Diversity and Pastoral Leadership
Recently our church staff leadership has begun specific discussion on the issue of diversity. At some level every church must deal with how it will approach the racial makeup of the congregation. Some church leaders simply ignore the issue, which is, I believe, to the church’s ultimate detriment. Others accept racial change in their congregation, but do little to encourage or foster bridges between races. This often leads to various ethnic groups living in awkward discomfort. Instead, we are seeking to be intentional in leading and fostering a multi-cultural congregation. There are a few reasons for this.
It’s where we are. Our neighborhood just north of Atlanta, Georgia, might strike you as probably being typical southern Caucasian “Bible belt” Americana. The reality is that our county is 40% Caucasian and 60% other ethnicities. Atlanta is like most U.S. cities in seeing a dramatic rise in overall racial diversity over the last 10 years. In our area we see a broad range of ethnicities from African American and African to European to Latin and South American to Asian. A nearby city, Clarkston, Georgia, is home to the largest refugee population in the United States. So our opportunity for ministry is not only multi-cultural, but truly international in scope.
I believe in the ministry of the “physical church” to its community—that is, we were planted in this location to reach this particular group of people. Our church should reflect the community around us so that we can best relate to, minister to, and share the gospel with the people in our reach. Many churches today are becoming more and more a “bubble” of the past as their community grows in another ethnic direction. The danger is over time becoming a congregation that has nothing in common with its most reachable audience. You are most able to reach the people within a 20-minute drive of your physical location. For us, that’s nearly a million people in a very ethnically-diverse metro area.
It’s unbiblical to self-segregate. In the book of Revelation we clearly see heaven as a place where all peoples, tribes, races, tongues and cultures will be joined together as one in praise and fellowship with God for all eternity. Ethnic lines will be erased. Jesus’ prayer for His disciples in John 17 echoes this future reality as He urges them to be one, in unity, so that the world will know Who God is through them. I believe this is more than just a unity of mission and purpose, but also a unity of people groups.
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously called Sunday morning church “the most segregated hour of Christian America.” And decades later his statement still rings sadly true. Perhaps even more so in some areas. Where language is a barrier—in our area that’s primarily Spanish- and Korean-speaking congregations—that’s more of a practical reality than an intentional separation. But when we look overall at racial integration within our churches we must admit that very few congregations would be considered racially diverse. They’d welcome all-comers with open arms should they enter the doors of the church on Sunday—but they’re not doing anything specifically to reach a broad base of cultures. We must admit that we are failing, in some sense, at modeling biblical unity to a lost world.
Diversity rarely gains momentum on its own. One of the consequences of so much self-segregation is there is little natural momentum for diversity. Our church is becoming more diverse and it’s an exciting thing to stand at the pulpit and see the “color” of Worship Room occupants become less mono-tone over the weeks and months. Still, this is something that must be taught, discussed, and, most importantly—modeled. That’s among the reasons we’ve been thoughtful and intentional about our worship team reflecting a broader range of ethnicities. And we’re also prayerfully looking to how our staff roles and key volunteer leadership positions can also be more reflective of our diverse surroundings.
Personal experience. I recently received an email at the church from someone who has friends who are a bi-racial couple. His question was, “Will my friends feel welcome and comfortable at your church?” It felt wonderful to answer him and say, “Yes! We have a number of bi-racial families in our church, and we’re quickly becoming a multi-cultural congregation.” Still, it’s humbling to think about the fact that racial issues are so prevalent in the church that someone has to “check out” whether a church is going to be racially-friendly or not.
I’m personally a member of a bi-racial family—our daughter was adopted from China. I never thought about racial issues until we got into the adoption and were asked questions about this during our interview process. “How are you going to instruct your future daughter about her race and culture when she’s 8, 12, 15 years old?” I was asked. Uh—well, I didn’t have a ready answer. I had to grow quickly to understand how my previous and predominantly Caucasian experience was going to morph into a more colorful circle of family and friends.
And that’s been a very good thing. Being intentional with respect to understanding and teaching biblical ideas of race within our family has opened my eyes to many ways the church can be more proactive in our diversity efforts. Our nation today is divided among so many lines. Social lines. Economic lines. Racial lines. Political lines. I believe the opportunity has never been more ripe to show the Gospel in our actions through our unity as the Body of Christ.
What if? How would the unchurched masses around us react to churches that are unified in their mission and show unity in its people through the diversity of their cultural makeup? I’m thrilled that I’m serving in a place that’s moving toward that ideal. And I encourage you to look at your own congregation’s diversity, the opportunities to reach other cultures in your circle of influence, and to be intentional about living out the Gospel for all races, colors and creeds.
Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.