September Diversity Lecture ‒ Celebrating Diversity and Building Community

20th September 2018

Can local churches build community in a diverse world? In Newbold's first Diversity lecture of the academic year 2018-19 on Wednesday 19 September, a Dutch pastor offered a realistic and thought-provoking account of her attempts to do so. Pastor Guisele Berkel-Larmonie, from a Curaçaoan background has worked in various parts of the Netherlands since she completed her theological training at Newbold College seven years ago. Her lecture described her work in attempting to build community among people who claim similar beliefs but who differ from each other in nationality, culture, age, gender and education. Her title was:20180918_200210'Celebrating Diversity and Building Community in the Local Church'.

Guisele described her 24/7 ministry to what she described as 'hyper diverse multi-ethnic groups' with their 'multi-layered expectations of who God is and what they should do…'. She described churches which are highly structured with church boards and elders and others who simply have a leadership team or gather as a group of families who take it in turns to lead worship week by week. Some have conservative theology, some are more liberal, some are cosy gatherings of people who eat great food together, others simply gather for a Bible study…and there are those who do feedback on weekly services with marks out of 10 for sermons!

Within these diverse groupings, each with its unique colour, flavour and style, individuals live out their faith journeys. The second part of Guisele's talk described what she called 'fabricated cases' – based on reality. Each one offered insights into the sort of issues facing her people and their pastor. People struggling with demon-harassment, or living double lives as straight and gay people, those coming to faith when living in domestic arrangements disapproved of by the Church and those fleeing to God and the church as escape from abusive relationships – all need and deserve the pastor's care.

Add to the picture 20180918_200712painted so far, a description of the global Church itself which as Guisele pointed out, contains a wide range of schools of thought and biblical interpretation. "The notion of 'us'", Guisele suggested, "is itself open to interpretation….in a hyper diverse context there is no 'us'."

So – how to build community in such contexts? Guisele offered many insights into effective personal ministry. Many of them were inspired by her reading of the life of Jesus as He 'modelled meaningful, intentional, individual contacts with a comparatively small group of people'. Yes, it is time-consuming but 'great examples get a good following', she said. Incarnational ministry changes people's perspectives on their lives and gives them a sense of belonging before anything else. Unconditional love can only be recognised if it is shared.

Guisele concluded with a list of principles and pastoral tools for community building. Some of her pastoral principles she enunciated. Others she described in passing – many of them based on the importance of listening to your own and other people's stories. "If you are planning to do anything in the name of Jesus you need to be aware of your own story", she said. Remember: no one-size fits all. Her tools: find out what drives people in their search for meaning; be curious; ask questions; make room for the theological perception that God reaches out to everyone in different ways; meet people in a neutral location where they can leave if they need to. Advertise your 'unshockability'. Safeguard confidentiality. Be prepared to say, 'I don't know'. Be up to date with the latest in current culture. Don't assume everyone wants to pray ‒ don't try to blackmail people into prayer!

Guisele made no claims for what she does as 'best practice'. In the Q&A she described some mistakes she had made but she was, she said, simply, sharing, "what I have tried to do with people who trust me with their stories, their pain and their needs." Her presentation offered an authentic insight into one woman's attempt to build community in a diverse church in a diverse world.

A live recording of the lecture can be heard on the Facebook page of Newbold College of Higher Education.

[Helen Pearson]

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