Finny Kuruvilla – Undoing Antioch: On Ethnic Specific Churches – Anabaptist Perspectives Ep. 072

Posted By on December 5, 2019

Hello everybody. Welcome back to another
episode of Anabaptist Perspectives. I’m here with Finny Kuruvilla. We’re in
Boston, Massachusetts at Sattler College which is something you’ve been very
involved in getting started here, and I noticed something you’re pretty passionate
about. You mentioned in your book is something called ethnic-specific
churches. There’s a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. He once said, “It’s
appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on
Sunday morning the same hour when many are standing to sing ‘In Christ There Is
No East and West’.” Now, he said that almost 60 years ago. How do you see that as a
current issue in Christianity? What’s your assessment? I don’t want to paint with too broad of a brush because I think there’s certainly groups that have made tremendous strides at achieving excellent ethnic diversity, and
as a general rule of thumb I think wherever a particular church is it
hopefully will reflect the composition of its locale. In the perfect
world the mix of people will be similar to what you have in whatever
area that is. What is I think more disturbing is where you have churches
that are sticking out like sore thumbs where they’re in a particular
area. People are of one particular ethnic composition, and that’s totally different
from the surrounding environment, so I actually have spent many years in Indian
churches. So in South Asian, Indian churches (and people don’t appreciate
this) one of the leaders in this particular church noticed – it wasn’t
hard to notice that everyone in the church was Indian, and they would speak a
lot in a local language called Malayalam which is spoken in South India. He had
asked me to see if I can help lead an effort to diversify this particular
church. Well you can imagine and picture yourself: you’re the first person walking
into a context like this, and people are speaking a mixture of English and
another language Malayalam which is very difficult to understand. They dress
differently. The food they eat is very different. They talk a lot about cousins
and relatives. You have no idea who they are. You’re gonna feel very alienated, and
you’re gonna feel extremely out of it compared to everyone else, and I had said
this was gonna happen, but it was dead on arrival. You just can’t do that, right? There’s no way that you’re ever gonna take something like that, and truly
begin to diversify it because it’s just gonna feel so alien to you. It’s easy
to see when you’re the outsider, right? It’s easy to see if you were to
walk into – if I were to put you, Reagan, in one of these Indian churches, you would feel it, and that you would feel it. Like, this just isn’t home. It wouldn’t feel like that’s
a place where you’re gonna you know settle down, and have a family, and all that.
What’s trickier is do you notice that when you’re an insider, right? When you’re in the majority, well, hey, you’re comfortable, you know. If you fit in great
right? You know the references when people are talking about different
speakers or cousins or different references to the culture, dress, food,
language, dialect. All those things make you comfortable, and we may not realize
that it’s extremely off-putting to people coming in from the outside. The
real question that I would ask people is have they thought deeply about
those issues? Have they thought deeply about what it’s like to be an
insider, an outsider because a lot of times people say, oh we want to
evangelize. We want to go out and reach into our community, but they don’t
realize that there’s such cultural entrenchments in that particular
community of the church right? Of ethnicity, of language, of food, of
relationships that make it very difficult for someone on the outside to
come in, and so I would say it’s a incredible mixture out there of churches. Generally speaking the conservative Anabaptist churches have not done well there. They tend to be more homogeneous, and have not succeeded so much in that. So you’ve already touched on this a little, but what does segregation look like currently in American churches? Yeah, it’s a great question. So, it looks very
different than it did say in the 60s when Martin Luther King was speaking
although I still think it’s a big problem. What it looks like now is
it’s much less overt, and you know there’s not gonna be some of the
same hard lines that were driven that are drawn, but rather it’s more
of a subconscious segregation where people have put up these barriers
around them that they’re not trying to be segregationist. I mean like
very few people that I meet – a tiny, tiny percentage would be anything like I
would say are prejudiced or ethnically biased, but at the same time they just
don’t know how much it’s off-putting to people on the outside. I was once in a Mennonite Church, and one of the bishops came up to me, and he asked me
about how Indians – he asked me the question: is it true that Indians ate
with their hands? So as it turns out in India, they don’t normally use utensils
