Some churches, both large and small, have made efforts to become more ethnically diverse. This is a welcomed phenomenon amid a time within our country that is marked by divisions.
As our churches look for ways to become more inclusive of others, there are some concerns that we should be aware of regarding the needs and perspectives of the people who we are trying to reach.
1. Your lay people will be a major factor in whether diversity will be achieved in your church
As a black pastor making the move to a predominantly white church, my number one concern was my family.
- Will they fit in?
- How will they be treated?
- Will my children be treated the same as the other children who are already part of the church?
As a minister and church leader, it was one thing to ready myself for the ramifications of such a change, but when I signed on for the transition, I signed my family up as well. Granted, my wife and I discussed the move in detail, but not all members of the family had the same degree of choice in the matter.
Is your church willing to do things in a different way than how it has always been done?
My real concern was not the church leadership, but the congregation. An initiative to seek diversity may begin in the pulpit, but it is the members in the seats, in the foyer, and within the small groups that will be the determining factor of whether this goal will stand or fall. It is the regular lay people of your church that a new black couple or Hispanic family will encounter on a Sunday morning. It is your lay members that will either strengthen or disprove any reservations potential members may have.
2. New members from other cultures want to be more than a part of the diversity of your church, they want to be part of the church
It is easy to become so focused on a goal, that we do not consider the ramifications of the goal. A church may look at their current membership and say, “We need to become more diverse.”
That is a great first step but it is only a first step.
There will be many other steps and detours along the way that will change the life of your congregation forever. Consider the perspective of the people you are trying to reach. They most likely do not want to be known for only what they bring to the church in terms of their race or ethnicity. They have much more to offer. Each culture brings along its different styles of teaching, preaching, singing, recreation, speaking, etc. Is your church willing to do things in a different way than how it has always been done?
When you sign-up for change, do not be shocked if things change.
3. It is important to be aware that being the object of a church’s diversity transition can be a lonely journey
When our family left our predominantly black church, we not only left a context where we felt comfortable, but we left a familial social network that provided us and our children a sense of cultural identity.
In the black church, when we refer to one another as “brother” and “sister,” it is not just another formal Christianized greeting, it is saying that we recognize you as part of our family. We share not only a common faith but also a common history and cultural understanding.
One of the hardest consequences of making a transition can be loneliness. Not only is there a new church culture to adjust to (every local church has one), there is also a sense that one has left their social identity.
I believe that this is not spoken about often. There could even be a backlash from the context which they left. Unfortunately, some may view such a move as working to make other churches better while taking away faithful and influential members of the black church. Once again, this may not be spoken explicitly, but this is a real matter that is alluded to in many ways.
In a time filled with rhetoric and images of division, the church can be a lighthouse to the world of the unity that the cross creates.
For those who may not understand the psychology behind it, this comes from a “take-care-of-our-own” mentality that was born out of survival. When college-aspiring black men and women were not allowed to enter public colleges and universities, HBCU’s were formed. When black entrepreneurs were blocked from new business enterprises, a Black Chamber of Commerce was established, and when believers from African descent were not welcome in the same church or sometimes not even on the same floor as their white brothers and sisters in Christ, then black churches were started. It is these institutions that have groomed some of the best and brightest within black culture. Therefore, such a move can be looked at as taking away from one group to give to another.
There needs to be a change of thinking on all sides of these issues. In Christianity, there should not be an “us and them” mentality. Instead, we should unite for the kingdom of God. Relocating membership to make the local expression of the body of Christ (the local church) more diverse is an act of love to help the body of Christ as a whole. I see it as a mission to reflect the gospel that we are supposed to be living out. This is one way I can help the church. In a time filled with rhetoric and images of division, the church can be a lighthouse to the world of the unity that the cross creates.
Here are a few steps that a church can take in meeting the needs of people from different cultures:
- Seek genuine relationships. In other words, view visitors and new members as people first, instead of means to a goal.
- Prepare your people for
change. Be honest about what traditions, styles, and ways of doing things that the church may be holding on to with too tight of a grip. Pray about them and discuss them.
- Seek to discover what God has given each new member in your church to help your church. 1 Corinthians 12:7 affirms that every true believer in Christ has been gifted with at least one spiritual gift. Nothing makes someone feel like they are a part of the whole more than working side-by-side.