5 Reasons Churches Need Diversity
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. A recent survey by LifeWay Research shows that 50 years later, not much has changed. But it must. As the pastor of a 7,500-member church that represents 40 nationalities, I offer up five reasons churches need diversity — and how we can get there.
1. Diversity is biblically mandated.
The Great Commission charges us to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). The church instructs and equips converts so that over time their devotion to Christ is evident in their worldview, lifestyle, and values. However, this view of disciple-making is only one dimension of Jesus’ command. The other part of our charge is found in the word nation, derived from the Greek word ethnos from which we get ethnic.
We are to reach across ethnicities and make disciples. We are not simply ambassadors to people within our own cultures. We are cross-cultural ambassadors. In today’s America, the world is at our doorsteps. The Great Commission asks that we do more than share Jesus on mission trips across the ocean. It directs us to connect cross-culturally with those who live across the street.
2. A monoracial church is a compromised church.
We must draw wisdom from the entire body if we are to strengthen the church. A diverse congregation benefits from the insights, gifts, and perspectives each racial group offers. These local churches model what some scholars call the ethnic roundtable.
Imagine a bunch of men sitting around a table planning a women’s conference. Would you encourage your mother, wife, sister, or daughter to attend that event? I wouldn’t. To effectively reach women you must include women in the shaping of the event. Similarly, any church that wants to reach its community must see the value gained from the ethnic roundtable. Anything less than that creates a compromised church because it fails to actualize racial equality in its ranks and broader membership. A monoracial church also reflects the Christian’s answer to the problem of human culture — it is not Christ’s answer.
3. Cross-race relationships enrich our lives.
To complete my doctoral dissertation about why certain churches were successful in attracting and maintaining a racially diverse membership, I conducted focus groups across the country. I presented many of the discoveries in my book The Skin You Live In.
Chief among my findings was the simple fact that cross-race friendships enrich our lives. People in the focus groups felt free to engage in vulnerable conversations about race, culture, and matters of diversity. They felt safe within their cross-racial relationships, which enabled them to relax to the point where myths, suspicions, and awkward questions about race could be discussed.
Second, people noted that social outings enriched their lives. Anyone can speak to or connect with someone of another race in a professional setting. That’s often a business necessity. But the litmus test of the personal benefit of cross-race friendships is sharing a meal together in your home or at a restaurant. This is a choice. The opportunity to eat different foods, discuss troubling societal problems, and understand someone else’s cultural heritage adds value to your life.
4. Segregation reinforces prejudice.
There is nothing morally wrong about preferring to be with your own culture because of the ease that comes along with providing a worship or teaching experience familiar to your group. Just be mindful that segregation reinforces ignorance, creates suspicion, and widens the racial divide. The end result is that segregation is the breeding ground for prejudice.
One of the indicators of prejudice is discomfort. When there is social discomfort being around people of another group, the natural response is to isolate yourself from them. It seems innocent on a surface level, but the action has a deeper social meaning and ripple effect. This is the very reason the apostle Paul strongly and openly confronted Peter while Peter was on an extended visit to the Antioch Church (Galatians 2:11-16). Peter preferred to eat exclusively with other Jews, which demonstrated prejudice against Gentile believers. Paul had to address it for the sake of preserving the richness of diversity evident at the Antioch Church.
5. Diversity models unity.
As Christians, we are charged to live Christ-like lives. Unity stems from a life where Jesus is the center. Anything less than that weakens our ability to love our neighbor as ourselves. This was the crux of Paul’s argument to Peter. As a Christian, Peter was no longer allowed to live an ethnocentric life — a life where his Jewish heritage served as the centerpiece. You cannot have two centerpieces — either you live a Christocentric life or an ethnocentric one.
Let’s embrace Paul’s message in Galatians 2. We can be ethnoconscious — conscious of our heritage and ethnicity without making it an idol or the centerpiece of our life. Peter was Jewish. He ought to be proud of that heritage, as was Paul. But, it should not be the primary characteristic defining how he engaged with others, saw himself, or connected with the world. One way Christians demonstrate our love for God is by how we love people — all kinds of people. Modeling diversity is everyone’s responsibility.
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We are all works in progress. Many people in my congregation are still working through these five principles, as am I. It is easier to fall back on attitudes and behaviors that do not challenge us. While maintaining the status quo does not make you a bad person, it does lead to benign neglect.
The first step toward a lifestyle of diversity is to step outside your comfort zone. Comfort zones restrict your view and limit your growth. Reach out by inviting someone of another race to a meal. Become a student of his culture by asking safe questions. Ask questions about his national dish or special customs around big holidays. Don’t forget prayer. Ask God to help you become an effective cross-cultural ambassador. This is one prayer God is sure to answer, because he commissioned you to become a cross-cultural ambassador. We cannot forget that in a divided society, the church must model unity.
By David D. Ireland