The Desire for Diversity

October 11, 2017

Leaving the church service, I could tell my fiancé was deep in thought—and not in a peaceful, reflective way. I could tell he was truly wrestling with something; trying to find the words to express to me how he was feeling. He’s always the last one to voice a complaint, so I knew it was serious.

As an international student at Dordt College, Ariel is familiar with compromise. He’s well acquainted with differences, with adjustment, and with going-with-the-flow. He’ll tell you that, for the most part, settling into life here hasn’t been a big deal. Oftentimes, he feels like he’s where he belongs, and that the differences he feels between American culture and his own aren’t barriers to relationships.

Except in the church.

That afternoon, as Ariel and I talked and tried to figure out what was bothering him, he looked me in the eyes and said, “Carlye, today in church, I really and truly felt black—and not in an empowering way. I felt different. I felt like a novelty, like the token black guy. I could feel the stares, and I could feel people trying to calculate how they were going to get me to stay so that they could feel good about themselves for having diversity in the church. I didn’t feel like a person beyond the fact that I have black skin.”

It’s no secret that churches are segregated. Whether it’s due to language barriers, theologies, or worship styles, we attend the church that looks and feels most like us. This is not a controversial statement. We go to the church with the large youth program so that our students can go on cool trips to Guatemala during the summer, or we pick a church based on where the friends that we have already made outside of the church context go so that we have someone to gossip with over fair-trade coffee. And for the most part, we feel pretty good about ourselves; we look forward to going to church to reconnect with the same people Sunday after Sunday.

But more and more, trends seem to indicate that young white people are looking to attend churches that offer diversity. You no longer have to go into the world to encounter people of other cultures and heritages, because the world is coming to us, even here in the Midwest. In response, churches are trying to be strategic about their outreach ministries to minority groups, hoping to encourage them to attend their churches. There is nothing wrong with the desire to diversify—but are we ready for the challenges it brings?

Are we ready to consider and redefine the way our church physically appears, both in the sanctuary and on the outside, so that it reflects Anglo-European culture less and displays the reality of the growing global church more? Are we taking seriously the physical context and location of our churches, which are surrounded by immigrant-owned-and-operated businesses, and are we encouraging the thriving of these businesses through our participation in them? Are we taking a good, hard look at our programs and the makeup of the people within them? Harder still, do we truly want to change those things?

The desire to diversify, which many churches across the United States and the CRC/RCA have, is reflective of the progress we have made in this country within a short amount of time. We think we are ready for the makeup of our churches to appear more reflective of the image given in Revelation 7:9-10, but are our churches ready to sacrifice “the way things are around here” to invite that diversity? This vision must be more than the pastor’s or that of the council—it requires all of us to make a choice to consider what it would look like for us as white North Americans to teach less and learn more. Allow me to offer a few suggestions for things your congregation can do which may foster a path to diversity in your church.

  1. Learn cultures, not strategies. A simple Google search on “strategies for diversifying your church” renders about 1,370,000 results in 0.68 seconds (I checked). Many well-meaning authors have compiled lists of programs you should create or incorporate to help yourself feel good about meeting someone bearing a different level of melanin. Yet in my experience, these types of programs are stiff, uncomfortable, and eventually unsuccessful. You and your congregation will benefit much more, and for much longer, from offering a once-weekly or even once-monthly course on other cultures of the world: learning their priorities, their recipes, their holidays, and more. Understanding these types of nuances is the first step to cross-cultural relationships.
  2. Offer foreign language classes in your congregation. Chances are good that someone in your congregation has some skill in speaking another language. Is there an immigrant who calls your church home? Do you have language teachers in your congregation? Do you have college students who recently spent a semester abroad? Give them an opportunity to teach the basics of their language to members of your congregation. It doesn’t have to be an intensive course by any means, but teaching members of your congregation basic greetings in Spanish, French, Arabic, or any other language could go a long way toward making immigrants in your church feel welcome.
  3. Have a serious and honest conversation about what your perceptions are—of immigrants, of what a diverse congregation will look like, and of how you are going to get there. Racism still exists, in a variety of forms. When we think of racism, it’s easy to think it’s contained only within the groups of people marching with tiki torches in Charlottesville, or to events in pre-1960’s America. What we’re less willing to admit is that we might hold our breath when we walk past a black man, or we perhaps keep an extra-close eye on our purse when we see a Hispanic person in the room. Host an evening of conversation in your church and talk about this. Invite “raging liberals” and “closed-minded conservatives.” Do whatever it takes to get to the truth. Be honest and talk through what your fears are, then choose to find ways to re-channel that energy into making a kingdom vision your church’s reality. Your church is no readier to encounter and engage diversity than its most racist members. Find ways to talk about this and be honest. Understand the nature of sin in your hearts, and ready yourselves to do the hard work of showing grace and dismantling harmful thought processes. Let each person model how to love across “enemy” lines, and a loving, gospel-centered church may very well follow.
About the Author
  • Carlye Gomes is a 2017 Dordt graduate with a degree in Theology: Missions & Evangelism. She currently serves as the Director of Student Ministries at First Reformed Church in Sioux Center, IA.

