Is a diverse church futile?
I was recording with the Color Correction crew last night on what it’s like to be a brown person in a predominantly white church, and why I stay. I’ll spare you the details of the podcast, so be sure to listen when it drops this week. My friend Andrew, one of the hosts, brought up a question about whether having a diverse church, as diverse as the Kingdom of God, was even possible.
I understand the question and the complication. I grew up attending what we called an “American church” and an “Egyptian church.” Our understanding of ourselves was largely understood through nationality and ethnicity, not race. So even though the churches were racially homogeneous, that wasn’t the framework through which we understood them. But both churches, to us, were homogeneous, essentially. The Egyptian one is where we felt “at home,” and the American one is where we were clearly guests at the table. To be honest, as a child of immigrants, a second generation immigrant, I didn’t feel at home in either. I had tried to assimilate to both Egyptian and American culture, but I failed at doing either seamlessly. So I was always an outsider, and I still am in many ways.
I am the result of a globalized pluralistic society, and in almost every space that I exist in I am going to be a minority of some kind. The prospect of me finding a church that’s made up of people just like me seems like a recipe for not belonging in the church. And at the same time, if we can’t worship in racially and ethnically diverse spaces, I think that is a rather harsh indictment of the limitations of Christianity. If Christianity cannot overcome worldly barriers, labels, and meanings assigned to our bodies, it seems like our faith isn’t worth pursuing. In other words, I don’t want to be a Christian if diversity in worship isn’t possible. I don’t think I can say Jesus is the Risen Lord if that’s a limitation of our faith. And I’m not ready to give up yet.
My aspiration to grow a more diverse church isn’t just about multiculturalism. Our diversity needs to span across ethnicity and race, gender and sexuality, economic class, ability, and with that diversity being reflective in leadership. This may sound idealistic, but I think it’s exactly what the Kingdom of Heaven will look like, and I think we see it modeled in the Bible too.
Why it’s important to have a diverse church
Before I get into some of those examples, I want to pause and elaborate upon why I think diversity is important. I think diversity makes us all richer in our understanding of the people around us and ourselves. If we live in a homogeneous bubble, I think we are deprived of experience and compassion. The more diverse the people around you are, the more of an opportunity you have to seek understanding and interrogate your own prejudices. That’s not an automatic process, but it’s nearly impossible otherwise. The truth is you can have a multicultural church that is racist, but you can’t have an antiracist church that isn’t multicultural.
Recently, I encountered an interpretation of Jesus’ actions in the New Testament that seemed to strip Jesus of his very humanity, and his Jewishness. This is common to do in the New Testament, because the text itself was written as a polemic to distinguish early Christianity from early rabbinic Judaism, but that polemic too often turns to hatred, or even ignorance. This interpretation seemed to disregard the Jewish experience and the fact that Jesus was Jewish—yes, he was a controversial rabbi—but not hostile toward Jewish folks, even if he was critical of some of their leaders, especially the Sadducees, who were in bed with Rome. Jesus’ critique was about faithfulness to God, and he was operating largely within the tradition of the prophets to get his people closer to God. The reason, though, I have that perspective isn’t because I read the right books or articles, but rather because I have relationships with Jewish people that informed my understanding. It turns out that the Jewish population in most of the world is so small that such perspectives aren’t considered, and so here the prejudice exists, but unbeknownst, most likely, to the person with it. Diversity helps us see these blind spots, and that is a necessary part of how churches must operate. We are ministering to one another to bring about our true and full selves in God. Prejudice not only dehumanizes the victim, it also dehumanizes the perpetrator. Racism dehumanizes everyone involved in its violence. So a diverse body is necessary for our full discipleship; even if we live in an area that is largely homogeneous, there are ways to build and relate across churches, that can change that homogeneity (societally, I should add, that our communities should be increasing in diversity and pluralism, but I’ll stay in my lane today).
