Every Sunday morning in American churches the bulletins, greeters, and signs on the door offer messages of welcome. Biblical images of inclusivity are abundant. Isaiah’s prophecy of a time when lions will lie down with lambs; Paul’s teachings on the equality of male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free; and John’s challenge to love the neighbor whom we can see as an expression of the love of God, whom we cannot see—all these echo the teachings of Jesus. The Beloved Community is an inclusive community, born of the love of God, neighbor, and self. Yet what we often mean is that folk are “welcome” as long as they don’t offend us, don’t challenge us, and work hard to “fit in” with our communal sense of self. We say, in effect, “Y’all can come as long as you leave outside the part of you with which we are uncomfortable.” In our culture, these may be gender differences, generational differences, theological differences, language differences, or differences of sexual orientation. But, in America, it is race that matters most.1 Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in America.
Overcoming Racial Separation
Being at the table together can be difficult. Even though American congregations share the call to inclusivity, studies show that over 90 percent of American Christians worship in congregations where 90 percent or more of the people are like them. In fact, only 7 percent of congregations in the United States are multiracial, which means that no one racial/ethnic group makes up 80 percent of its members.2 Despite the gospel mandate to inclusivity, non-Christian congregations are more likely to be multiracial than Christian congregations.3 If current demographic trends hold, experts predict that almost half of the nation’s population will be nonwhite by the year 2050. These demographics raise questions for how we will “do church” in the future. Besides seeing demographic shifts, America has also become more religiously pluralistic. The report from the Pluralism Project shows that today there are more Muslims in America than Episcopalians, Presbyterians, or Jews.4 In these times when the culture may be looking to religious congregations and communities as a source of leadership on social issues, we may fail them if we ourselves do not practice negotiating cultural boundaries.
Why is it difficult to do so? Some of the arguments for a homogenous church seem valid. Church-growth experts point to the success of growing homogenous congregations; denominational leaders of all races argue for a safe haven on Sunday mornings—a place where the burden of difference is relieved, if only for an hour. And immigrant congregations sometimes have language barriers that keep them separate.
Diversity: Ignore or Build Upon?
Even for churches with a sincere desire to diversify, barriers of location and language are difficult to overcome. For other congregations, worship style and ethos contradict the “welcome” extended to strangers. So abundant sameness persists in our congregations in race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, and theology.
Even in churches where difference is valued and celebrated, the challenge is how to honor the uniqueness of each individual even as a new group culture or story is developed. The issue, then, is whether we choose to look at diverse communities as places where difference is ignored or undervalued, or as places where difference is the cornerstone on which the community is built. When we close our eyes and pretend that we are all alike, we miss the opportunity to celebrate with blessed assurance the psalmist’s proclamation that each of God’s children is fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139:14).
The Roles Leaders Play
The very gifts that make America the mosaic that it is—diversity in perspective and culture due to experience and history; varieties of gifts and values; race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, generational differences, disparity in economics and class—can often serve, as historically has been the case, to pull us apart more often than to bring us together. How do we create communities in which difference is celebrated? When can difference be a core building block of community, and how do we ensure that outcome? What roles do leaders play in the shaping of communities of difference?
Congregational leaders must be able not only to tell and embody stories that compel their communities to live the gospel story, but also to negotiate racial and cultural boundaries inside their churches and within their communities. Bearing the vision for the Beloved Community is a task of leaders—and a leadership task shared by clergy and laity alike. As theologian and seminary president Lovett Weems notes, vision is the most significant theme in leadership studies.5 As the larger society struggles with diversity, congregations of all types must step into the vacuum and be a public presence that is congruent both with the needs of the larger community and with God’s vision for humanity. How will congregations bear and interpret the vision and become co-authors of the story of God working with differences in these times?
One important strategy, raised by Christian social ethicist Traci C. West as she discusses sexual boundaries in this issue, is for communities of faith to have essential conversations about the places where cultures intersect. As West writes, “We have to talk about sexual boundaries in church.” In her article Sexuality and Boundaries (p. 12), West helps us to understand how some of God’s people are more vulnerable than others in these conversations. Further, she helpfully frames the need for sexual boundaries that make faith families safe while being permeable enough to extend to all “a genuine welcome and full inclusion in Christ’s church.” The conversations West recommends allow people to become co-authors of a new story in which difference is celebrated.
Boundaries of Generation
Anthony Healy’s article (p. 14) sheds light on the complicated issues that surround generational boundaries. His analysis and helpful vignettes support the importance and highlight the complexities of finding sameness in the midst of difference to build community. One way to do that is through structured storytelling that mines congregational, biblical, and cultural stories for meaning and shared values, even as fresh, shared stories are shaped in community.
Storytelling Aids for Building Community
These questions might enable structured storytelling that can help to build communities of difference in your ministry context.
Share key plot points that shape the story of who you are:.
NOTES1. Robert Carter, The Influence of Race and Racial Identity in Psychotherapy: Toward a Racially Inclusive Model (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1995), 3.
2. Curtis Paul DeYoung, Michael O. Emerson, George A. Yancey, and Karen J. Chai, United by Faith: Multiracial Congregations as a Response to the Problem of Race (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 2.
3. DeYoung, et al., 2.
4. Diana Eck, A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001), 2–3.
5. Lovett Weems, Jr., Church Leadership: Vision, Team, Culture, and Integrity (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993), 37.