4 Ways to Combat Segregation in the Church

“This movement to open up the church to diversity is the visual expression of what happens when God heals our land.”

One of the biggest issues in our culture is race relations. I write about it often, and the latest Charlottesville, Virginia, incident reminds us of the brokenness we face in this area.

One of the biggest knocks on the church is that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in America. There is no reason to argue it. Neither should that fact cause us to change everything we do to make it untrue. I’m not defending the reality, and I do understand that there are many reasons for it. But it is also encouraging that many churches are trying to overcome that history.

However, I also know that there is a strong movement to help us not be defined by “white church” and “black church” labels. There are many good people reaching across ethnic and color lines to help the church become as diverse as the many types of people God created. There are challenges, for sure—but these challenges can be met and dealt with successfully.

I’m not here to shame anyone. I get that many predominantly churches are filled with angst because they are “too white,” but that can be good or bad. The fact is, some churches are in communities that are not very diverse. A church is not primarily responsible for how multicultural its neighborhood is, but it is responsible for how kingdom-minded it is.

So, what does it look like to make a healthy cultural shift away from who you are to who you can be?

1. Notice the neighborhood.

The goal is not to meet a quota. It is to meet the expectations God has for us. In some ways, that expectation varies from local body to local body. But it seems fair to suggest that the church should have a goal to reflect its local community—not because it has to, but because it wants to.

So, as we go forward, it is important to understand that the move toward a multicultural Christian community is not something we achieve because we are forcing it, but because we realize the force in it.

It starts with a church becoming more like its neighborhood. But, if possible, it is good to be more diverse than your neighborhood.

It affirms the value of the diversity God has created. It says that we are not satisfied to simply be around people who look like us. We expect missionaries to engage in partnerships with various cultures. Well, our mission starts in our communities. So we should “go,” even if the going is in Jerusalem.

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2. Become a welcoming and understanding community.

One of the things we should recognize is the dynamics of the congregation: What is a person thinking, hearing or seeing when he or she walks into a church? The first thing most people do when they walk into a church is look around and ask, “Is there anyone like me here?” That is a natural human question.

If the person is young, he or she is probably looking for young people. If they are a parent, they are likely looking for families. If they are a person of color, they are looking for people who look like them. You may say that doesn’t sound very spiritual. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong; I’m saying it’s true. And we all do it.

Years ago, I visited a very large all-black church. I looked around out of curiosity and thought, Are there any other white people here? There weren’t. But then, someone came up to me and said, “Listen, the pastor makes sure we welcome all kinds of people. We want to welcome you.”

At that point, I knew a bit about how African-Americans feel when they visit predominantly white churches, and that there are many other issues at work when the situation is reversed.

So, as we realize how people are wired, it becomes important for us to not create an environment that is naturally off-putting. If we want to minister in our community, it is a good idea to look like our community so that people in the community feel at home when they enter our church. Part of this happens when your church enters the community. Build relationships with people across the diverse lines in your neighborhood.

3. Hire leaders who reflect your values.

If you want to be diverse, it’s important to build a multicultural team. If your church is not large enough to hire staff, you can still develop a diverse group of leaders.

What you celebrate, you become. If you celebrate diversity in your leadership, it will be reflected in your pews. So hire well.

But don’t bring someone on just because he or she is the right ethnicity or color. It takes a lot more than that. And some people—white or nonwhite—just don’t want to work to be in a multicultural setting, and they won’t help you. You need people who value diversity and want to work toward the kingdom values that a multicultural church expresses.

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Look for bridge builders who are willing to learn to relate to people of different cultures and contexts. You need leaders who value diversity, but not just that—they have to value reconciliation, which helps us undergird diversity.

One final note here: It is also important to remember that many minority-majority churches are that way because they can’t become multicultural. Sometimes it’s a choice that those of us in the majority need to respect.

It’s not like most African-American churches are sitting around wishing they had more white people in their lives. Many enjoy a historic spiritual and cultural heritage in their church because, for many years, that is where their community has been enriched, empowered and educated. It is where their leaders were recognized and appreciated.

This is true in several minority communities. Many do not want to lose that heritage by trying to become more diverse. Many also live their lives in the majority culture and need a safe place where they can express the sides of themselves that don’t get affirmed in the broader culture, or else they may lose those valued parts of their culture and identity and history.

That’s worthy of our respect, even as we seek to become more diverse.

4. Always focus on the big mission.

There are many dynamics at play when it comes to growing in cultural diversity within a church. None of these factors should overwhelm the mission of the church, which is to be God’s reconciling agent in a fallen world. But in the reconciling of humans to God, there should always be a part that is focused on reconciling human to human. In a way, it is the natural outcome of a renewed human.

This movement to open up the church to diversity is the visual expression of what happens when God heals our land. It should not be used to beat down those churches who are less diverse. Rather, it can be a great way to build the family and reach the lost. After all, if the redeemed can reach across the gulf to reconcile with the lost, certainly we can join hearts and arms with those look different than us.

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Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham distinguished chair of church, mission and evangelism at Wheaton College and the Wheaton Grad School, where he also oversees the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.