Intentional Diversity in Church Life: Optics versus Substance

A friend of mine attended a church where the pastor, from the pulpit, declared how glad he was that their large church was so diverse!  As the pastor spoke on, this friend, who happens to be African American, exchanged a look of bewilderment with his wife, also African American, as they continued to listen to the pastor exalt in the fact that a person of color sang the special before his sermon.

My friend and his wife no longer attend that church, and that congregation is currently going through a crisis.  They are wrestling with the fact that a number of the few minority families they had, have left their congregation.  How did this happen?  How could the pastor of this church be so mistaken about the diversity in his church?

To live in true diversity a church and its leadership must answer with a few key questions.  The first question is WHY?  Why do you want diversity in your church?  Once upon a time the rule was “be homogeneous!”  In other words, target a single cultural group if you want to grow your church.  No doubt some still live by this creed, but today the trend is toward diversity.  To be “politically correct” an institution must be diverse.  More of us want to appear sensitive, and dare I say it, not racist or xenophobic.  Besides that, we all know that every good Christian and pastor wants their church to grow, so if an emphasis on diversity will help my church grow, “I’m for it!”

But let me suggest, these can’t be the main reasons we seek diversity for our churches.  They are not the foundation on which healthy diversity will grow and take root in our communities of faith.  The reason we must seek diversity is because that is what love does.  As the human race, our past is one of estrangement, but now, in Christ, our present and future is to be one of re-engagement.  We call it “reconciliation.”  In fact, God says we have a “ministry of reconciliation” (II Corinthians 5:18).  God has made the extent of this reconciliation clear, “Love your neighbor.”  So to be a follower of Christ is to be reconciled to people, as well a reconciled to God!

Because love must be our motivating force, those seeking an authentic diversity will understand that it requires a commitment to relational and institutional change.  So, to be an authentically diverse family in God rather than a functioning / dysfunctional family we must seek diversity with justice!  Our problem is that we want diversity at a bargain price!  But true diversity is costly.  Short cuts around institutional change are not a part of the journey toward diversity, any more than diversity is a mostly white church that feels good about itself because it has an African American sister sing a special before the pastor preaches!

Justice means those who have sat in the seats of power and influence, whether that power is denominational or local church, will listen and hear the hard truths about our past failures and how those appointments to power were rigged through willful ignorance and flagrant racism.  It means they will not only listen and learn, they will also speak that learned message to God’s family.  They will lead God’s church to complete and sincere repentance, and they will make sure the whole family has sat in on the intervention of God so that we might be rid of our unacknowledged sin and be healed.

The healing means new voices at the table.  It means our Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American brothers and sisters will occupy those seats and they will help us experience a substantive diversity rather than a token one.  We keep looking for a way out of this.  But now, it’s time for our leaders to lead us out through the painful process that leads to diversity with justice.

This leads us to the second question.  Are you preparing for diversity?  Or, do you merely seek assimilation?  Our tendency is to think of diversity in terms of color rather than function and style.  We want the optics of diversity to be able to say, “Look how diverse we are!”, but not the shared power it demands.  When the church is truly diverse it will not only look diverse, it will reflect a rich cultural mix from top to bottom.  Why do we think diversity is the minority person doing, sounding and acting more and more like a white person?  That is not diversity, it is status quo America, and sadly, status quo Church!

A church that truly wants to be diverse doesn’t wake up one day and say, “Hey we need more diversity in the church, let’s put up a sign that says, “Everyone welcome”.  A church committed to diversity must stand at the mirror of critical reflection with open eyes and face its failures and ignorance, and ultimately own it.  It is a painful process, but it also leads us on a journey of holiness that deeply reflects the heart of God.  This first step of preparation is the hardest and most important.  It requires a significant amount of catch up education be given to God’s people.

This education must focus on our nation’s and the Church’s legacy of oppression and / or indifference when it comes to certain people groups, and it must also introduce our people to the many extraordinary role models and history particular to certain ethnicities which are often unknown in white communities.  This is the only way we can begin to change the toxic narrative ingrained in much of white culture–That narrative being a perspective that sees the problem existing within the other group.  Did I mention, this will be a painful journey?  I dare say, most of us settle for something less.

This leads to the final question.  How committed are you to creating diversity in your church?  When we started this journey as a church, we thought everyone would love it and want to take the journey with us.  But I find that most prefer to love it from a distance.  Very often, a church committed to diversity with justice will be loved from a distance.

Most Christians know that diversity is a good thing.  To know it, all you have to do is read the Bible!  Oh, you can do diversity without justice.  Many do.  In that model, you basically ignore the issues that keep flaring up in our society and you avoid the hurts and frustrations many people of color keep to themselves.  All this is done in the name of unity!  But honestly, that unity will only be for your white members and those of color who’ve gone through the process of assimilation, primarily through the conduit of middle class status.  So, let us seek a diversity with justice.  If not, we settle for a unity based on appearances.  Pastor, Christian, church, what kind of diversity are you nurturing in your fellowship?  Is it one of optics or substance?

Dennis Solis (CrossPoint Community Church)

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