By Jerome Gay, Lead Pastor of Vision Church in Raleigh, NC
I recently had a conversation with a fellow African-American pastor who doesn’t think diversity is something we should pursue. As he put it, “White people won’t follow us,” and as a result he sees nothing wrong with a 100% African-American church. I’ve also spoken with a white pastor whose reason for not seeking diversity as a priority is, as he put it, “Homogeneity is easier to manage and multiply.” This pragmatic approach was enough for him and his elders to totally ignore a segment of the population.
The evangelical responses to diversity are all over the board. Many people are excited to pursue diversity. Others dig in their heels. I’ve even seen people leave the church because they felt like reaching out to other cultures was somehow selling out to the majority culture and seeking “acceptance.”
I rejoice that many people in our churches—black, white, Latino, Asian, and more—are willing to be uncomfortable and to fight for diversity. Diversity is not the gospel, but diversity is the fruit of the gospel.
I think it’s important that we clearly communicate our goal. Diversity is not the goal; authentic gospel-centered community is. We want more than just having a multitude of colors represented in a worship service. We want them engaging in each other’s lives. Albert Tate says it best in Letters to A Birmingham Jail: ‘The question isn’t, ‘Guess who’s coming to church,’ but rather, ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner?’” (168). We have to think beyond the Sunday gathering and emphasize actual life-on-life engagement.
Here are six things I think we can do to pursue and realize diverse gospel-centered community:
1. Celebrate it
We have a ton of interracial couples, mixed babies, and people of different races at our church. And I love it. I want to intentionally celebrate marriages, engagements, new members, and ministries that showcase gospel-centered diversity. We celebrate what God is doing whether people are of the same race or different races, but specifically identifying and celebrating the diversity you have (even if it’s small) is huge for those that are the minority within your congregation.
2. Platform and Empower
It’s not enough to have a black singer at a predominately white congregation, or vice versa. It’s vital that you’re actively seeking to empower people of different races on the executive level of your church. I’m not saying you make someone an elder just because they’re different racially and culturally. But in order to have diverse leadership, we have to pursue it intentionally. Diversity simply doesn’t happen by accident.
Prioritizing diverse leadership may make some people uncomfortable. But if we only allow people from other ethnicities to sing or lead prayer, we’re promoting “tokenism.” Yes, this gets dicey and tricky in a hurry, but we have to remember that the fight for diverse community is a fight to show the world the fruit of the gospel.
3. Learn the Stories of Others
It’s hard to appreciate anyone from a distance, so it’s vital that we read, listen, and watch those that we want to worship Christ with us. Ask for books, preachers, teachers and historians that will help you understand the cultures of those that are in your church. This will make people feel welcome and like you genuinely want them to be part of your church family.
4. Acknowledge Your Own Prejudice
As much as we talk about the depth of sin and how dark our hearts are without Christ, it seems like many evangelicals don’t want to talk about sin as it relates to race. No one wants to think of himself as struggling with racism. But sin cuts to the deepest level of our hearts, and our sinful hearts are racist. We all have prejudices, and while it hurts to admit it, God’s grace can help us turn from those prejudices and turn to him.
If you don’t believe me that your heart is bent toward racism (just like mine is), then try to pursue diversity for a little while. The more we intentionally seek diversity, the more God shows us our prejudice. That may sound bad, but it’s actually good. The sooner we own our sin, the sooner we can turn from it.
The gospel is not color blind; it’s color-engaging. I don’t need to be blind to the ethnic backgrounds of those around me, and I don’t need to act like I don’t sometimes make assumptions about them. But I do need to bring those assumptions before Christ, allowing him to use a diverse community to challenge those assumptions and shape me more into his image.
5. Allow and Apply Grace
We live in a fallen world. Sooner or later, someone in your church is going to make some kind of comment that offends someone of a different race. It’s not a question of if, but when. This is why the gospel is so central: we need to allow people to make mistakes, but not to enable outright sin. Make no mistake about it, we will all need to give and receive grace daily. However, if we pursue diversity beyond Sunday, we’ll see our people develop a genuine appreciation for each other, and our communities will not see differences as deficiencies.
6. Invest in the Inner City
I recently heard from an African-American professor that was torn between his pursuit of diversity and his heart for urban communities. He shared with me that he felt convicted when white pastors called him for the “best and brightest” African-American leaders he knows. The reason for his tension is that he and many other urban practitioners know that African-American leaders are needed in African-American communities.
This is a tension we have to navigate. Suburban churches need to begin to pursue kingdom investment by allowing the “best and brightest” to serve within the urban core, being funded by a church outside of their context. I’m excited to hear some SBC churches pursuing this type of partnership, a kingdom partnership that benefits both of the communities involved.
I’m hopeful that the Southern Baptist Convention will continue to see diversity grow, so that we can all look up to leaders from various ethnic backgrounds,serving under them for the sake of missions and the kingdom. It’s a long road, and it won’t be easy. But with Jesus leading us, I’m praying that a diverse, gospel-centered community will become more of the norm–and less of the anomaly–in our convention.
I’m praying for you as you aggressively pursue diverse community in your city.