by Reverend Dr. Chip Hardwick, Synod of the Covenant
borrowed from Presbyterian Today May-June 2021 – “How Open is Your Congregation to the Winds of Change?”
God wants a church where all people can hear directly that they are loved.
That was my most important takeaway from a trip to Ethiopia in 2008. A group of us traveled through the part of the country where the Arsi Oromo live. The Arsi Oromo is one of the main branches of people inhabiting the Arsi, West Arsi and Bale Zones of Ethiopia. We were there to learn about evangelism from the PC(USA)’s partner denomination, the Mekane Yesus Church. The Arsi Oromo speak another language and have different customs from most Ethiopians who identify as Orthodox, a Christian tradition associated with the country’s Amharic language and culture. With most of Ethiopia’s Christian songs and rituals rooted in Amharic, the Arsi Oromo never quite felt at home in worship.
The Mekane Yesus Church, however, created a space where the Arsi Oromo people could worship in their own language and embrace their cultural traditions. The Arsi Oromo would no longer overhear the Gospel from their Amharic siblings. They would know directly that God loved them. You can imagine how meaningful that was!
Something tells me that the Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians and all the others visiting Jerusalem at Pentecost had a similar reaction when the Galilean believers, filled with the Holy Spirit, began speaking in all of their languages. All of a sudden, these outsiders felt at home and were able to hear and understand the good news of Christ. Seeking to rationalize the miracle, the crowd accused Jesus’ followers of being drunk. Peter counters that they can’t be drunk as it’s only 9 a.m. (Clearly, Peter did not go to the same college, or pledge the same fraternity, that I did!) He then reminded the crowd of Joel’s prophecy that said the Holy Spirit in the last days would pour itself out on all people.
My experience in Ethiopia traveled back with me to the church in central Illinois where I served at the time. Like many congregations, we were taking baby steps to become more diverse. And, like many, we were frustrated by the lack of progress. My time with the Mekane Yesus eventually helped me realize that part of the lack of progress was that our church environment was undeniably white and upper middle class, not just in the style of architecture of the new sanctuary built alongside an already lovely fellowship hall, but in our leadership (myself definitely included) and practices. We needed the Pentecost vision of creating a place where people of varying backgrounds could hear the Gospel directly. We were not purposefully excluding others, but we also (again, myself definitely included) had not wrestled with what it would mean to change so that others could feel at home.
I wish I could tell you that our baby steps turned into leaps and bounds. It is certainly a God-sized task to change a church so that others can hear the Gospel spoken directly to them. But the good news of our Pentecost passage is that it can be done, because it is the Holy Spirit who enables that change, rather than our own amazing insights or teeth-gritting hard work. The Holy Spirit inspired the chef on staff (didn’t I tell you it was an upper-middle-class white culture?) to partner with the local homeless shelter to create a Culinary Arts Training Academy. Suddenly, five days a week, several non-upper-middle-class, non-white students were in the kitchen learning job skills. Sometimes suddenly and sometimes gradually, the members of the church embraced the students. I’ll never forget one day when several other clients of the homeless shelter arrived to eat lunch, and the students welcomed them to their church — the church where they had heard the Gospel spoken to them directly and the church whose vision was beginning to expand to truly welcome them.