Sunday, November 11, 2012

Is Church Diversity Possible?

R3 Blogger

Is local church diversity possible? Quite a while back I had the experience of joining the staff of a local church as the only African American staff member. During the interview process the church mentioned a desire to become a diverse congregation where everyone was welcome to come. However as I spent time on staff I would soon discover many challenges that accompanied this plan.

Now that I have recovered from the experience of being there, I can honestly say that the experience helped solidify my convictions even more deeply regarding church diversity. Many lessons were learned and insights gleaned. Here are some that flow, not only from my experiences there, but from internal places within my being.

Courageous Leadership
When it comes to diversifying local congregations, cowardice really has no place. (I will refrain from using terms such as being a wuss, punk, chump, etc). The Church needs leaders who love people deeply – all kinds of people and refuse to become satisfied with status quo and always doing what has always been done. Leaders who aim to lead the way in the area of diversity take hits that can be avoided if only we keep the majority culture in our individual settings happy. We could avoid criticism and having people question our motives if only we don't launch into difficult conversations about race, cultural injustices, and issues of discrimination. Are you up for the task – pain and all?  Today’s Church needs leaders who aim to please God rather than appease people and be a people pleaser. Are you that kind of leader? There are some noteworthy leaders in the conversation of diversity that model courage for leaders, individuals such as Soong-Chan Rah, Mark DeymazBrenda Salter-McNeilDaniel HillDavid Ireland, and Richard Twiss, to name a few.

Long-Term Commitment to the Process
I suppose I don’t need to say much here. But I include it because I realize that starting out in the pursuit of diversity is one thing, and continuation is another. Some never start. Others start and quit when things get tough and even give “God” the credit for their lack of commitment to continuance, assuming that if they encounter opposition then it must be a signal that they should stop. However, opposition can and usually does serve as at least one indication that we are on the right track. Keep God’s vision for a diverse, yet united humanity in mind and keep going!

Celebrate Rather than Tolerate
A few years back after visiting countless churches during my time in New Jersey and leaving disappointed, I decided to give it one last try by visiting a fairly large church. I went with low expectation, because I was weary with the search and on the verge of giving up finding the place for me. As I entered the area it became clear to me that this was “the” place! As I walked from the parking lot to the church building I noticed that I was surrounded by a variety of cultures – Asian American, African American, Caucasian, Latino, Middle Eastern, etc. I entered into a space where I was greeted at the doors by Greeters of mixed cultures, encountered people from these different cultures interacting with each other. As morning worship began, the diversity was visible and audible again as staff members of different races and styles were present and those who lead musical worship were not only a mixture of races, but the music selections were from genres that appealed to urban gospel, instrumental, contemporary worship, and other styles. Sheer beauty!

It became obvious to me that this church did not only invite all people to come and then ask them to conform to cultural norms that were not there own, but each person could come and be celebrated for who they authentically were and they were encouraged to celebrate who others were. The presence of people different than you are should not cause us to simply endure their presence among us, but to rejoice in the beauty of our differences! Willingness to let go of things, always catering to our particular group, styles, an so forth, we must be willing to join with others and celebrate their styles as well.

Willingness to do What Does NOT Come Natural
I suppose the Caucasian gentleman that once said to me “it’s natural for people to gravitate to those who are similar to themselves” was correct. When I enter a crowded space it’s natural for me to look for other African Americans and move in their direction as a point of connection. But after thinking about this concept of doing what comes natural, I shifted my thinking to biblical text and saw that God’s design is to extend us beyond what simply comes natural to functioning supernaturally. What I mean by that is that we should be willing to let God empower us to reach beyond ourselves and do some of the things we would not naturally have the tendency to do. Even a brief skimming of the book of Acts gives us a glimpse of what it means to reach beyond our specific cultural groups. A look at the life and ministry practice of Jesus also gives us a clue – as He talked to Samaritans and other marginalized groups. The very purpose He came for was to break down walls that divide us from each other and eliminate the barriers (Ephesians 2). So, maybe God doesn’t excuse the Church from diversity as easily as we excuse ourselves from it?

