"I fear you have drifted from your original call to lead people to Christ." The words stung as I read the letter. Though it had come from a longtime friend and contained a number of genuine affirmations, it was clearly a letter of rebuke. With words intended to confront but not alienate, my friend voiced his concerns at the increased emphasis that FCS was placing on meeting the physical needs of the poor at the expense of direct evangelism. The counsel of a trusted friend is not something to be taken lightly so I tried hard to control my defensiveness. There was some truth in what he said, I had to admit. Twenty-three years ago when I came to the city, the focus of my ministry was introducing troubled young people to life-changing faith. As others joined our staff who had differing gifts and visions, the scope of FCS broadened. Housing, health care, jobs and a variety of other services eventually unfolded like petals on a blooming flower, giving FCS the capacity to minister wholistically in our inner-city community. I had always seen this as a good thing. Admittedly, a number of our staff felt more comfortable demonstrating their faith through service than proclaiming it verbally. Could it be that this theological diversity was causing us to drift away from the moorings of our original mission? Was this letter a wake-up call?
A few days later, my thoughts still churning on this matter, I was engaged in a conversation with a pastor friend who had invited me to teach a series on the "Gospel and the Poor" at his church.
"My fear is that your organization is identified too closely with the conservative evangelical right," he said with some concern. He was afraid I might lose his congregation before I got started if I placed too much emphasis on saving souls and ignored the issues of justice and systemic evil.
Two trusted friends, both genuinely concerned about our ministry, both offering guidance - but from very divergent vantage points. To one, soul saving is of primary importance. To the other, doing justice and loving mercy is what God desires. Whose counsel should be given the greater weight?
At a recent fund raising seminar for non-profits, our board chair and several of our leadership staff engaged in an exercise to identify our ministry's greatest assets and liabilities. It immediately became clear that one of the strongest assets of FCS is the diversity of our programs and staff. We cover the gamut from early childhood development to elder care, from youth ministry to home building. And our staff is equally diverse - conservative and liberal, rich and poor, black and white. Such variety gives us great advantage in that it allows us to connect with a wide range of people and needs. It also enables us to partner with a broad spectrum of supporting churches and businesses.
When we began to examine the organization's greatest liabilities, however, we were astonished to discover that our diversity surfaced as a significant detriment. For one thing, a plethora of programs makes it difficult to present a concise picture of our work. And our theological and political diversity makes us nearly impossible to define and align. We are too liberal for conservatives and too conservative for liberals. How strange that our major strength should also be our major weakness!
How can such a dilemma be remedied? My temptation, my tendency, is to declare a position, take a firm stand, re-shape the organization around my own beliefs and convictions. I would choose truth over tolerance any day. As founder and president I have that right. This would take care of the confusing ambiguities that plague us.
But what would be my motive? Is this an image issue? Or perhaps it would make me feel stronger, more secure, more right, surrounded by those who see eye-to-eye with me? Can I actually preserve truth by curbing diversity or is truth to be discovered in the give and take of God's diverse family?
No, I think this is one problem I won't try to fix. I think we'll just live with the liability. After all, it does keep us vigorously engaged in the struggle to be reconciled one to another. And as I recall, our Lord was quite insistent about the unity of His followers, the living proof through which His lordship would be manifest. As Jim Petersen puts it: "Unity is not uniformity or conformity. Unity depends upon the ability to affirm and actively support diversity."