“Embracing diversity” seemed to be a main theme running through the European Baptist Federation’s (EBF) Youth and Children’s Workers’ Conference, which ended in Prague recently.
I always enjoy attending this conference each year. We have some amazingly gifted national leaders of youth and children’s work.
I love to meet them, to hear something of their stories, to learn what God is doing among the children and young people they serve.
This year they were very well hosted by the Czech Baptist Youth Department, with the main meetings taking place at First Baptist Church of Prague in Vinhoradska.
The theme of diversity is a challenging one for the EBF to negotiate. De facto we are diverse in languages (about 35 different languages are represented in the EBF when I last counted) and cultures.
Sometimes we are unwilling to admit how much these factors influence our different ways of “being Baptist.” There is an assumption among some that our way of being Baptist is the only and right way!
In recent years, this diversity has become more apparent because of the migration of peoples as a result of economic, social or political factors.
For Baptists, this has been especially true of the many Burmese refugees who have come to Europe, a majority of whom are Baptists.
In the Scandinavian countries, in the Czech Republic and elsewhere, Baptist unions have welcomed and sought to integrate these groups (which may be from different Burmese tribal groups) into the life of the unions, and have also offered them practical care and support.
Europe has also witnessed the growth of African and Asian churches in several countries as well as an influx of economic migrants from Eastern Europe settling in the countries of Western and Southern Europe.
These groups bring the distinctiveness and the riches of their Christian traditions, presenting many joys, and sometimes a few challenges, for the “host” Baptist community.
This means that ethnic and cultural diversity is now a fact of life on our continent and in our churches.
The EBF youth and children’s workers thought much about this at their conference and heard some challenging words spoken to them about other kinds of diversity.
How inclusive can our churches be? What are the limits to inclusion? Can our churches embrace the inclusion of cultural, gender and sexual diversity? What does a biblical faith have to say about all this?
These are uncomfortable questions for many Baptists. So, it was not surprising that among our youth and children’s leaders there was a diversity of responses to the courage and openness of some of the speakers who addressed these questions.
For me, it was important that they were considering such questions, which the young people they seek to serve and mentor are facing every day of their lives.
These issues are not going to go away. If anything, they will intensify in the coming years.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers but I am struck by the concern of the New Testament churches to model an inclusive diversity, which was simply not present “out there” in their societies.
Paul’s lasting word to us on this subject that we find twice in his writings is surely, “For there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, nor is there male or female. For you are all one in Christ” (see Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 5:11).
In this continent of Europe, there is a rise in groups espousing an exclusive nationalism based on their own culture as well as an increasing intolerance of ethnic diversity in some places.
In this context, these timeless words of the Apostle Paul surely form the basis of the “new” counter-cultural community of the church, along with the Old Testament injunction to “love the stranger.”
For historical, cultural and, sometimes, theological reasons some of our EBF member unions struggle to come to terms with this question of embracing diversity. It is indeed perplexing, and we need God’s wisdom and discernment.
But I was encouraged and inspired by the EBF youth and children’s workers who were willing to grapple with some difficult questions, and who in their conference were constantly bringing the issues back to that simple but profound challenge, “What would Jesus do?”
Tony Peck is general secretary of the European Baptist Federation.