Let’s say our congregation is committed to becoming “more diverse.” That could mean several things:
- Our congregation is predominantly White and we want to look more like our changing neighborhood where people happen to have a variety of skin colors and heritages.
- Our congregation is comprised of members over the age of 60 who would love to welcome young families.
- Our congregation is aware that there’s an influx of refugees moving into town and we’d like to welcome them to our church, our preschool, and our community.
- Our congregation would like to make it known that we welcome LGBTQA+ neighbors.
- Our congregation is primarily English-speaking but we’d like to welcome the Spanish-speaking neighbors.
[Note: Becoming “more diverse” is not about political correctness or being the cool church or gimmicks. Faithful congregations want to share the life-changing news that God loves us with everybody. Jesus says so.]
So, let’s say that our church is successful in welcoming all kinds of people. Yay. We’ve become a community comprised of people who don’t look like, speak alike, or have the same experiences. The heavens are singing.
But then something painful happens: Black members want to talk about the everyday racism that they experience. Immigrant members want to talk about why they needed to come to this country in the first place. Women who’ve experienced abuse by former pastor need to share their stories. Recovering addicts need to share their stories. Former refugees need to share their stories. Victims of bullying need to share their stories.
And the longtime members of the church don’t want to hear about those things. “If you believe in Jesus, all that is past,” one older White woman who grew up in the church says. “Don’t be a snowflake,” another member says. “I can’t stand all this talk of victimization,” says a prosperous White member.
One of the issues dividing The Church in the United States is the battle over how we in the Church will address the societal realities of our culture. Both “liberal” and “conservative” congregations are struggling with this.
Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis – the congregation that noted conservative theologian John Piper led for many years – is experiencing an ugly church split on the cusp of its 150th anniversary. The issues?
“racial justice and critical race theory (CRT); the #MeToo movement and the call to believe women; and the nature of trauma and abuse.“
You can read the recent Christianity Today article here. Members are divided on whether or not empathizing with those who have experienced trauma and abuse is actually coddling them. (Read that one more time.)
Is it safe to share personal pain in your church? Will someone sit with you in that pain and “see” you? Or will someone simply tell you to buck up and explain how your sinfulness causes your pain. Ouch.
I speak on a daily basis with church leaders who tell me that there are – simplistically speaking – church members who want to be the kind of church that feels safe to share personal stories of pain and difficulties in hopes of finding relief and restoration – and resurrection. And there are other church members who simply don’t want to hear it or talk about it. And it’s dividing those congregations deeply.
In the same predominantly White churches there are those who want to understand systemic racism and there are also members who don’t want to hear that #Black Lives Matter. I know of churches with members who believe God is calling them to befriend the poor while those in the next pew believe people are poor because they are lazy.
These are the very divisions that are tearing up our nation. Are we called to empathize with our neighbor? Or are we merely coddling people who need to move on? And is talking about hot topics in general only going to split the church?
If we want our congregations to thrive and if we authentically want to be a more diverse church, we must be safe enough for people to share their whole lives with us and allow God to teach us something. We must be unafraid to grapple with difficult issues that we might not understand. If we trust that God is with us and if we believe we are called to love as Jesus first loved us, we can talk about hard things. People are hurting out there.