When was the first time you realised not everyone was like you? For me, it started in primary school. In Denmark, kids bring packed lunches to school consisting of bread and toppings. One day, my classmates asked me what I was eating. This was the 1970s, so food was bland and international cuisine hadn’t made it that far north—no American burger chains, or pizza places existed where I grew up. Vegetarian food was seldom available in restaurants, let alone in shops. Here, my packed lunch had fig rolls and a vegetarian peanut product called Nutolene. Everyone I knew loved it, but my classmates had never heard of it and made fun of me for it.
Food is something that sustains all our bodies, regardless of whether it is a taco or taro, a pizza or potato. As I grew up a little more, I was blessed to be exposed to various cultures and learned to love cooking different dishes. I enjoyed it so much that it got to the point where I hardly ever cooked food from my own culture.
Throughout its 12-season history, MasterChef Australia alone has been broadcast in more than 170 countries (and that’s not even counting its American and UK counterparts). We wouldn’t watch it if all the contestants cooked the same thing! If you have watched any of these programs you know that contestants cook food reflecting many different cultures. Aside from challenges where they all must cook one dish, we are continually treated to a rich diversity of dishes every episode. Some of them occasionally look “out of this world”, but the contestants are always being pushed by the judges to create artistic and exceptional gastronomical creations. Living in Wellington—a city with a rich variety of culinary delights from around the globe—resonates well with my appreciation for a more international palate. Whether the country of origin is Ethiopia, Japan, Brazil or even New Zealand itself, there’s always an exciting cultural journey to be had when stepping into one of my city’s many restaurants. I find diversity a blessing and at times I have been nudged by friends to try new foods that looked a bit out of my comfort zone. It’s a healthy experience because it forces me to try new things and gain a new appreciation for different cultures.
It’s easy to recognise the richness diversity brings to our lives when we talk about food, but what about our communities? We seek out belonging to groups or people with whom we share values and enjoy uniting behind a cause or idea. Belonging is important. The question of: “why are there so many different churches in the world today?” is one I come across often as a pastor. If everyone worships the same God, surely only one would suffice, right?
Worlddata.info tells us that there are more than 2.2 billion Christians living today and according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, there are around 45,000 denominations.
There are historic reasons for different denominations to have emerged. These are often rooted in disagreements on power, politics and doctrinal belief. On an individual level, those of us who belong to a church usually gravitate toward people who see God in a similar light, speak like us, sometimes look like us and worship like us. With more than 45,000 different denominations in the world today, it seems an oxymoron that a core value in the Christian church is unity. If we’re counting just by numbers, it seems that Christians have failed.
As much as unity is a strong value for the Christian to strive for, we must also reckon with the fact that God created us all different. One of the poets recorded in the Psalms says that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). The seeming paradox of unity and diversity in the church isn’t so much a paradox when we recognise that unity does not mean sameness or uniformity. None of us, not even identical twins, are created 100 per cent the same.
God has created each one of us unique and diverse: all in His image (Genesis 1:26). Hence, in our diversity we are all created in God’s image. How awesome is that when we consider the incredibly diverse characteristics of people across the globe? The notion that unity means sameness cannot be from the God who created such diversity. If God wanted sameness, all He would need to do was “copy and paste”. He didn’t do that.
It is my humble conviction that those of us in the West need to acknowledge that historically, “Eurocentric” Christianity has, through colonialism, been thought of as the “norm” across the world. Eurocentricity is the tendency to view the world through a Western lens and in doing so, reject or ignore the perspectives of non-European people groups who don’t fit neatly into that box. Somewhere in church history, “sharing the gospel” and “colonisation” got blurred together. To see how Christianity has misrepresented a diverse God by elevating Eurocentricity, one simply must look at the vast amount of art depicting a blonde and blue-eyed Jesus, when in reality Jesus was born to Jewish parents in the Middle East. Author Esau McCaulley writes in Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope: “Euro-American scholars, ministers, and lay folk . . . have, over the centuries, used their economic, academic, religious, and political dominance to create the illusion that the Bible, read through their experience, is the Bible read correctly.”
The question remains: can Christianity be unified and still be diverse? Can we let go of our past mistakes and celebrate how we are all different? Unity clearly was important to Jesus, as He prayed for it in His last prayer in the Gospel of John: “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” (John 17:20, 21).
Yet, across the Christian landscape, Christian unity seems impossible. Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor emeritus of church history at the University of Oxford, certainly thought so when he, according to Live Science, claimed that “There’s never been a united Christianity”.
However, not all scholars agree. Dr Denis Fortin, former dean of Andrews University’s Theological Seminary, writes on unity: “Our common faith creates a bond of spiritual unity in Jesus Christ. Please understand: we already have unity in Jesus; we don’t have to create it . . . All who claim Jesus as their Lord and Saviour are already experiencing a spiritual one-ness in Christ, however imperfectly it may be lived in reality. Whatever our denominational names, whether Lutheran, Baptist, Mennonite, Pentecostal or Seventh-day Adventist, our common relationship to Christ is more important than all denominational and doctrinal limitations, and we are one in Christ.”
In God, we experience unity in diversity with other believers when it ceases to be about “myself ” and “my way of doing life” and it becomes about God and how in Him we are one. It is not how we believe, but Who we believe.
Unity can only grow within the same space as diversity when Christ is in the middle of it. When we move our focus from God to us, we too often fall into the trap of uniformity. In my experience, this is often how the concept of unity has been misunderstood: it’s not about sameness among humanity but about recognising that we all have been invited to become the humans we were created to be through the Messiah Jesus.
This oneness is as important today as when Jesus prayed for it some 2000 years ago. We become united in Him if we choose to become His followers—a unity that grows beyond our individual reality to a global realm that welcomes diverse tastes and cultures. It’s a reality where everyone’s food isn’t blended into one bland smoothie but celebrated with its unique flavours. Let us unite in taste and see that God is good—that His creations can be diverse yet unified in their belief in Him as Lord and Saviour for all people of different nations, languages, cultures and cuisines.
Kirsten Øster-Lundqvist is a Danish pastor who resides in Wellington, New Zealand. She enjoys ministering in both secular and Jewish contexts.
To learn more about the amazing history of Christianity, visit hopechannel.com/learn