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Friday, June 8, 2018

"All Together Different" (J. Brian Tucker and John Koessler)

TITLE: All Together Different: Upholding the Church's Unity While Honoring Our Individual Identities
AUTHOR: J. Brian Tucker and John Koessler
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2018, (272 pages).

What comes to mind when we think about Church unity? For some it might mean doing a lot of common activities together. For others, it is about being able to live together cheerfully and happily ever after. Whether it is ethnicity, cultural uniformity, class homogeneity, or generational similarities, many churches believe that common look and common activities are keys to unity. Unfortunately, ethnic cultures have multiple subcultures. Class distinctions grow over time as individuals change jobs or are laid off. Generational gaps happen at all levels. Gender uniqueness do not necessarily guarantee togetherness. Common activities may involve bodies but not necessarily the hearts. In the early Church, unity is a key concern for the Apostle Paul. Jesus also prayed for unity. Unfortunately, Church people never seem to learn. Today, it is even more needed as the Christian public are more divided than before. Whether it is worship or strategy, Church boards or combined programs for all, the challenge is to understand what true unity is about and to learn to manage conflict in a constructive manner. In this book, authors Brian Tucker and John Koessler tackle this issue by focusing on identity. They argue that we are naturally diverse and different in so many ways. What we need is not more common activities or similarities. We need a right understanding of identity: The Church and our individual selves. Unity is not forced uniformity. It is not holding similar theological positions. Neither is it something that can be resolved by doing things together. We need to be allowed to be different and aided by a healthy acceptance of our uniqueness. The gist of this book is to find answers to the following questions about identity: "Who am I? What sets me apart from those around me? What unique value do I bring to the table that others do not?" They concluded that we are not "altogether different" but "all together different."

So they begin by describing our identity crisis quagmire of our age. All of these are linked to three things: 1) Divine Design; 2) Human Culture; and 3) Our Sinful Disposition. We are created for God to have eternal fellowship with Him. Unfortunately, we sinned and our cultural differences got worse. We become more predisposed to sinning rather than obeying God. So the first step toward unity is to find our identity in God. Identity is different from image because the former is about being while the latter is about showing. In our confusion, we have substituted our true identity for imaging what we want others to see ourselves as. Identity on the other hand is linked to our story, our narrative, our design. We experience identity crisis because of the fluidity of circumstances and changing times. We need help to see from God's mirror. One of the first things is to recognize that identity is not an individual endeavour but communal. Why? It's how we are linked to the rest of the body. Just because we mind our own business does not mean the community is not impacted in any way. Simply put, even if we do not directly engage in the community life, we impoverish that same community by our non-engagement. The authors take pains to show us what identity is not. It is not our work. Neither is it in the things we do or what people say we are. Identity has eight characteristics: 1) Physical and Mental; 2) Historical; 3) Relational; 4) Committal; 5) Boundaries; 6) Fluidities; 7) Self-Interpreting Nature; and 8) Future Orientation. All of these things are connected to what it means to be in Christ.

As each chapter unfolds, the reader is taken on a journey to understand what it means to have this identity in Christ amid many masks of the world that threaten to enfold us in. Against social isolation, we are urged to join the "in crowd" based on social identity. At the same time, we are warned against the "over-churched" syndrome that pits a us-versus-them mentality which is unhealthy. Instead, we should adopt a welcoming posture with foundational communication platforms; resisting false identity impressions; and having a clear understanding of our roles in the community. Using 1 Corinthians 7 as a guide, we learn the distinctiveness of superordinate, subgroup, social. economic identities. Using 1 Corinthians 12, we learn about the Church being one body with different members. On and on, whether it is ethnicity; gender; generational; or any other cultural factors, unity is about common identity in Christ. Tucker and Koessler end with nine important principles for unity in diversity.

Three Thoughts
First, identity is not just individual but social. This requires some unpacking as the authors explain what social identity theory is all about. Key to understanding the importance of unity is the need to get away from a "us-vs-them" mentality. Instead of thinking how "united" we are based on some common traits, we are given a wake-up call that those very common things could only make the "us-vs-them" box mentality even worse. It makes sense because the acts of stereotyping, herd mentality, and conformed behaviour are in a sense steep in individualism. It forces people into a mold instead of inviting people into a shared space that is safe and open. This calls for shaking up our conventional beliefs about "identity distortions." This is not easy to understand despite the efforts of the authors. The fault is not the authors but the entrenched cultural norms we live in. How can we move from individualism to social community? Difficult if not impossible. That is why I think this is a long process that must begin somewhere. It must begin as early as possible in the minds of the young. It must be consistently taught and shared by people in leadership. Failing which, we easily fall back into the common identity distortions that the authors had listed in chapter 4.

Second, "we together" movement is not just something initiated but sustained. With the understanding of identity already so different, our starting point is already a huge mountain to climb. The nine principles to move forward are still very much too theoretical. As they had admitted, the principles are merely "a start." Thinking about the change is different from shaping the change. One positive example in the book was the disagreement between John and another colleague. The act of humility to listen to alternative opinions created a lasting impression. The challenge is not just one but many more after this one. The fruits of the Spirit as mentioned in Galatians would be most appropriate in sustaining this attitude of change.

Third, the main idea in this book is still very much under the "Work in Progress" status. Very few communities are able to do what the authors had recommended. Tucker and Koessler have stumbled into something critically important but hard to convey across. It is another way to push forward the unity in diversity paradigm. Perhaps, the way this book could be used is not some how-to manual for change but a spark to get inspired ideas flowing. Once we understand the what and the why, hopefully we would be encouraged to seek out the how. This is what this book ought to lead us toward.

J Brian Tucker is Associate Professor of New Testament at Moody Theological Seminary in Michigan. He has over 20 years of pastoral ministry experience.

John Koessler is chair of pastoral studies department at Moody Bible Institute. He has written 13 books and numerous magazine articles. He has served as a pastor of Valley Chapel in Illinois for 9 years.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Moody Publishers without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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