By Brian Jennings and José Heredia
If you walked around our urban neighborhood, you’d find a mix of ethnicities, cultures, and skin colors (about 30 percent minority and growing). You’d meet widows who’ve lived in their homes for 40 years and couples restoring the floors of their first home. You’d also see lots of apartments, several of which house people with poverty, hunger, disability, or struggles with mental illness.
A few years ago, the Holy Spirit began compelling us to take steps toward ethnic, generational, and socioeconomic diversity. We have a great church of loving people, but we acknowledged that issues of diversity can be polarizing. People might pursue them in order to be politically correct or in vogue. So when people hear the word diversity, skepticism brews. We knew we had to proceed, but we had to do so with care.
We have a million miles to go, but the passion to become a church for all people is growing in us. Our church embraces the effort to reach beyond ourselves, and we’re glad to share some of the lessons we’re learning.
Most church leaders will tell you their doors stand wide open for anyone to enter, and they’d say so without a glimmer of dishonesty in their heart. But many churches must be asked: “If your doors are open to everybody, why is there no diversity in your church?” We could name many reasons, but hasn’t God called us to do more than settle for the status quo?
Church leaders who bristle at the mention of diversity, regardless of the reason, have one thing in common: no diversity. About a year ago our elders, after a season of Bible study and prayer, looked each other in the eye and said, “We value diversity; it brings glory to God and helps us obey the Great Commission. We must pursue it.” The unified resolve of our elders has fueled our efforts.
Intentional Plus Organic
Edward Gilbreath, in his excellent book Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity, writes that blended churches are a result of intentionality. Churches don’t accidentally become diverse.
When we speak about diversity, we always tell people why we value it. We say, “We desire to be multiethnic, multigenerational, and multisocioeconomic, not because we want to be PC, but because we are passionate about obeying the Great Commission, bringing peace to our community, and showing the world the power of God.”
We must be intentional, but we must also be organic—authentic, unforced, natural. We love when someone adds diversity to our Sunday morning stage, and we plan for this to happen. But that someone has to be a natural fit (an active participant in the church, qualified for their specific role). We can’t overuse that person. So we seek to be purposeful without being contrived.
Acknowledging Vs. Appeasing
We’ve long been troubled by the statement, “If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it.” That’s true in many ways, but it’s over applied. The statement often implies that a worship service should target a specific generation, or else it will fail. But does this fit the New Testament model of church, especially as you consider Paul’s instructions for different groups in the church to love, respect, and serve each other? Is appeasing only one group of people more noble than appeasing several diverse groups?
We’d argue that trying to appease any group is a losing play. What might seem like a minor shift in thinking completely revolutionized how we sought to connect with people.
A healthy family serves all the members without catering to only one. Billy may need to get feeble Grandpa a refill. Grandma delights the kids with her stories. Mom and Dad make sure their toddler is fed, but they don’t let him crawl on the table. Everyone does his or her part. Everyone is acknowledged (meaning no one is ignored), but nobody is the king. We desire our church to feel like this. We can’t appease everyone. We don’t want to appease everyone. So instead, our goal is to acknowledge people.
Imagine if you and several friends moved to Moscow. You begin attending a Russian-speaking church, even though you’re still clumsy with the language. Wouldn’t you feel loved if they sang one chorus of “Amazing Grace” in English, just because they knew it would be meaningful to you? You wouldn’t expect them to start doing everything in English, but an occasional prayer, Scripture, or chorus would warm your heart. Acknowledging is loving.
We’ve quit worrying about how we can appease everyone. We can’t. Instead, we choose to ask, “How can we love people by acknowledging them?” This question helps us love people from different backgrounds, cultures, and generations.
We seek to learn through our mistakes and our victories. People fall in love with their comfortable, predictable routines, so thoughts of change bring fear. We realized we could do only so much with what we had, but we could do something. And so we have. Some of these are small, some are big, all are helpful:
• Open your pulpit to capable preachers different from your preacher (in age, culture, or skin color) when you can. We’ve had missionaries and missionary friends preach for us with beautiful results. If it’s their first time to preach for you, always ask them to include at least some part of their personal story.
• Look at your Sunday lineup and ask, “If a person of a different color came, would they assume we’d be a place that would welcome them to serve with us?” If possible, arrange your praise team, Scripture readers, or announcement givers in a way that helps you acknowledge anyone coming.
• Disciple people different from you who are gifted in shared areas of ministry.
• Play a culturally diverse selection of music before and/or after your Sunday service. Go heavy on music genres that your musicians can’t replicate. The beauty of this is most people don’t pay attention to background music unless it resonates with them.
• Hire intentionally. Don’t hire someone because they are a minority, but do hire wisely. If one-third of your community was Japanese, and you had the chance to add a qualified, godly Japanese minister to your staff of 10 Caucasians, you’d be foolish not to do it. Help your collective staff become all things to all people.
José, who was hired by Highland Park six months ago, has added great value to our staff and church family, and will better equip us to serve our Hispanic neighbors. And I’ll add that he’s supremely qualified (p.s., Brian wrote this statement, not José).
We’ve sung one chorus of one song in Spanish. This was a leap for a few on our praise team, but doable. Don’t assume you have to launch an entire service or learn an entire song in a different language. Do small things.
We asked church folks who knew a different language to read a part of Revelation 7 in their language. As they read, we displayed the English translation on the screen. They read during the middle of “Revelation Song.”
Bringing Heaven to Earth
We felt very nervous backstage before the Sunday in which we had a chorus and Scripture reading in different languages planned. We’d never done this, and we wondered how people would respond. We soon found out.
To hear Revelation read in Korean, Spanish, German, etc., created a moment we’ll never forget. People wept and worshipped. Months later, our church is still talking about the power of that moment. Lots of powerful things happened in that moment, but perhaps the most powerful was the taste of Heaven we experienced.
God has given us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-20). This ministry is not only to reconcile to God those who come from our particular background, but also those “from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9). We reconcile people to God and each other, until the day when we’ll all be standing before the throne, perfectly reconciled with God and one other.
Dr. John Perkins, who’s given 85 years of blood, sweat, and tears to the cause of Christ-honoring reconciliation, graciously accepted my request to interview him for a book project. As we talked about this issue he said, “The church is late to the party [of reconciliation], but it’s better late than never.” He’s right. We’re late, but we’re committed to this party, and we pray it makes tons of noise.
Brian Jennings serves as lead minister and Jose Heredia serves as worship arts director with Highland Park Christian Church, Tulsa, Oklahoma.