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  1. Thank you Carlye! Keep leading the Anglo world and dominant white church toward God’s desire for his creation.

  2. I’d like to summarize Dr. Charles Adams’ view on the matter of Diversity. (Dr. Adams has passed away, otherwise I’d let him speak for himself.) Dr. Adams points out that we need to understand why diversity should be sought.

    Often diversity is recognized as simply racial diversity. Strictly speaking, this is a biologically qualified diversity. (“different level of melanin”) However just as often, this is also intended to include the ethnic and cultural differences that come along with racial diversity. These differences are economic, social, linguistic, and aesthetic in character. Sometimes diversity is not necessarily racial in its foundation, but is rather a seeking after moral diversity. This type of diversity is has to do with justice, ethics, and faith. We should be aware of these aspects of diversity.

    Racial diversity has a valuable biological aspect. Consider the opposite–a deliberately strong emphasis on creating more homogeneous races, such as was attempted in Nazi Germany, or the apartheid of South Africa in a past era. Also consider the laws of biology regarding reproduction. Farmers rotate crops and plant varieties of plants for good reasons. Families do not intermarry.

    We live in a culture that is obsessed with entertainment, with diversion, and with the quest for novelty. Cultural diversity can be understood by recognizing that the words “diversion” and “diverse” have the same root. We tire quickly of our home’s decor, we move from place to place, we buy different cars, etc. In so doing, we trivialize the very differences we seek since nothing endures with us. We become dull to truly valuing any of the variety we seek.

    There are good reasons to seek diversity–reasons having to do with biology and social health. But there is also danger in an unqualified seeking after diversity. Christians should be aware that seeking diversity can carry with it some baggage from our surrounding western culture.

    (Abridged and paraphrased from a “Plumbline” broadcast that aired on KDCR on April 3, 2000. This “Plumbline” is titled “Diversity and the Pursuit of Diversion” and was written by Charles Adams (Professor of Engineering Emeritus, Dordt College. The full transcript of the “Plumbline” broadcast can be found in the book, Exercising Our Worldview: A Collection of Essays by Charles Adams. )

    1. I think when we operate out of a model of strategies instead of embracing cultures, this is when we encounter diversity as novelty. This is where people like Ariel feel like “the token black man.” So in that sense I can understand, Dr. DeBoer, where you are coming from. But on the whole, I’d have to disagree. It sounds like what you’re saying is being a church of diversity is just something trendy to do. My church says “If we have to chose between the insider and the outsider, we’re going to choose the outsider every time.” When churches operate out of this model, this (hopefully) creates diversity. It seems to all boil down to loving others with arms open instead of clenched fists.

  3. I would like to reply to Marta and Doug. I believe Charlie would say Marta is correct in embracing racial and cultural diversity. Charlie states in this essay that what the Germans did in World War II to Jews and what America did with black people and slavery are sins that we need to repent of. We need to continue to repent of these sins because the effects are still present.
    The only time in this essay that Charlie disparages diversity is when we just like differentness as a value. I don’t believe Charlie or the Bible would look at that type of diversity as a value we should embrace.
    Charlie was a seeker of Biblical truth and he would feel as I do that it is hard to see how minorities are treated as “black.” Our black son was treated differently by some people in Sioux Center but many of these same people also enjoyed and embraced our son. I hope this is getting better because of my grandchildren who are black or who are partially black and might want to be educated at Dordt.