In our culture, diversity gets celebrated each February. Schoolteachers pin up the faces of American black heroes such as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Booker T. Washington, and Thurgood Marshall. Churches break out old Negro spirituals and host black pastors to preach. Black History Month provides a wonderful time for celebration and reflection. But if we are truly going to build diversity within our churches, it must be more than once a year, and it must start outside the four walls of the church building.
God provided me with a unique opportunity to celebrate diversity when I was a campus intern for my church. I was 22 when I began doing outreach and evangelism with my church’s college ministry. When I began knocking on dorm room doors at the University of Tennessee, I was filled with excitement and anticipation. I thought to myself, Who will reject me? Who will come to know Christ this year? What will I say when the door opens? If no one answered, I would simply slide an invitation to our ministry kickoff under the door.
One of the girls I invited, Liz, came to a ministry kickoff. She was white, wore cowboy boots, listened to bluegrass, and was from Oregon. I was black and wore casual business attire; I listened to jazz and liked to think I was from New York City. (I’m from Tennessee.)
As we got to know each other, we playfully ridiculed each other for our differences. We were polar opposites in so many ways. But in time she bought me a bluegrass CD, and I had her over for a black Southern-style Thanksgiving dinner. (Yes, it’s different—a little collard greens and giblet gravy, just to name a few items.).
She and I became the best of friends. We were different, but we were kindred spirits at the time. Why? Because the gospel of Jesus Christ breaks down the barriers of skin color and ethnicity. She and I celebrated diversity in our dorm rooms.
A Contradiction to the Gospel
One practical way to begin building diversity in your church is to build it within your family through teaching and learning about different cultures and ethnicities throughout the year. Learning the history of other cultures can assist you in understanding the perspective of other cultures. As you learn with your children, don’t limit your knowledge to textbooks and mini biographies. Get creative and cook a new meal. Or introduce your family to the culture and music of those who are different from you.
Invite other Christians into your home for lunches, dinners, or parties. Include members of your church or your neighbors. Find those who are different from you, take an interest in their lives, and invite them over for a meal.
Truthfully, it’s more comfortable to dine with those who are just like us, and there is nothing new about that. When the early church gathered in homes—probably the homes of the wealthy—certain divisions emerged over the dinner table (see 1 Corinthians 11:17–22). Commentators believe these divisions were caused because wealthy believers tended to sit and feast together in privileged dining rooms (triclinium), while the poorer believers sat in second-class facilities (atrium). The privileged Corinthians preferred to dine with those of the same social rank.
But Paul wouldn’t stand for it. He challenged the Corinthians regarding these factions, saying, “In the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse” (1 Corinthians 11:17, ESV). Paul doesn’t mince words. He would rather they not gather at all than that they gather divided into factions by snobbery. Paul didn’t stop there. He went on to say that their elitism was misrepresenting Christ and that their “Lord’s Supper” was false (verse 20). Paul was appalled by their disregard for the poor among them (verses 21–22).
Does that sound familiar? It’s always more comfortable to dine with people who resemble us, but however comfortable this makes us, divisions over race or class are a clear contradiction of the gospel.
Who can you invite into your home? If you happen to notice visitors at your church, greet them. Be inclusive. Then consider your neighborhood and welcome your neighbors in. Learn about them as people and go beyond skin color or ethnicity, and if their culture is an important aspect of their lives, listen and learn.
Building diversity within our homes and congregations starts from the heart of the leadership. If pastors are excited and passionate about diversity, their congregations will get a vision for it too. Building diversity in the church begins with pastors who are willing to build diversity into their own homes and make it a priority. Just like parishioners, pastors can begin to take simple steps such as learning history, talking about diversity with their families, and inviting others into their homes.
“Nothing binds a pastor’s heart to diversity more than having it in his home,” says John Piper in his book Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian. One way Piper has done this is through adoption, but there are many other important expressions of this principle for pastors to consider. Congregations look to pastors for guidance and direction in their lives. Whether subconsciously or intentionally, we learn from those who lead us in the Lord and emulate their lives.
Pastors themselves must be eager for diversity if we are to see changes in our congregations. But, as with all things, we must not be hasty in casting judgment. Though there may be a desire in the heart of a pastor to pursue diversity, there are real challenges and obstacles in the pursuit of it. But even with the challenges we must not grow complacent. We push forward because of the gospel.
The emphasis here is on congregations, but we make up our congregations, so even if our pastors don’t pursue diversity, or if our leadership doesn’t emphasize it, that doesn’t mean we must wait. We’ve heard the saying, “Be the change you want to see.” If a diverse congregation is a change you’d like to see—and I imagine a welcome one by your pastors—then step out in faith and pursue and invite others.