The Dallas Morning News
Welcoming diversity isn’t enough. We must invite it
The permanently excluded feel justifiable rage when an abstract affirmation of diversity papers over deeply ingrained racism, segregation
If you drive through Dallas looking for religious institutions you’ll see this sign over and over: “Everyone Welcome.” There is one problem. Practically speaking everyone means no one. Folks don’t go to church because everyone is welcome. People go to a church because they were specifically welcomed in all their little particularities.
Raymond Lee, the former World Council of Churches evangelism secretary, talked about walking past a church in Hong Kong every day. Its doors were open and he could see young people like himself having a good time. He never went in because he wasn’t invited. And that is the basic key to building a diverse religious community: invite diverse people to come and join.
For this to happen we must invite people who are not like ourselves to come with us to church. Note that the invitation must be, “Come with
me to church.” Diversity begins when we want to sit with, worship with, work with, and socialize with people who are different than ourselves. It begins when we see diversity as a strength rather than seeing it as an obligation. Because diversity creates both resilience and elicits creativity.
For 12 years I was a teacher and pastor in Southeast Asia. In the theological schools where I taught I heard at least four different languages daily basis. We worshipped in three languages in the same service. We had students from every type of Christian church. And this diversity made us strong. It knocked off the rough edges of any particular form of religious or ethnic extremism. It gave us the flexibility to respond quickly to changing circumstances in the larger world. It elicited in each of us the ability to respond to new ideas and cultures.
This kind of strength contradicts the unspoken assumption of most churches that was first named by Donald McGavran as the “homogeneous unit principle.” As a Christian missionary in India, he observed that the fastest growing congregations were those whose members were all of the same social class, or caste. Homogeneous congregations experienced none of the internal friction caused by diversity. Thus they could give their full attention to gaining new members.
The problem was that McGavran was focused on saving souls, not changing a discriminatory society. He didn’t understand that the business of the church is to witness to God’s reign, which in no way looks like an ethnically homogeneous conclave of the saved. Witness is the business of the church, not growth. And saving souls is a work reserved entirely for God’s spirit.
In the protests and riots taking place across the United States as I write, we’re seeing the result of centuries of this kind of utilitarian segregation and exclusion by race. It is good for church growth and creating comfortable places to worship. Nice for property values as well. But the result is the justifiable rage of the permanently excluded that comes when an abstract affirmation of diversity papers over the reality of deeply ingrained racism and segregation.
All the religions I know of (and I teach world religions at a graduate level) teach that social norms should be challenged by the knowledge of transcendent reality. As the Apostle Paul wrote in defending a diverse Christian community in Rome, “be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” It is just as easy to find such teaching in the Quran, the Torah, the Vedas, and the Buddhist Sutras, to name a few.
And yet, to return to the Christian world, Sunday morning is the most segregated morning of week. White churches in close proximity to large African American and Latino populations remain, well, white. They might say that their doors are open. But that doesn’t mean members of the congregation are asking everyone to come in.
Still, for idealists let me offer a warning from experience. For seven years I was the pastor of the EnglishSpeaking United Methodist Church of Vienna. You can guess what unified us. What divided us was everything else. We came from 27 different countries, with the largest single group coming from West Africa. Half of us spoke English as a second language and the other half spoke mutually incomprehensible dialects of English. We had almost no common tradition. And being in Austria, we carried out our official business in German. Crazy.
And not easy. We struggled with having a single language in a bilingual culture. Congregation members complained when I gave a childrens’ sermon in German, even though we all knew that the children didn’t yet speak English. Everything from the length of sermons to the music was a constant subject of negotiation.
But it was not impossible and was ultimately rewarding. We were forced to develop new forms of congregational life that were more flexible than most traditional forms. In our case, we had a somewhat different worship service each week. It turns out that spiritual discipline doesn’t just derive from repetition and cultural continuity. There is also a discipline that comes from a commitment to constant engagement with those who have different expectations and needs. “Showing up” when things are not comfortable is the critical act of Christian commitment in a diverse congregation.
Building diversity also requires finding new ways to extend the Gospel into our already diverse neighborhoods. New ministries aren’t enough. These ministries must be integrated into congregational life and worship to create real diversity within the worshipping community. In Vienna much of our ministry was to refugees, exconvicts and expatriates in ethnically mixed marriages. And those were the folks with whom we worshipped every Sunday. You could the see the U.S. ambassador sitting next to a street sweeper or undocumented immigrant.
That is hard. Most churches like keeping those “other people” to whom they minister at a safe distance. But service and invitation to worship with us must go hand in hand. Engaging in genuine conversation and fellowship is the only basis for true diversity.
And it is the only thing that can make our witness credible. Diversity is already becoming, albeit too slowly, a hallmark of our workplaces and schools, our leisure time and our community service. Only when it is manifest in the church will the rising generation of young people see in the church a reflection of the richness of their lives, rather than a flight into a monocultural nostalgia. Without it they will justifiably look elsewhere for a God whose love both creates and embraces the whole of humanity.
This is why so many religious communities seek to achieve diversity by essentially creating an ecclesial shopping mall, with a form of worship, a special interest group, a language, or a way of engaging in ministry for every segment of its population. It is the diversity of a good spice cabinet; each different spice in its own container. Attractively diverse and something for everyone as well.
Much harder is a congregational chutney in which, by constant interaction, diverse people become a sauce that enlivens the world. Almost by definition this will be smallbatch diversity, not destined to be a megacommunity. Yet quite possibly, if I may draw on a parable of Jesus, it will give a savor that makes life far beyond its bounds more palatable.