’s hard to be a family when you don’t inhabit the same story.

I was born and raised in a unique Chinese American church, planted before the new wave of post-1965 Chinese diasporic immigrants.

My church was started as a ministry to ABCs, such as my parents. So strong was the vision of this church to reach ABCs, that it later established a K-12 school to reach the Chinese families of the San Francisco Bay Area. I literally received my entire K-12 education from a school called “Chinese Christian Schools.”

For my friends and me, this tiny bubble was our whole world.

We all said the Sinner’s Prayer and “accepted Jesus into our hearts” some time in elementary school. All our parents were believers in our church, and even many of our grandparents had come to Christ through the evangelism of their children (our parents) and with the help of the church’s later established Cantonese and senior ministry.

Therefore, we knew each other’s spiritual heritages and stories because we had them all in common. And because this church was the only church many of us ever knew, an implicit ‘orthodoxy’ was easily established in our psyches. A commitment to complementarianism, exclusivism, inerrancy, six-day creationism, pre-millennialism, filial piety, purity culture, and being pro-life were all part of the package.

With such common religious, social, and political backgrounds, the preaching and spiritual formation in our community was easily streamlined. Church leaders could make very quick and intuitive decisions with pretty safely held assumptions. And though this created a strong insider/outsider dynamic, the sense of belonging and loyalty within was powerful.

Such commonly shared stories even created a common and shared language as well.

At Christ Church, though, no such theological assumptions can be made. Nor can any assumptions be made about how and when a person may have become a Christian, or even what that means to them. We always have to start from scratch with each new person who comes through our doors, which can be quite tiring.

It’s hard to be a family when you don’t speak the same language.

Sure, everyone at Christ Church speaks English. However, we don’t all speak the same Christian language at relational, theological, and spiritual levels.

For example, at Christ Church, different kids call me “Mr. Andrew” or just straight up “Andrew.” My wife and I, however, having grown up in Chinese American churches calling all our parents’ friends “Auntie” and “Uncle,” have sought to uphold this language with our daughter.

On a theological level, when I say “gospel” some people think penal substitution, others Christus Victor, and still others the social gospel.

When we talk about God’s justice, some think of it as Martin Luther did, while others think of it more like Martin Luther King, Jr. did.

When someone says “mission,” some people think of evangelism and perhaps even proselytizing, others think of mercy ministry and social justice, and yet still others are triggered by the memory of the Crusades and the imperialism of Western missionaries.

Christianese doesn’t work well in an eclectic church. Terms such as “discipleship,” “sin,” “heaven/hell,” “glory,” “holiness,” “Trinity,” “incarnation,” “Reformed,” “evangelical,” “liberal/conservative,” “orthodox,” and “catechesis” all require much elaboration, often getting lost on people as they die the death of a thousand qualifications.

In an eclectic church, helpful memes and terms developed in certain Christian contexts lose their potency. Take for example, Piper’s adaptation of Westminster Shorter Catechism 1. “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God by enjoying him forever.” At Christ Church, the use of the word “man” is already triggering, never mind a cumbersome word like “glorify.”

Or if you are a fan of The Gospel Coalition, think of the import of the adjective “gospel-centered” in your church’s preaching and spiritual formation. If you think about it, such an adjective comes out of a very recent and distinct Christian context that not all American Christians are privy to. Some of our people don’t even know who Tim Keller is.

Language shapes culture, but it’s hard to preach and establish a church culture without a shared language.

It’s also hard to be a family when you don’t share the same consumption habits and preferences.

I touched on this when I wrote about consumption and community a while back. Consumerism and the power of preference over Western secular individuals constantly attack the church’s unity.

Christ Church is filled with a variety of people with a variety of budgets, diets, and hobbies.

It’s hard for the undergrad or previously unsheltered person to grab lunch after church with a Berkeley Hills homeowner. On the flip side, it’s also hard for Berkeley Hills homeowners to stomach the staple diet of those living below the poverty line.

Ministering at Christ Church, I’ve come to learn how couched my Asian American diet is in a particular socioeconomic and sociocultural context. The Asian American diet really isn’t well-suited for the vegans, the gluten intolerant, or the keto-enthusiasts of Berkeley, nor for those who don’t want to spend five bucks on milk tea with strange chewy balls.

And try planning a community meal in Berkeley. Even before you get to the complicated discussion of what to serve, you’re doing the math on the cost of eco-friendly plates, cutlery, and cups, and estimating how many will bring their own reusable water bottles.