Shared Power and Authority
It’s one thing to invite people of various cultures to the table – changing them positionally from being an outsider to an insider, it’s a totally different dynamic to share the authority that comes with the position. I learned this during my time on staff at the Caucasian congregation as I was repeatedly left out of important meetings and decisions, as my authority even in the area where I was invited to lead was even nonexistent. The dynamics of being a women on a male staff, and not only a woman, but the only person of color, made it nearly impossible for me to lead. I had a position, but I soon discovered that the authority that was to accompany the position was not a reality. Sadly, this eventually lead to feelings of tokenism. If you are a church leader, particularly if you are a member of the dominant group/race/culture, remember not just to embrace the lofty idea of giving positions to people of minority groups/race/cultures, but be prepared to also share the power and authority that is appropriate for such positions.

I believe that church diversity CAN happen! I must admit that it disturbs me to encounter diversity everywhere I go  schools, malls, neighborhoods, restaurants, and so forth, and then attend churches where homogeneity is the norm. When I enter into neighborhoods that are clearly diverse, and then enter a church in that same neighborhood and see a homogenous group of people it creates a sense of unrest. And though this unrest is uncomfortable I am inclined to believe that God is in the discomfort in the sense that the discomfort compels me to action. So maybe dissatisfaction is actually a good starting point? What do you think?


Rebecca Trotter said...

We were involved with a multi-cultural church for a while. The pastoral staff was African American and in a lot of ways if was a black church with a mixed race congregation. For a while I was on the small group/fellowship committee. One of the biggest problems we had was getting African American members to participate. I think that there was a bit of "I deal with white folks all week long so I'm not going to do it on the weekends" going on. When we asked members directly it was startling how often food was brought up - as in "they're going to serve me weird white people food". I'm married to a black man, so I actually understand the "I'm sick of dealing with white folk" thing. We drove 40 minutes each way to get to this church because our areas is so not diverse. As my husband said, "I'm tired of always being the only chip in the cookie."

OTOH, I've totally seen what you're talking about here in a lot of places as well. "We're so happy you're here but please leave all that non-white stuff at the door. While you're with us, please be good enough to do things the right way - ours." I suppose it's human nature to be comfortable with how you do things and not want to have to make room for different ways of seeing and thinking. A lot of white folks are genuinely confused by the idea that minority people have unique gifts to offer - after all, there's nothing wrong with the "normal" way. They'd rather ask minorities to get on board with being normal than allow themselves to expand their idea of normal.

At the multi-cultural church we decided to ask those hosting events to serve neutral food rather than anything fancy or ethnic or creative as a form of hospitality. It was a bit confusing to some of the people who were leading groups and meals - after all these were people who thought different was good. Otherwise they would have been going to the all whire/Asian/Hispanic church down the road. And we had to tell some of our African American folks to be tolerant - eat before going to a gathering if they were that worried. Like Paul said, the communion table wasn't there so people could pig out. (I still can't believe what an issue food was!)

But I do think it's worth the effort and it's good for us to ask people to stretch themselves.I know that my life has been enormously enriched by allowing people who are not like me to influence me. Unfortunately, I think that one of the reasons churches seem to struggle with this more than most comes out of their worldview - that there's one "right" answer and the job of a good Christian is to find that answer and conform. I think this approach leads to a lot of inflexibility and makes anything different particularly frightening. It's really a fear based approach to both religion and life.

Darlene said...

Rebecca, thanks so much for commenting and sharing your experiences. It is interesting that you mention food as one of the central issues. I usually hear people bring up music.

I have since had the chance to be on staff at another multicultural congregation. The staff was Asian American, White, African American and Latino American; and the congregation was a mixture of that also.

We handled food by creating a church culture where we regularly got together in smaller groups, all church gatherings, etc where guests and members alike were encouraged to bring a dish to share. And we enjoyed each others company so much that, based on relationships, we were excited to try new foods from each others cultures.

It definitely takes work, commitment and even theological/biblical engagement to establish reasons why we "should" extend ourselves beyond ourselves and break down the walls between us.

Thanks again for your comments.