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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.