And it’s not just about spending habits and the consumption of food, but of entertainment too. Birds of a feather flock together. And even when such birds decide to attend an eclectic church, they rarely see the church as their primary means of friendship and community.

The dungeons and dragons gamers’ closest friends are outside the church. So are the climbers’, the runners’, and the foodies’. It’s hard to be a family when you don’t like spending time together, especially in a culture where we often only know how to spend time with others around consumption.

It’s also hard to be a family when you don’t share the same views and values.

Sure, I’ll be the first to espouse the merits of multiperspectivalism. But it’s always hard work.

People are constantly pulling the church in different directions based on their various views and values. And what’s more, many of these directions, even those that seem to be opposites, are often actually good and worthwhile directions. The difficulty is in discerning the best timing of each distinct direction, and how vigorously we ought to pull.

Two Sundays ago, our lead pastor preached on the bleeding woman and Jairus’ daughter. Preaching God’s delights in elevating women, he thanked the faithful women of the church and challenged the men to step up. And yet while one listener was offended that he didn’t treat men equally, another was offended that he didn’t condemn the church’s historic treatment of women enough, nor mention #MeToo.

How do you find unity around the gospel, when the gospel itself is like a multi-dimensional diamond?

With all these difficulties come loneliness (“I don’t belong”), discouragement (“The gospel doesn’t seem to be enough to unify”), and the inability to expediently accomplish simple ministry tasks (“It’s so hard to get things done”). Just as much as a multi-[fill in the blank] church may bear witness to the beauty of diversity, it can also bear witness to the dysfunction of chaos.

All this is not to say that diversity shouldn’t be pursued by the church. It should definitely be pursued and celebrated in opposition to rote uniformity. However, even as we pursue and celebrate unity in diversity, we must always be real about and ready to address the threat of chaos lurking behind every instance of diversity in a sin-stained world.

More on that another time.

Andrew Ong

Andrew is a third-generation, San Francisco Bay Area ABC (American Born Chinese). He and his beautiful third-gen wife have a daughter and still live in the Bay. After graduating from the University of California Irvine and Westminster Theological Seminary, he completed his PhD in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, researching Chinese American evangelicals and Neo-Calvinist theology. He presently serves on staff at Christ Church East Bay in Berkeley, California. Andrew's a simple guy whose passions include: sushi, pizza, nachos, and the Golden State Warriors. On his less sanctified days he lives by the maxim: #ballislife.

3 thoughts on “The Threat of Chaos in Diverse Churches

  • February 13, 2020 at 5:11 pm
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    “Sure, everyone at Christ Church speaks English.”

    I know that a single article cannot address everything, but I think this statement is worthy of a bit more consideration given your comments about the multi-national nature of the congregation.

    One principle from the Reformation that I have been seeing the value more and more of recently is using the language of the people – or, I might say, the heart-language of the people. There is a difference between responses in your heart-language versus another language, even if that language is shared with other people. I wonder about what the impact on the church as a corporate body is when, for example, a service in English resonates with those who are native English speakers compared with those who have a different heart language.

    Of course, this can even happen within a particular language, so it does not need to be across languages. I can think of people who preach and teach like they are trying to be second coming of the Puritan. However, 17th century English is not the heart language of 21st century English speakers, so I suspect there is a power and potency lost by not speaking the language of the people.

    Reply
  • February 13, 2020 at 9:08 pm
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    I enjoyed reading this article as I can relate to this multi-faceted diversity in my church context too. As I finished your article, the term “chaos theory” somehow came to my mind. I have not studied this in depth, but I have read about it in passing as it relates to math. This term led me to do a cursory Google search on “chaos social theory” and it yielded this hit: “In the social sciences, chaos theory is the study of complex non-linear systems of social complexity. It is not about disorder but rather about very complicated systems of order” (https://www.thoughtco.com/chaos-theory-3026621). Further, this link pointed out that “Chaotic systems are sensitive to initial conditions. Even a very slight change in the starting point can lead to significantly different outcomes. Chaotic systems are not random, nor disorderly. Truly random systems are not chaotic. Rather, chaos has a send of order and pattern.” This certainly raises questions of how might chaos social theory be of use in understanding your church. I am also reminded of my friend Dr. Samuel Law of Singapore Bible College who wrote about “Complex Systems Science” as applied to the Chinese church. Some areas of the world are very “complex and chaotic,” as in Berkeley and Singapore and similar urban areas. Thanks again for your reflection and insight here as in other articles.

    Reply

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