like forks and knives. They tend to use their hands. He just thought that was
hilarious, and just started laughing and laughing, and I thought, uh. It didn’t
offend me at all. Like, hey, not a big deal, but I thought if I was someone coming in
from the outside that would be a pretty offensive question to
be laughing at that. It should be some more respect there, and I’ve seen that
happen a number of times where he didn’t have an ounce of bad intention at all. To
him it was just a curiosity that he thought was strange and funny, but that’s
the kind of thing that when you ask it in that way, you can put people
off, and they can feel a little bit like ah, you know, I just don’t feel at home
here, and so that’s the type of segregation that exists here is more
these construction of these silent barriers. These subtle ways in
which we might look down on people. I also think that one of the problems that
often can happen. I was speaking to a minister not too long ago specifically commenting that so often if a church has been in one place for a
long time, there’s this whole web of family relationships that surround that
particular area, and so often the church then is competing with family reunions
and other events, and you can almost have churches that are dominated by a couple
of families really, and what happens in that case is the church gets complacent.
They don’t feel like aliens, and strangers anymore because again you
don’t have to because you’ve got all these relations. These family relations. It’s comfortable. It’s comfortable. Exactly and I’m not
convinced that the New Testament model of church is comfortable. I think we
should always be asking ourselves: do we feel like aliens and strangers in the
places that we are? because this gets back to what I was saying before. If you
feel like an outsider just a little bit, that’ll help you
actually. That’ll help you because you’re much more gonna be attuned to some of
these dynamics, and frankly, for me being ethnically Indian in America has been a
great help because I’m always thinking about these kinds of things cuz when I was young, people made fun of me all the time for you know the color of
my skin things like that because I was in public school, and I got called
all these names and epithets and things like that, but you know what?
I’m grateful for that because having lived as an outsider it now gives me a
great sensitivity and ability to build bridges where I think other people may
not have had that, and so I would really encourage as many people as can to go
into experiences, and to live in experiences where they’re outsiders.
It’ll totally change your perspective on what church is like, and it’s this
underlying problem of just assumptions and what really ultimately is
creating these barriers of segregation. Let’s pull it back to the New Testament.
How does the New Testament discuss things of racial divides within the
context of the church? Well, you know one of the things that most people don’t appreciate is how dominant these themes of ethnic conflict and diversity are
within the New Testament. So I’m a big fan of whenever you read a book think
long and hard about the context before you preach from it because the context is
so informative to understand the purpose of the letters. I’ll give you a great example. So Romans is many would say is Paul’s magnum opus – his most important letter,
and it was written in AD 57, and the specific context of the letter is
mentioned a couple times in the book. What happened was the Jews were exiled
from Rome under Claudius. Claudius had made a basically a unilateral move. Ejected the Jews out of Rome. Paul ends up meeting Priscilla and Aquila in
Corinth. They were once in Rome, but they’re now in Corinth. Eventually
Claudius dies. He’s succeeded by Emperor Nero. The Jews moved back into Rome, and now you have this situation where the Jews that were kicked out of Rome because they were perceived as troublemakers now they’re back in a
situation where they’re trying to be integrated back into the church that’s
now predominantly Gentile, and so what you have is this
conflict that is simmering between Jew and Gentile there. So for example in
Romans 14 there’s this conflict that’s described where some people are treating
one day as holy. Jews in their sabbath-keeping versus the Gentiles that
regard each day alike, and you have Paul making an effort to develop a theology
really rooted in Jesus, and the wholeness and the picture of Jesus as the one
who’s gathering the nations to Himself, and He lays that case out in Romans 9-11. I just gave a set of talks about this here at our Bible school, and
Romans 9-11 – people think that’s about Calvinism and Arminianism.
It’s totally not. That passage is about the conflict between Jews and Gentiles.
The driving question that he is asking is, does it make sense that God
who made these promises to Abraham and to Isaac and to Jacob – does it make
sense that that people are now standing in opposition to the Word of God? So here
now the Jews are persecutors of the Christians, and how does this all work
right? And so there’s a lot of very deep questions about the role of the Jews, and