God has been including strangers into the body since the beginning
I remarked earlier that my isolation is heightened because I live in a time where people can move across seas and one where the population, especially in the United States, is especially diverse. But I don’t think that achieving diversity or desiring it is a new phenomenon, even if it’s highlighted in a new way in our current times.
God has been uniting different kinds of people together for a common project since the very beginning and throughout time.
The Exodus is an event that birthed the nation of Israel and gave the Israelites a sense of who they were. The Exodus is remembered every year during Passover and it is a reminder of God’s faithfulness. The people who Egypt enslaved weren’t particularly part of a single ethnic group, but rather it was their common experience of liberation that made them a people.
Moreover, even during the patriarchal period (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), it was worship of God that made Israel a people. The Law of Moses demanded an inclusive attitude toward the stranger, because they were strangers in Egypt. Moreover, these strangers should be considered citizens among them.
And throughout the Old Testament, allegiance and loyalty to God was the marker for Israel. Every time they weren’t allied and loyal to God, they were overtaken by another power, because they had already forfeited their loyalty to God to another god. Their sense of safety as a body, and a nation, was certainly compromised in captivity, and the long periods of time they were held in captivity. Because they were colonized by another nation, they reverted to some nationalistic and exclusive tendencies when they were out of captivity. This especially occurred during the period of Ezra-Nehemiah. The Hebrew Bible’s order of books helps us understand how this dilemma is corrected. The Book of Ruth in the Old Testament is between Judges and Samuel because it tells the tale of one of David’s great grandparents. But in its original context, it is placed closer to the period of time of Ezra-Nehemiah, and it showcases the increasingly xenophobic nation, and that they have no right to exclude strangers from their land, because even in King David’s lineage, there was a Moabite, named Ruth. God is always including the stranger, and so we need to demonstrate that same posture.
When we get the New Testament, we see this sort of inclusion as well. Whether it’s the Syrophoenician woman from Tyre relating to Jesus about including more than Israel into his ministry, the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus demonstrates this type of inclusion radically.
Paul, the Apostle, centers his whole ministry on universalizing the Gospel, to both Jew and Gentile, and painstakingly undoes the requirement of Jewish tradition, while also guarding against the arrogance of the liberties of the Gentiles. He wants everyone to be included and is resisting cultural norms while transforming people’s minds and hearts. Paul isn’t tolerant of differing viewpoints or philosophies. He is writing a new philosophy, one that makes no separation between Jew or Greek, man or woman, slave nor free.
Finally, we have Philip, who is anxiously on the run, ministering to the Ethiopian eunuch, and bringing Christianity to Africa. The church grows more diverse and inclusive as a result. I think what is essential about the stories here is that everyone changes, the makeup of the body changes, and so there is a sense of mutuality and partnership, not domination or coercion. I think that is precisely how we can foster longevity in the long run.
This will be painful, but keep hope alive
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” I think that is still true, and there is a real legacy of racism and colonialism that has led to this segregation, one that I believe the dominators are accountable for. And so the best path forward for a diverse church is to discern how we got to this place, and how to undo it.
As I started, the best way to change is to surround yourself by people different from you and listen to them. We can’t burden or obligate them with such a task, but we should discipline ourselves to be humble to listen and receive what they are offering us. We need to develop genuine trust relationships that assume a posture of learning, especially if our communities are predominantly white. The truth is, something is wrong if your community is predominantly white, relative to its surrounding population. (I will add, that predominantly white communities suffer the same problems as predominantly white churches, but the geographical and sociological dilemma there is another topic altogether.) So let’s start there, with that admission, and then look to the examples in Scripture for motivation about how we might make our bodies more diverse. Look for barriers that keep people different than us away. Listen to those folks. Seek understanding, curb defensiveness, know this might be a painful process. Don’t allow your cynicism to eclipse your hope; don’t allow the challenge of the moment to cause you to dismiss diverse churches as something that can’t happen on this side of heaven. Keep hope alive, don’t despair.