Unity in diversity: a different model of church

We believe that God is calling us to be a healing, serving, international, Christ-centred community; maintaining unity, valuing diversity, and growing in maturity in Christ. (WRBC vision statement).

I remember interviewing the Associate Pastor of Windsor Road Baptist Church (WRBC) in Red Hill, Brisbane as part of the assessment for a post graduate subject I was taking at Maylon College QLD. The task was to find a congregation that represented the type of church (location, style) at which I would like to serve, then to interview the Pastor with the aim to gain a greater understanding of that type of church. Little did I realise that my essay for that subject would be passed on to the call committee at WRBC, or that as a consequence I would have the privilege of filling the Senior Pastor position. This article comes by way of a reflection on the vision and values of WRBC, after serving the community for 12 years.

I’ve included the vision statement that was adopted by the church in 2002 after I had invested considerable time talking with many members – a number of whom had been attending WRBC for over 50 years! The values incorporated in the vision statement were deeply embedded in the believing community and my task, along with the leadership and focus groups, was to clarify and incorporate them in a succinct vision statement.

My journey into pastoral ministry was an unusual one. My undergraduate training was in Agricultural Science. I had worked in Aid and Development in Pakistan and Indonesia which gave me cross-cultural experience as well as a concern for social justice. Juanita and I, and our growing family, also lived and worked in country NSW for a period of time; first in agronomy and then in Christian camping and discipleship ministry to young adults across the Riverina area. From here we were led into pastoral ministry. I have served on the pastoral team of a large regional church (Townsville Baptist) and also a growing suburban church (South Pine Community Church) in Brisbane before moving to the inner urban Windsor Road Baptist Church.

My philosophy of ministry has been shaped by my life and ministry experience but also my theological reflection. My studies in Mission (Cross-cultural Communication Cultural Anthropology) and cross-cultural experience have highlighted for me the importance of understanding context. A priority for me, and the believers that call WRBC home, is to understand the geographic, demographic and cultural context in which God has placed this group of believers and to reflect this diversity in the believing community. Studying and reflecting on the nature of the church as described by the apostle Paul in Ephesians has led me to a number of strong theological convictions.

In Ephesians, Paul goes to great lengths to explain that through Christ’s death on the cross the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles has been broken down. Now, Jews and Gentiles together are united in the body of Christ – the church. The church therefore should represent visibly this unity in diversity.

As Paul says, “And this is God’s plan: Both Gentiles and Jews who believe the Good News share equally in the riches inherited by God’s children. Both are part of the same body, and both enjoy the promise of blessings because they belong to Christ Jesus.” – Ephesians 3:6 NLT

It is also worth noting that following this, in Ephesians Chapter 4, Paul highlights the diversity of gifts given to the church by the ascended Christ, along with the essential unity of the body of Christ. He speaks of maturity in a corporate sense. In this individualistic society we often overlook the corporate nature of maturity. Paul states that “we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. 15 Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. 16 He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.” – Ephesians 4:14-16 NLT

I believe that many churches have been caught up in the pragmatism of the church growth movement and have caved into the self-centered pressures of western culture. We have “streamed people” into “like” groups or churches (HUP – the Homogenous Unit Principle) and have lost this sense of corporate maturity that comes from “making every effort to keep yourself united in the Spirit, binding yourself together with peace” (4:3). Remember that Paul has written this in the context of the Jew/Gentile divide that he was seeking to heal.

At WRBC we seek to welcome and embrace people from a range of age, social, cultural and educational backgrounds and we aim to provide a community where people find a sense of belonging and acceptance. Our worshiping community embraces folks from every continent. We have many pre-believers who join our believing community and through love and acceptance and the clear presentation of the Word of God are assisted in their journey of faith.

We value diversity. This diversity is reflected in every area of our church life – including the pastoral team, worship teams and life-together groups. In order to value and enhance the unity in diversity, we have established an integration ministry team that actively seeks to assist people in becoming part of the community and using their God-given gifts to enable the community to grow into maturity. It is hard work and the nature of our community does not suit everyone. It requires commitment to challenge and be challenged, to give and to take. It requires continual choices towards corporate maturity.

Valuing diversity also incorporates a multi-generational approach to worship and groups, so where practical we tend not to stream by age. We see that our multi-generational groups also deepen our expression of maturity in diversity. The life and enjoyment of the children within our service warms the life of the community. Styles of worship, visual expression, hymns and Hillsong, and eclectic choices open up opportunities for all the nations, ages and personalities represented to praise God together and grow in corporate maturity.

The demographic of inner city ministry means that there is lots of change and turnover in the community. We seek to strongly embrace people when they arrive but willingly release people to leave as God moves them on.

Mission is at the heart of our believing community. Since its foundation as a believing community 135 years ago, WRBC has lived out this mission statement: ‘discipling the nations’ through its missions program. With this heart for missions, WRBC has been quick to recognise a new paradigm of reaching the nations in a mobile, diverse world. It has become a welcoming, discipling community for the nations on its doorstep in inner urban Brisbane.

We welcome international students, migrants and refugees and they become valued members of our community. Through our TESOL programmes, conversational English classes, weekly international meals and simple English Bible studies people are loved. We run integrated ‘life together groups’ where strangers are cared for, taught God’s Word and gradually come to faith in Jesus.

The church also facilitates a number of “community houses” that provide accommodation and a supportive environment for people here for various reasons on various visas (working visas, academic study etc). These are more than share houses as residents are required to be part of the intentional community set up through house meals, sharing times and Bible studies.

In many ways, WRBC reflects the diversity of the surrounding inner city. It practices incarnational ministry and seeks to provide a multigenerational, multicultural community that displays the unity in diversity that Paul teaches in Ephesians. It’s an alternative model of church relevant to the multicultural, fragmented society in which we live, serve and witness.

John Anderson is the Senior Pastor of Windsor Road Baptist Church in Brisbane. Prac12.