Alicia Akins has been a friend of United? We Pray for years now. I cannot remember how we first met, but she has been writing for us on and off since 2020. I remember right away appreciating her keen insight, both about herself and those around her. She brings those qualities to bear in her forthcoming book, The Gift of the Outsider (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2023).
Alicia’s framework for the book is simple—society is built of groups, and each group has insiders and outsiders. Groups can form around all sorts of factors or stages of life. Society segregates itself by age, race, marital status, physical ability, and many other factors. When it does, people find themselves on the inside and outside of each group. A person can simultaneously be an insider with one group and an outsider with another.
As a committed servant of the Church, Alicia writes not just about society at large, but about how these social dynamics work out in our churches. Perhaps the most helpful contribution of this book is that it is not written as a how-to for outsiders to help them fit in by changing who they are. The main thrust of the book is to show how God blesses His people through outsiders.
A Hidden Danger
A tricky thing about being an insider is that we often do not realize when we are insiders. When everyone is just like us and our preferences are normalized, things feel, well, normal. Alicia is quick to point out that there is nothing inherently wrong with enjoying the fellowship of similar people. The danger comes when that is our only source of fellowship. Much is made of cultural polarization, in which people retreat to their preferred ideological camp to become further entrenched in whatever positions they have always held. That can happen in our churches, too. Alicia writes of the “church of the insider,” which is not merely a hypothetical scenario:
In the church of the insider, everyone assumes their concerns are universal, exhaustive, and paramount. Fringe concerns, when they do arise, are not addressed as they do not have the critical mass worth expending the effort to find a solution. Cultural references are assumed to be meaningful to all. The most important questions the Bible answers are the ones they ask. Shared sin patterns become culturally acceptable—no sermons on those. The status quo is sacred. Groupthink is worshiped over shalom and challenges to it are viewed as threats, not opportunities. (33Ң34)
God help us. This worst-case scenario is all too real when insiders are unaware of the role their own preferences are playing in church life. But, as we might expect, God offers a solution.
An Unexpected Blessing
The antidote to groupthink is an outsider’s perspective. Here is where Alicia makes an insightful point. She writes, “I often see people frame diversity initiatives as being of primary benefit to the underrepresented party. But gaining new perspectives benefits both parties and, in many cases, the majority group is the greater beneficiary—largely because their relative lack of exposure means they have more to learn” (44). Listening to outsiders is not charity work. Marginalizing outsiders can harm them. But empowering their voices and listening to their perspectives is not for their benefit, alone. Everyone benefits, and perhaps particularly, insiders.
Rather than leaving this point as a theoretical possibility, Alicia spends the latter half of the book detailing ways outsiders serve the larger body of Christ. Here are a few:
Seeing the Inside
This is the starting point from which true unity in diversity is possible. Without recognizing the ways in which cultural, political, or ethnic norms exclude others, we have no chance of achieving the kind of unity Scripture demands of us.
Being Uncompromised by Power
Outsiders are, by definition, outside of positions of power and influence. As such, they are free to act as prophetic voices because they have nothing to gain from the status-quo.
Discomfort: Freedom from Comfort
Being an outsider is often uncomfortable. Comfort is not a bad thing, but it can be an idol. How many churches would be served by members being willing to be made uncomfortable by new people, new music, and new avenues for service?
Endurance: The Persecuted Church
One passage that really stood out to me was a section in which a woman from a country in which Christians are persecuted said that she prays for Christians in America to learn from suffering. James and Peter both write in the New Testament that suffering tests and strengthens faith. Outsiders are often ahead of insiders on learning endurance through suffering.
We hear from many of our readers that racial injustice is something they are only beginning to understand. The first reaction many have is sadness. What do we do when we consider our broken world? We ought to lament. In many cases, outsiders are already aware of this practice and can show the rest of us how to keep our faith when life is hard.
There is much more I could say about the book, but rather than me rehashing the whole thing here, I hope you will read it. I would be hard pressed to think of a more practical book on the unity of God’s people than what Alicia has given us. You can click here to pre-order it.
- Praise God for making different kinds of people and bringing them together into one body.
- Pray for outsiders who feel the pain of exclusion and misunderstanding.
- Pray that Christians would seek the unity of God’s people and the welcoming of others above our own preferences.