what’s going on, and then he ends up giving a magnificent vision of that in
9-11 which is the basis for the reconciliation that they should have
in Jesus. The whole book of Romans cannot be understood unless one understands
that it’s a book that was sparked by ethnic conflict. You know another example
is Galatians where of course you have a group of people who are Judaizers, and
they come in, and Paul opens up the letter, and says that even Peter himself
had to be opposed to his face. Pretty strong language, right, that Paul uses
where he says Peter has to be opposed to his face because he had withdrawn from
table fellowship with the Gentiles. It is just a massive, massive problem that
exists in the New Testament. Conflict between Jew and Gentile. Now that is not
something that most of us experience. Most of us don’t experience it as
a direct example of conflict between Jew and Gentile, but I will say this same
problem persists in many different ways. So it persists in ways similar to what
we talked about before where you have a silent segregation, but here’s what’s fascinating. So you go to a place like India, and India is generally the product of Protestant evangelical missionaries – the Christian
world I’m talking about. Christians are a very small percentage in India.
They’re three to five percent of the population, but the theology that they
have is one that has been largely shaped by protestant evangelical Christianity
which is you’ll see is not that different from even how say Anabaptist practices
occur. So I’ll give you a specific example. I was in North India, and I was in a
particular location where there was a person who was from – he was a Hindu from a different caste, and as it turns out in India, they have this caste system where
you can only marry within your caste. You’re supposed to only eat with people
in your same caste, and he would not eat with me because his caste was different,
and I was pleading with him to come sit, and have a meal with me, and sit down at
the table. He wouldn’t do that. Lo and behold, there’s a whole set of churches –
hundreds, maybe thousands of churches where there’s Hindu converts that come
in, and they will share if you pass around a little cup and cracker. No
problem. But if you say, okay, now eat together. They won’t do it. They refuse to
do it, and the reason is that they have this caste mentality. You think about
what the New Testament practice and Lord’s supper was like. It was designed by God
for many reasons, but one of the reasons was to get people together at
the same table – Jew and Gentile and the original Lord’s Supper was set in
the context of a full meal. The bread and the cup were the climax, but they were
having a full meal. This is obvious when you read Corinthians. You know it talks about how certain people are eating all the food. Well, lo and behold, the Lord’s
Supper has been modified by protestant evangelicals and unfortunately Anabaptists have run with this as well where it’s this little cracker or piece of
bread that you take in the solemn environment, and it’s not set in the
context of a full meal, and that has been imported all over – exported rather – all
over the world, and so now you have places like India where this nascent
Christian community is filled with deep prejudice, and why? Because they’ve
learned that from the West, right? The models of Lord’s Supper and communion
here are impacting globally how people view themselves, and so you have very
similar situations that exist in various tribes in Africa, places in the Middle
East, and so we have failed to recognize something called the regulative
principle which I’m very passionate about. That the patterns of these sacred
sacraments and ordinances that God has given to us should not be modified
because they are here for a good reason, and so again for most of us here
you know it would not be a big deal to go have a meal together right? It
wouldn’t be. Like in a church like that’s just not a big – a typical issue that they
would face, but we don’t realize that we are laying the groundwork for
churches in other places where they may have that problem, and the structures of
the New Testament that are intended to cut that down, and to address that
head-on we are not doing, and so it’s this law of good intentions, right, that you can out of good intentions modify things, and not realize
there’s gonna be disastrous consequences as a result. That’s one of my big themes
of my own teaching and thinking is that I feel like so often people have good
intentions – great intentions. Sweet people. Good-hearted people who don’t realize
that when you tinker with elements of the New Testament here you’re gonna
produce disaster for people in other areas. So following up on that then.
How can we as believers follow Jesus’ example, and what would you suggest is a
productive path forward through this? Yeah. I think there’s a lot of ways out
of this, and unfortunately I think we need a multifactorial approach. There’s
no silver bullet here. One of the things that I would first say is to try to make
