** This is part one of two on the topic of race and prejudice in Western Christianity. **
The lack of diversity in churches doesn’t bother enough Christians.
You’ve heard the old adage, “birds of a feather flock together,” which seems to be the rule rather than the exception in contemporary churches. MLK Day re-addressed issues of race that remain within church culture particularly in America. A number of blog posts posed questions of sameness including challenges ranging from race to ethnicity.
The striking question (among many) is one many cannot even see: the lack of diversity in our churches and its impact on our capability to embody mission. The disintegration of Christendom can thank, among other things, the inability for the church to operate beyond itself and make a positive impact in culture. Instead a parallel and exclusive culture was created, and with it a solidification of ‘us vs. them’, which only further exacerbates the continued proliferation of ‘sameness’ within churches and making mission even more difficult.
When everyone looks the same you think the same and a subtle confirmation bias translates into the eventual settling of the soul and deterioration of robust Gospel centered adventures.
It’s time to dig deep and look within, confess our own sins of sameness, repent from condoning the safety of the church walls, and re-imagine the church on mission in a post-Christian world. Here are ideas how.
Churches have become vanilla and not enough Christians are asking, ‘why’? Why are rich churches so rich? Why are suburban churches so suburban? Why are mainline churches so old? Why are white churches so white? Not to pick on white churches either. Ethnic churches are among the least likely to embrace diversity, however (and this isn’t an excuse) do not benefit from the same privileged identity most white churches inherit.
Why do most churches look so unlike the future hope God has for the church of all nations? I can imagine so many disappointed faces when the final trumpet sounds, or at least uncomfortable faces. Let’s face it, being around people who are different, even other Christians, is challenging. Yet, if there was fundamental identity based on embracing the ‘other’ or the ‘outsider’, it’s supposed to be inherited by Christians because Jesus was so immersed in embracing those who were obviously different: the outcast, the women, the Samaritans, the Romans, the prostitute, the widows, the foreigner.
But that’s generally not what we get in church. Usually it’s the special outreach people who dip their toe in the otherworld of variety. Everyone else? Birds of a feather. Christian culture is notoriously and ironically insular. Christians only have Christian friends. Why? Probably many reasons why, but two I want to highlight because I believe they are root issues: race and class.
Deep seated racism continues to challenge many congregations. It may not appear that way, but that’s because of sameness. When we are faced with challenges, be it the Syrian refugees, continued systemic oppression of minorities, institutional racism against black and indigenous people, the ugly side of people emerges. These kinds of challenges may not be amplified enough to become obvious, but that’s probably because we don’t dig deep enough.
Although our leadership may cry out for black lives, leadership remains all white. For example, in my city, the top 20 (I stopped counting) evangelical churches in terms of attendance are 100% white in lead pastor roles (some even leading ethnic churches) and about 95% in eldership. Some of these churches are relatively multi-cultural too, but none of them have a leadership that would reflect the milieu in the pew. The affects of racism speak volumes when our practice defies are actions (or lack thereof). I’d be very curious what would happen if someone of colour lead one of the top churches in my city. Would anybody notice? I think many would, and the hushed rumblings of dissatisfaction would impact function.
I doubt any one of the leaders I’m thinking of would come out and say they are racists–I don’t believe any of them are–but an exercise in embodying Gospel practice would be to submit yourself to your ‘other’ and learn at the feet of someone different than you. It’s one thing to believe in a multi-cultural church, it’s quite another to live and learn through discipleship from people who are different.
But there’s a problem, in my mind, and I could be wrong here, that goes even deeper than racism–it’s class.
It’s been said that America may have elected a black President, but they would never elect a poor President. The words ring true and louder than we may care to admit. As soon as wealthy churches (usually suburban ones) attempt to legitimize they too have the ‘poor’, just there’s in one in spirit, you know you have a profound problem. The sameness most of us struggle with is religious (I only hang out with other Christians), and class (I only associate with people in my socioeconomic world). Or put it this way, it’s easier to get a multi-cultural church, but it’s quite another build a church that stretches economic range. Sure, poor people might hang out in church from time to time, but you simply do not see the church in the hills associating in deep relationship with the people from the hood. THOSE people are TOO different. There might be a ministry for the poor people, but opening up our churches, let alone our homes for shared reciprocal experience (in discipleship)….THOSE people are TOO different.
So we default and go back to what we know, or rather who we know, and continue to perpetuate the cycle of sameness.
The impact on mission? Huge. When we struggle to reflect diversity in our leadership, and more specifically in our own lives, we impede mission. This post from Missio Alliance explains one example and the effects for church planting.
So where do we go from here?
I can think of two things:
- In our own lives, look at how we are engaging with those who are different, enter into new relationships where we can, and stretch beyond the confines of the church walls. Too many church leaders operate without any meaningful relationships with non-Christians, and anybody who’s different. Change that.
- If your’e in leadership, submit yourself to someone different and learn. Also, make a point to reflect different voices in leadership, so upset the balance of leadership structures (which would mean in our day and age, more people of colour leading, and more women in eldership.)
Any other suggestions?