Many people believe the oft-quoted judgment, “The most segregated morning of the week is Sunday morning.” My personal belief is that while containing some truth, it is overstated. I do, however, believe churches are far more segregated than they should be.
I do not believe that all-black, or all-Hispanic, or Korean, or all-white churches are inherently evil nor a blemish on the complexion of Christianity. But there is something beautiful about an integrated church. I personally prefer to be part of a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic community of believers. Multi-cultural, multi-ethnic churches are more interesting, messy, and culturally rich than all-whatever churches.
In a recent coaching session, a pastor asked me to review some initial thoughts about helping his church become truly multi-cultural. His church currently, consists primarily of white Euro-Canadians. The immediate community in which the church is located consists of a rich tapestry of Liberians, Iranians, Koreans, Congolese, as well as First Nations people and immigrants from Myanmar. The Pastor and many key leaders want their church to become more representative of their neighborhood. They want to become an integrated community that reflects their neighborhood.
How can they (or you) achieve this honorable, noble and elusive goal? It’s one thing to want to become a truly diverse church. It’s another thing to actually become one. And how can you know the degree to which you are succeeding?
I believe there are five “integration indicators.” What are “integration indicators?” First they are the things that minority visitors, attenders and even members look at to assess the degree to which church is open to integration and therefore a “safe place” for them to be. Second, the same five “integration indicators” represent barriers that the majority must remove in order to become truly integrated. Finally, these five things are accurate indicators of the degree to which a church has become multi-cultural and multi-ethnic.
The Five Indicators from the Minority’s Point of View
The five “integration indicators” are the pew, the aisle, the platform, the pulpit and the board room. The first indicator is the pew. If I am, for example, a person of color visiting a “white” church, the first place I am going to look upon entering the church is the pew. Are there any people there who look like me? If no one “looks like me” in the pews, I will suspect, or maybe even conclude, that this is not a place that welcomes “my kind” of folk and I am unlikely to return. If there are one or two who look like me, I might be willing to give it a second try. If there are many who look like me, I am likely to stay around and become part of the church.
Again, to extend the scenario of a person of color attending a white church, the second place I am going to look is the aisle. If the ushers or those serving communion are all white, all male if I’m female, all a whole lot older than me, I am going to conclude this is not a welcoming place for me. I might continue to attend, but I will feel like an outsider. I will doubt that I will ever be allowed to serve in any meaningful way. I mean if they can’t trust “my kind” to collect the offering or pass the communion cup, it’s not likely they will let me become a leader here.
The third integration indicator is the platform. If I see people like me in the choir or band leading worship, I am going to feel more at home here. The more variety in color, age, or ethnicity on the platform, the more I will feel like I belong. If people of color read scripture, lead in prayer, highlight announcements, report on the impact of ministries they lead, I will feel like this is a place of opportunity for me.
The pulpit is the fourth indicator of how integrated and multi-cultural the church actually is. An all-white teaching team likely indicates there is a glass ceiling for people like me. But if people from the congregation’s minority are included in the preaching and teaching teams, a profoundly powerful message is delivered to both the majority and minority populations of the church.
The fifth indicator is the most significant one. It’s the ultimate indication of a truly multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, integrated church. If the board room is “mono” rather than “multi” the church is not yet integrated.
The Five Indicators as Barriers
Each indicator - the pew, aisle, platform, pulpit and board room – is a barrier that must be broken on the road to true diversity. Each presents its own unique challenges. In my experience the two most difficult barriers are the pew and the board room, so let’s talk about them.
If the people in your pews are all-white, all-black, all Hispanic, all-whatever it is hard to become a warm and welcoming home to people who are not like you. Therefore trying to become multi-cultural by attraction will not work, because if you attract them to your building, you are not attractive to them due to the lack of others like them.
So the first step forward in becoming more diverse is to reach out into the community and build relationships with people “not like you” in the “everyday world” where they live, work and play. Make friends with people who are not like you. Let them get to know you. You get to know them. Learn their culture. Meet them on their terms. Connect with them by doing the things they enjoy doing. Become interested in the things they’re interested in and learn to care about the things they care about.
The second step forward is to build on whatever diversity you already have. We should be encouraging “any and all” to reach out to their family, friends, neighbors and co-workers. But you will become a more diverse church if your minority members and attenders are reaching out to their circles of influence and introducing your church to them.
The Board Room
In my experience, in most transitioning churches, the last place to become multi-cultural, multi-ethnic is the board room. Sad to say, but I have seen far too many formerly all-white churches where people of color have actually become the majority but the boards are still all-white. The tell-tale indicator of true integration is the degree of diversity in the board room. The more the board room reflects the people in the pews, and more importantly, the more the board room reflects the community, the more diverse the church.
Achieving diversity in the board room requires intentionality on the part of the majority. Those who have the power must be willing to share power with those not like them, and intentionally give them a “seat at the table.”
So who’s in your pews and aisles? Who’s on your platform, in your pulpit and board room? Do they all look alike? Or do they look like your community?