One of the biggest issues in our culture is race relations. I write about it often, and the latest #Charlottesville incident reminds us of the brokenness we face in this area.
One of the biggest knocks on the Church is that 11:00 on Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in America. There is no reason to argue it. Neither should that fact cause us to change everything we do to make it untrue. I’m not defending the reality, and I do understand that there are many reasons for it. But it is also encouraging that many churches are trying to overcome that history.
However, I also know that there is a strong movement to help us not be defined by ‘white church’ and ‘black church’ labels. There are many good people reaching across ethnic and color lines to help the Church become as diverse as the many types of people God created. There are challenges for sure. But these challenges can be met and dealt with successfully.
When we talk about churches becoming more multicultural, I’m not here to shame anyone. I get that many Anglo churches are filled with angst because they are “too white,” but that can be good or bad. The fact is, some churches are in communities that are not very diverse. A church is not primarily responsible for how multicultural its neighborhood is, but it is responsible for how kingdom-minded it is. So what does it look like to make a healthy cultural shift away from who you are to who you can be?
Notice the Neighborhood
The goal is not to meet a quota.
It is to meet the expectations God has for us. In some ways, that expectation varies from local body to local body. But it seems fair to suggest that the Church should have a goal to reflect its local community—not because it has to, but because it wants to. So, as we go forward, it is important to understand that the move to multicultural Christian community is not something we achieve because we are forcing it, but because we realize the force in it.
It starts with a church being like its neighborhood. But, if possible, it is good to be more diverse than your neighborhood.
It affirms the value of the diversity God has created. It says that we are not satisfied to simply be around people like ourselves. We expect missionaries to engage in partnerships with various cultures. Well, our mission starts in our communities. So we should ‘go’, even if the going is in Jerusalem.
Push beyond what naturally occurs, and watch what God will do.
Become a Welcoming and Understanding Community
One of the things we should recognize is the dynamics of a congregation or gathering of people.
What is a person thinking, hearing, or seeing when he or she walks into a church? The first thing most people do when they walk into a church and look around is ask, “Is there anyone like me here?” That is a natural human question.
If the person is young, he or she is probably looking for young people. If he or she is a parent, they are likely looking for families. If he or she is a person of color, they are looking for people who look like them. You may say that doesn’t sound very spiritual. I’m not saying it is right or wrong. I’m saying it is true. And we all do it.
Years ago, I visited a very large all-black church. I looked around out of curiosity, “Are there any white people here?” There weren’t. But what was great was someone came up to me and said, “Listen, the pastor makes sure we welcome all kinds of people. We want to welcome you.”
At that point, I knew a bit how African-Americans feel when they visit Anglo churches, though there are many other issues at work when it is reversed.
So, as we realize how people are wired, it becomes important for us to not create an environment that is naturally off-putting. If we want to minister in our community, it is a good idea to look like our community so people in the community feel at home when they enter our church. Part of this happens when your church enters the community. Build relationships with people across the diverse lines in your neighborhood.
Hire Leadership Who Reflect Your Values
If you want to be diverse, it’s important to build a multicultural team. If your church is not large enough to hire staff, you can still develop a diverse group of leaders.
What you celebrate, you become. If you celebrate diversity in your leadership, it will be reflected in your pews. So hire well.
But don’t bring someone on just because he or she is the right ethnicity or color. It takes a lot more than that. And some people, Anglo or people of color, just don’t want to work to be in a multicultural setting, and they won't help you—you need people who value that diversity and want to work for the kingdom value that a multicultural church expresses.
Look for bridge builders who are willing to learn to relate to people of different cultures and contexts.
You need leaders who value diversity, but not just that, they have to value reconciliation, which helps us undergird diversity.
One final note there: It is also important to remember that many minority-majority churches are so because they can’t become multicultural. Sometimes it’s a choice that those of us in the majority need to respect.
It’s not like most African-American churches are sitting around wishing they had more white people in their lives. Many enjoy a historic spiritual and cultural heritage in their church because, for many years, that is where their community has been enriched, empowered, and educated. It is where their leaders were recognized and appreciated. This is true in several minority communities. Many do not want to lose that heritage by trying to become more diverse. Many also live their lives in majority culture and need a safe place where they can express the sides of themselves that don't get affirmed in the broader culture. Or else they may lose those valued parts of their culture and identity and history.
That’s worthy of our respect even as we seek to become more diverse.
Always Focus on the Big Mission
There are many dynamics at play when it comes to growing in cultural diversity within a church. None of these factors should overwhelm the mission of the Church, which is to be God’s reconciling agent in a fallen world. But in that reconciling of humans to God, there should always be a part that is focused on reconciling human to human. In a way, it is the natural outcome of a renewed human.
This movement to open up the Church to a multicultural face is the visual expression of what happens in the heart when God heals our land. It should not be used to beat down those who are less diverse. Rather, it can be a great way to build the family and reach the lost. After all, if the redeemed can reach across the gulf to reconcile with the lost, certainly we can join hearts and arms with those who have a little more or less melanin than we do, right?
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.