The pursuit of diversity
Rev. J. Michael Culbreth
Drastic changes are occurring around us constantly. One of the changes taking place in the United States is that our nation is becoming less homogeneous. Unfortunately our churches remain homogeneous. In fact most of our congregations consist of people from the same racial, economic and cultural background. Yet as we read God’s word we see a church that is multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and economically diverse.
Consider how the scriptures challenge the church to pursue and embrace diversity. In Mark 11: 17 Jesus asked: “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations?” In 1 Corinthians Paul challenges elitism at the Communion Table and urges the Corinthians not to humiliate those who are poor. Furthermore we as Christians are commanded to go and make disciples of all nations in Matthew 28: 16-20. Finally in the Revelations we are told that at the end of time a multitude of people will look upon the face of Jesus and that multitude will consist of all nations, tongues, tribes and peoples.
Notice that God’s word clearly states all nations. Thus God intends for the church to reach out and minister to all people. Since God commands us to serve all people, the church should make pursuing diversity a high priority. While we cannot ignore the fact that God intends for the church to be diverse, pursuing diversity is challenging. Consider some factors we must confront as we pursue diversity.
As congregations strive to become diverse, each congregation must understand its geographic location and community demographics. Who lives in the church’s neighborhood? What is the economic status of your community? Is your church located near a school or college? Is your church surround by families? Are you near a retirement community? Do you have homeless people as your neighbors?
We as God’s people cannot ignore our neighbors. Our neighbors are not just people who look, think and act like us. Our neighbors are the people God places in our path for us to serve as well as minister to, for and with. Once a congregation understands its ministry area then the congregation can pursue diversity.
Another challenge that makes it difficult for congregations to pursue diversity is that many long standing congregations have existing barriers that prevent the congregation from embracing diversity. Each of our congregations has barriers that prevent diversity. Congregations must honestly confront the barriers and work at removing the barriers. As a congregation pursues diversity she sends a message to the world that the congregation loves everyone. When we pursue those who are different from us we overcome the sin of partiality that’s addressed in James 2:9.
Thus we understand that pursuing diversity is not easy. Consequently it is something we should do because doing so is important to God. God desires for all of our congregations become diverse and inclusive of all God’s people.
In the November-December-January 2013-14 edition of the Circuit Rider, the article, “Adapt to Thrive and Serve” by John Flowers and Karen Vannoy highlights how one church pursued and embraced diversity. This church stood at the crossroad of wealth and poverty. One mile to the northeast of the church there were million-dollar homes, boutique shops and high-end restaurants. One mile to the southwest there were modest apartments and a junior high school where 90 percent of the student’s were on subsidized meals. One mile to the southwest the population was Latino and working class.
This church had blinders on. They focused only on the people who lived to the east and north. One longtime member realized something needed to be done about the church’s approach to ministry. He went to the junior high school and talked to the principal.
He introduced himself to the principal and stated that he was a member of the church near the school. He said, “I’m afraid we have not been good neighbors to you. May I ask, what are the most pressing needs of the students at your school?”
The principal told him that his students needed help with reading. The principal said, “Most of our kids are behind at least one grade level in reading skills. If you want to be a good neighbor, then teach our children to read.” The principal ended the conversation quickly and thanked the man for stopping by. She did not expect the man to return or to do anything about the ministry need.
About a month later the man went back to the school and told the principal how his church could help with the need for reading tutors. He told the principal that his church would provide vans to pick up children from the school and take them to the church where they would receive help from reading tutors. The church would also provide snacks and a bag of food for the children to take home. Further since several members of the church wanted to learn Spanish, the tutors who taught the students to read English would in return learn Spanish from the students.
As a result of this ministry relationship this church developed an intergenerational, inter-ethnic and cross-socioeconomic friendship with the students. This happened because one church member refused to ignore his neighborhood any longer.
How many of our churches in the South Georgia Conference are ignoring our neighbors? The sad truth is that many of us are doing so and we are missing out on a divine opportunity to make our congregations more inclusive and diverse. The time is now for every congregation to welcome its neighbors by pursuing diversity and accepting everyone despite race, economic status or cultural background. When we do this we will make disciples of all nations, but more importantly God gets the glory from our efforts.
Rev. Culbreth is senior pastor of Speedwell United Methodist Church in Savannah. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.