05/12/2015 12:11 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Perfect Salad and the Imperfect Church: Scot McKnight's A Fellowship of Differents

What happens when you cross a first-rate New Testament scholar, a genuinely funny guy, and a former fundamentalist?

You get Scot McKnight, who can imagine for us the world of the New Testament (that's the scholar part), who can happily compare the church to a salad (that's the funny guy), and who can talk frankly about his upbringing in a conservative church (that's the former fundie). 2015-05-11-1431363548-9837666-FellowshipofDifferents.jpg

McKnight's not a recovering fundamentalist, however, so don't expect a lot of church-bashing. He tells us, right off the bat, about his first experience of preaching, how he "went on and on, until about an hour later 'Pastor Dave,' our youth leader, told me to knock it off, and I sat down among my glassy-eyed peers" (9). I take it, from this story, that he still appreciates his upbringing in the First Baptist Church in Freeport, Illinois, which "was about four things: getting people saved, separating from the world, singing full throttle, and listening to sermons by our pastor--though certainly not in that order" (10).

I met Scot McKnight a few years ago late in the day after endless papers and wall-to-wall conversations at the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature meeting. I was exhausted--until I'd spent fifteen minutes with him. By the time we'd finished talking, an hour or two later, I was full of energy borne of fascinating conversation and plenty of laughter.

Reading A Fellowship of Differents is like sitting down with Scot after a long day and finding yourself surprisingly revitalized. Like Scot, the book moves quickly--and deftly--between anecdotes about his friends, reminiscences about his students, insights into New Testament texts, and quotes and quips from modern (or fairly modern) authors like Henry David Thoreau, C. S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Anne Lamott, Kathleen Norris, and Flannery O'Conner.

The point of the book lies in "getting the church right." What does McKnight mean by this? The church is "God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the table to share life with one another as a new kind of family" (16).

Hence, the salad metaphor. There are three ways to make a salad.

  • The American Way: throw in iceberg lettuce, carrots, and tomatoes, then smother it with ranch or French or Caesar dressing. Make the individuality of the ingredients disappear under the homogeneous flavor of the whole.
  • The Weird Way: separate each item, then eat them separately. Forget the dressing altogether, but keep the parts, well, apart.
  • The Right Way: chop up spinach and arugula. Cut up tomatoes, carrots, onions, red peppers, and purple cabbage. Add nuts and dried berries. Sprinkle some pecorino romano cheese on it. Drizzle olive oil over it to bring the taste of each item to the fullest. "Surely this is what God intended," McKnight comments, "when he created 'mixed salad'" (14).

That's the gist of A Fellowship of Differents. The church should be a mixed salad.

If it's true, as McKnight tells us, that "90 percent of American churches draw 90 percent of their people from one ethnic group, and only about 8 percent of American churches can be called multiracial, multiethnic, or interracial" (20), then we need this book. And we need it the way McKnight delivers it, with humor, appreciation, and a drizzle of critique. He doesn't make us defensive; we don't cross our arms across our chests. He gives us just enough--data, story, joke, tale, commentary--and then changes the tack, though never the subject, which is always about the essential qualities of a diverse church.

McKnight discovers key elements of the church in unexpected places. In a section about Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man, for instance, McKnight asks us to consider who's invisible in the church. He quotes Miriam Neff, who says, "I am part of the fastest growing demographic in the United States. We are targeted by new-home builders and surveyed by designers. We are a lucrative niche for health and beauty products, and financial planners invite us to dinners. It's no wonder the marketers are after us: 800,000 join our ranks every year."

Who are these people? Widows.

McKnight draws our attention to the widows who, every year, "move from the front row of the church to the back, and then out the door," from "serving and singing in the choir to solitude and silent sobbing" (21).

This illustrates the power of a book that shines the light on forgotten corners: 800,000 invisible widows, as well as a slew of others who cross McKnight's consciousness--and now ours.

A Fellowship of Differents does have an order to it. It contains sections on grace, love, table, holiness, newness, and flourishing. But what defines the book is McKnight's casual, inoffensive, funny approach to those of us who are comfortable in American Salad or Weird Salad Churches.

So don't be fooled by the letters from friends he cites or the jokes he tells or the tales he spins. This book is a deep challenge to the way we do things in American Christianity.

And don't be surprised if, in the reading of this book, you squirm, you question--you change, as you find yourself mesmerized by the possibility of a fellowship of differents.