By Wayne Stapleton, Pastor at Renewal Church in Warren, MI
In the Gospel of John, chapter 17, we get a look into a profound moment in the life of Christ. We read the longest account of our Lord and Savior praying to the Father. He prays for Himself, and He prays for the 11 disciples with whom He physically ministered. And then He prays for us.
And what He prays for us is at once inspiring and incredibly challenging.
We read, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20–21 ESV).
What does Christ’s desire for our oneness mean? He could not have been praying only for unity among people who share social, cultural, and economic similarities. He could not have meant a unity only based in political expediency. He could not have been praying to God for His followers to have a unity that is achievable apart from Him. Jesus must have been praying to God the Father for a unity that requires supernatural empowerment. How else would His people be distinguished from the world?
Jesus prayed for a unity that is grounded in the unity He experienced with the Father. It had to be incredibly profound if it would lead to non-believers coming to the belief that Jesus was sent from God.
What might this kind of unity look like? I have an example.
I have a friend who I have referred to as my “sister from another mister.” She is intelligent, a lover of Christ, and a dedicated professional. She is also white and has her own opinions about many subjects.
Once, when talking about issues related to race and ethnicity, our conversation got slightly emotional. One of us, probably me, said, “I don’t mean to offend you.” The other person said, “You cannot offend me; I know your heart.”
That spoke volumes to me about what the body of Christ needs to manifest if we are to show the world unity.
Unity does not come from ignoring differences.
Unity does not come from avoiding people because they are different.
Unity will not be ushered in by us mouthing Bible verses but following them up with little action.
Real biblical unity will come from entering into tough conversations with people whom we don’t merely go to church with, but people whom we love. The kind of unity Jesus wants is unity not based upon uniformity or complete agreement but love in the midst of human difference.
My friend and I could have a conversation that entered slightly shaky waters because we had already established a connection as a brother and a sister in Christ. We were more than willing to respond in grace to statements made in ignorance or lack of understanding or flat-out disagreement. And we could still love each other in Christ.
It seems to me that this kind of unity is supernaturally empowered and is reflective of Christ’s prayerful desire.
I am an African-American pastor, and I do not pursue these kinds of dialogues with every white brother or sister in Christ I have. But I do pursue these kinds of relationships with some, those with whom I have established that kind of heart connection in Christ.
This kind of unity requires dependence on the Holy Spirit.
With regard to race and cultural differences, the body of Christ in North America has a tremendous opportunity to testify to the fact that Jesus was sent by the Father. We must be intentional because this kind of unity is opposed by the evil one and opposed by our own flesh. The unity of the church of Jesus Christ is a powerful witness to a Western culture fragmented along many lines, including ethnic diversity.
We might find this kind of unity difficult, so I have identified six steps to help us be intentional in developing relationships across ethnic or racial differences.
While these steps can apply in the context of the church or with people outside the church, I believe that the family of God is the place to begin showing the unsaved world what unity can really look like.
First, Observe people in your sphere of influence. You don’t have to leave your context to engage with people different than you; you just need to see the people who are already there. A pastor friend of mine once preached that God has strategically placed us in the proximity of certain people for a reason. This was the experience Philip had when the Spirit led him to the Ethiopian official in Acts 8.
Then, Pray. Pray early and often. Pray to have eyes to see. Pray about your interaction. Pray about your heart toward those different than you. Pray for their receptivity to relationship. This is not a social program or a feel-good plan. The intentional pursuit of relationships across ethnic or cultural lines is as spiritual as much as it is relational. Invite the Holy Spirit to enable you to engage this connection with the grace that only God can provide.
Enter into conversation and relationship. Get to know a person. Ask questions. Be humble. Take the position of a learner. Don’t see the person as a project; he or she was made in the image of God just as you were. See the person the way Jesus does. If that is difficult, ask the Holy Spirit to help you see them this way.
Note the similarities you share with this person. You may have ethnic or cultural differences, but you also have similarities that are there if you look for them. The human condition is a common condition with varied expressions; upon these, you can establish mutual connection and friendship. Your similarities are a base for relationship and provide a foundation as you navigate your differences. The apostle Paul recognized the missional importance of identifying with others as he wrote that he identified with all that he might save some (1 Corinthians 9:22).
Seek to Understand the differences that you observe. Don’t judge cultural differences as wrong because they are foreign to you; people are different than us for reasons that they find justifiable. And we might, too, if we took the time to listen and care. And even when we don’t, the love and grace of God has been given to help us overcome differences, just as during Jesus’ experience with the woman at the well.
Persevere in the relationship. Hang in there as a friend, working through differences or challenges. Be patient when you feel it’s not worth it or a waste of time; forgive as Christ has forgiven you. Show Spirit-empowered grace. Be willing to receive grace as well. Philippians 2 reminds us to look not only to our own interests, but to the interests of others as well.
Consciously or unconsciously, I believe that these were the steps that my “sister from another mister” and I took as we built our relationship. I actually suspect that these are the kinds of steps in one form or another that the Lord would have us take in every relationship.
Unfortunately, we sometimes struggle with applying common relational techniques when we engage with people we find different from us culturally or ethnically. To be honest, we don’t need new techniques; the Word of God provides us wonderful instruction. We just need intentionality and courage.
Nonetheless, these steps are based in the simple but powerful truth that Jesus represented all mankind in His death on the cross. There weren’t multiple types of Saviors needed for multiple types of people. We are all represented in one God-Man, Jesus Christ, no matter our ethnicity or cultural background. We already have unity in Him as believers. And He empowers us to live it.