Over the past year, I have come across countless resources calling for more churches to be racially and culturally diverse. I have had conversations with pastors and other church leaders wanting to do the diversity ‘thing,’ who are exploring how they might attract congregants of a skin color other than their own. In all honesty, I think this is a worthy goal. As our nation’s demographics change and we become a country where people of color are the majority, it makes sense. If our mono-cultural churches do not learn to embrace the change and at least reflect the communities and neighborhoods surrounding them, the reality is that they will run the risk of irrelevancy and subsequently death.
Those in church leadership understand this well, hence the desire to embrace a new way of doing things: diversity. They want more black and brown people like me to fill the pews, contribute financially and just maybe, if we are lucky enough, serve on a committee or two. But nothing fundamentally changes. We are not represented in leadership. Our traditions, language, or customs are not represented in worship besides that random Chris Tomlin song translated into Spanish. Our opinions are not welcome and our theology, wisdom and expertise are not considered valid. This leaves many feeling like diversity is just another church growth strategy instead of an authentic means to bring about reconciliation in the body of Christ.
It has to be the latter. While growing the numbers of the church is important, Jesus never said that church growth would be the way that unbelievers embraced the gospel message. No, He said they would embrace His truth by our love for one another (John 17). A love that transcends race, culture, gender, and socioeconomic status. A love so strong that it brings together those who have been at odds for so long.
For the church in America to even begin to think it could even start this process, it has to come to grips with its wretched past. The church will have to acknowledge her role in maintaining and even perpetuating the racial stereotypes that have been so commonplace in America at large. These stereotypes are what initially created our racialized congregations and denominations.
One such denomination is the Assemblies of God, which I have been a part of for over 20 years. In the early 1900s, whites like Charles Parham thought it was ungodly to be led by and fellowship with blacks and Latinos. Parham stoked racial fears and drove whites out of a movement that had the potential to be diverse. Fleeing this multicultural assembly, whites went off and started the Assemblies of God which became a formalized denomination in 1914, exactly 100 years ago.
In spite of its racist beginnings, however, the Assemblies of God has made some great strides in diversifying its congregations – otherwise I wouldn’t be where I am today. Because of diversity, a white man led me to the Lord in an Assembly of God congregation over 20 years ago. Because of diversity, I attended and graduated from an Assembly of God college almost 10 years ago and was eventually even licensed by the denomination. But this is where the opportunity has run out! This is where the story, at least for right now, ends as I see that for many congregations diversity does not equal inclusivity.
The Assemblies of God is only one denomination that has this awful past. I would be remiss if I did not speak of the Presbyterian, Episcopal, Methodist, Covenant, Lutheran, and Catholic congregations that have their own unique history of separation along racial lines. Bringing up and addressing this shared history is necessary because we will not be able to fully reconcile to one another if we can’t understand the reasons why we were separated in the first place.
I understand that this is hard. It is humbling and frankly embarrassing to admit that a people so filled with the Spirit of God could ever look like this. This process of confession and repentance is messy, gut wrenching and downright exhausting. And perhaps, perhaps this is why so many in church leadership opt for doing diversity and skip over this deeper level work of undoing racism. They sincerely want to engage people of color in a different way but find that it is too costly. So they settle for diversity. But diversity just simply isn’t enough.
Embrace the deeper work! For the sake of the kingdom of God which consists of people who look like me, do the deeper work. Have the tough conversation. Confess and apologize on behalf of the church’s racist past. Repent of your own role in maintaining racial stereotypes. Commit to go in a different direction that draws on the gifts and leadership of people of color in your assembly without tokenizing them. Find mentors of color who can guide you in the process and keep you accountable. Read books and blogs from authors of color who can challenge you in your thinking. Listen attentively as people of color share with you their story and experience without silencing them or explaining those experiences away.
As we do these things, we will find ourselves moving beyond diversity and to a place where we are reconciled.
And at last, we will begin to reflect the church that Jesus had always dreamed about: a church that is unified in its God-designed diversity.