Most Christians don't long for diversity in their churches with great passion. By and large, we rarely consider why our churches should (or how they could) more clearly reflect the global body of Christ. Other priorities compete for our attention, and however biblical it may be, tackling the complicated question of diversity often doesn't make the cut.
But for Trillia J. Newbell, author of United: Captured by God's Vision for Diversity (Moody Publishers), diversity isn't simply one issue among many, but a central way that the church communicates the gospel. It's also very personal.
The reasons for Newbell's passion become clear over the course of the book. Newbell, who is African American, attends a predominantly white church, one she loves dearly despite its lack of diversity. Adding to Newbell's unique perspective is her location within Reformed theological circles, which historically have been very white. "Being black, female, and Reformed is one of those unique blends," she writes. "I am a rare breed."
From this perspective, Newbell does a few things I've not encountered in my reading on church diversity. Whether you appreciate her novel approaches will likely depend on two factors: your experience (if any) with the challenges and joys of a diverse congregation, and how much you share Newbell's Reformed sympathies and affiliations.
United often feels like a memoir. We learn about the author's childhood and the influence of a father who displayed immense courage in the face of racism. Her time in college was especially influential. There, she met two women, one white and the other Chinese American, who would become close friends. These friendships play a prominent role through the book's second half. Newbell quotes frequently from their correspondence to show both the complexities and rewards of diverse community. Being invited into the author's story helps us understand her passion. It also helps us imagine what such diversity might actually look, feel, and sound like.
The book is about a tricky and somewhat discouraging topic, considering how segregated U.S. churches remain. Yet Newbell focuses her attention in other directions. Not that she ignores the challenges or ugly histories that typically hinder attempts at reconciled community. It's just that she chooses to highlight the appealing elements of diversity, whether theological or relational. Many readers will find this approach inspirational, an antidote to what Newbell calls "the difficulties of genuine diversity." But lacking from this approach is much analysis of why Jesus-loving, Gospel-believing Americans have contentedly attended segregated churches for generations. Embracing "genuine diversity" means we must also get our arms around the privileges and prejudices that have kept us apart.
United is closely tethered to the Reformed world of John Piper (whom she cites more than any other source), Thabiti Anyabwile, and like-minded church leaders. This is where United feels most limited. Given the breadth of her topic, it is surprising that Newbell didn't interact with other evangelical perspectives on diversity, reconciliation, and multiethnic congregations. Engaging the work of scholars and writers like Soong-Chan Rah, Kathy Khang, Michael Emerson, and Christena Cleveland could have made Newbell's passionate and inspiring vision more relatable to readers who don't fit within the Reformed world.
Even so, with United, Newbell has done something admirable: She has made the conversation about congregational diversity accessible and winsome. I hope many will read this book and find their imaginations captivated by the goodness of diverse congregations that express our reconciliation, through Jesus, to God and to each other.
David Swanson is a pastor on Chicago's South Side and a Leadership Journal contributing editor. He blogs at davidswanson.wordpress.com.
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