yourself be uncomfortable. Make sure that if you ask that question: am I an alien and a stranger? Do I legitimately feel like that in the context where I happen
to live? And if not, it could be time for you to make a move for the sake of the
gospel, right? For the sake of your children. For the sake of just feeling
like an alien, stranger. You know there’s this curse of Babel that I
sometimes call it where if you get too many people piled up into one place. God
has not intended that to happen, right? He wanted us to fill the earth and subdue
it. The principle of Babel is that so often we want to come together in
cluster, and make a giant mound of people just like us, and
make monuments to ourselves. That’s a very unhealthy tendency, and when that
happens, curses tend to fall in such places, and it tends to lead to very bad
outcomes, and so I would encourage people to think about being bold, and trying to
to move, and to go to some new locality. To me it doesn’t particularly matter
where it is, so long as they’re feeling that sense of stretch, and they’re
feeling that stretch of discomfort, and that might mean trying to put yourself
in situations – like I’ve really lived most of my life where you do feel a
little bit like an outsider, and I think that’s gonna be really good, and really
healthy. I do see as well an incredibly important dynamic here of thinking about
what are our practices of the Lord’s Supper? I do think that’s right at the heart of what the church should stand for and be, and if we don’t
address those even structurally I think we’re setting ourselves up for
failure down the road. I think there’s also a lot to be said for just looking
at the fruit, and looking at the congregation that you’re in and asking
the question, how are we doing with our own diversity here? Do we reflect
the composition of the people that we are around, and if not we probably have
put up some kind of barrier – some kind of who knows what around us that’s keeping people out, and don’t blame them. You know like the easiest
thing to do is to just throw rocks and say, oh, they’re just pagans and
heathens, and they don’t get it, right? We should just ask the question: maybe
it’s us? Maybe we’re doing things wrong. Allen Roth has made some really great
suggestions, and I think done an excellent job at modeling how someone like himself who obviously comes from a conservative Mennonite
background can do really well at outreach with a multi-ethnic group. It
involves things like he’s got a great expression “don’t do a swarm model.” He
talks about how you know so often churches start with just they swarm. Like
you know ten families, or six families going to one place. Well, you know, guess
what? Now you’ve just made a miniature version of what you had before in a new
place, and you’ve now put up a lot of barriers for people coming from the
outside because they’re gonna feel like the odd man out, right? And it’d be much better if you could start with a small – much, much
smaller group and be in a place where there’s relational hunger to – like you
don’t feel satisfied because you’re not with a bunch of people that you’re close with already. You’ve got to make new relationships. So
those are some ideas on how to do that, but, well, as I said I think it’s a multifactorial
problem. Basically we need to be very intentional, and really think this through. Absolutely. Absolutely. We need to be very intentional with this, and if we
don’t succeed in that, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are gonna win them. Somebody
else is gonna win them, right? And we see that those groups are doing very well at
reaching broadly international in ethnic communities, and that’s a tragedy. It’s a
tragedy when cults are doing better, and are more intentional then people who have
the truth. Well, thank you so much for tackling that. You’re very welcome. This is something that’s not discussed enough, and I think it makes people a little uncomfortable, but maybe that’s a good thing. Yeah, I think it is. Yeah, well thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. Thank you, Reagan.

Posted by Lewis Heart

This article has 3 comments

  1. Sure but diversifying a church is not scriptural. That's the "social justice" of John Stuart Mill. Be welcoming to all and preach the gospel to every creature. Dont make tokens of outsiders..

  2. This is so true. Although I have been a conservative Mennonite for 15 years, the ‘large family push’ comments, such as “You only have one child?” or “If your husband was here, I would invite you home for dinner.” “You don’t have family reunions?!” Or when a groups of ladies start comparing courtship stories, when they get to me, the conversation stops and they walk away. It is off-putting, but I have to chuckle, for I am glad for a small family. I cannot handle large groups of people; the clamor and running, screeching children just gives me a headache. I appreciate my quiet home where no one slams doors (why do Mennonites slam doors???) and there aren’t a hoard of children crawling all over me. If some people like that, fine. But I wish they would not assume I would like that as well.


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