Diversity – the church’s survival strategy?

I read with great interest a front page article in Saturday’s Washington Post entitled Southern Baptists Diversifying to Survive (with the subtitle, Minority Outreach Seen as Key to Crisis).  The article claims that several mainline denominations – not just Southern Baptists, but also United Methodists, Lutherans and Presbyterians – are reaching out to minority communities as a survival strategy.  From page A1:

By establishing churches in minority communities, changing worship
practices, electing minorities to leadership positions and purging
racism from their language and attitudes, the faiths are seeking to
draw in communities of color as a way to boost stagnating or falling
_____________________
See
BAPTISTS, A6, Col. 1

Argh!  How unfortunate that the jump to page A6 happened at such an important part of the article (yes, I still read the print edition).  It felt like a cliff hanger to me.  As I turned to page A6 I thought to myself, why is the writer lumping Lutherans into this crowd?  In all my time with church bureaucrats, seminary professors and lay and ordained church leaders, I have never heard it uttered that we should reach out to minority communities for survival’s sake.  There are many other reasons to reach out to minority communities – to be faithful, to be evangelical, to more fully realize the Body of Christ, to seek the presence of God in the Other, to . . . there are any number of reasons that our predominantly white denomination should seek to grow in and be part of non-white communities, but "survival" isn’t among them.  Faithfulness is.

When I reached page A6, this is what I read:

BAPTISTS, From A1

membership. The consequences of ignoring those communities, they warn, are dire.

"You can almost calculate the time when we close the door and turn off
the lights if we don’t become a more diverse church," said Sherman
Hicks, executive director of multicultural ministries for the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a 4.9 million-member
denomination that is 97 percent white.

My jaw just about dropped to the floor.  Here I was saying to myself that diversity-as-survival-tactic is nothing that we Lutherans would suggest, and yet our own director of multicultural ministries makes that very point – that if we don’t diversify our church we will close the door and turn off the lights forever.

I have to believe that this quote was taken out of context, shoehorned to fit the writer’s main thesis about the Southern Baptists.  For surely Pastor Hicks (and perhaps our Southern Baptist friends, too) would agree that it would not be our failure of diversity that would kill the church, but that it would be our lack of faithfulness would kill the church.  For both diverse congregations – such as the one I used to attend in Philadelphia – and mono-cultural congregations – such as the one I grew up attending and which closed down a few years ago – struggle with faithfulness, mission, vitality, and viability.  Diversity ain’t no cure-all, as I’m sure Pastor Hicks would agree.

This article unfortunately suggests that white denominations are seeking to diversify so that they can stay alive.  If that is the case, then it is a terribly misguided effort that is colonial and demeaning in nature.  Diversity-as-survival-tactic suggests that white denominations are seeking (church-going) minorities to prop up their struggling structures with time, money and prayers.  The white folk have failed, so let’s reach out to the blacks and latinos for their blood, sweat and money.  How horrible.  (Several of the reader comments on the online version of the article make this argument.)

Our lack of diversity is horrible, shameful, sinful.  But our ministry with and outreach to non-white communities should not be a last-ditch scramble to preserve our white institutions.  Installing a few minority leaders in national organizations or highlighting a few multicultural congregations won’t cure us.  What ails us is not a lack of diversity.  No.  Our lack of diversity is a symptom of what really ails us: our lack of faithfulness.  Do I hear echoes of Mark 9:24?  "I believe; help my unbelief!"

We lack the faith to live into the Kingdom, to live under the cross, to live in community with the diverse people of God.  We make an idol out of institutional preservation, and end up killing the very institution – and obscuring the proclamation of the Gospel – in the process of trying to preserve it.  The way of Christ leads to the cross, leads to death . . . leads to new life.  But are we willing to die – to let our churches die, our traditions die, our beloved trappings of denominational life die – to taste the new life that is promised us?  Faithfulness is walking that road with Christ, being willing to leave everything behind to walk with a new crowd into a new mission and into a new life.

I fully support the diversity agenda, but diversity is not an end in itself.  Rather, I see diversity as the good fruit that grows from a healthy, good tree.  And I’m sure that most church leaders would agree.  Too bad that the Post article focused so much on numbers and outreach
techniques without adequately looking at larger issues of mission,
theology and faith.  Once again, religion gets short shrift in the
press!

So the question is not Do we have diversity?  Rather, the question is Do we have faith? A Yes to the second question will provide not only an affirmative answer to the first, but new life and vitality to the church.

Lord, we believe; help our unbelief!

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
This entry was posted in Faith & the Church, Lutheran, Society. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Diversity – the church’s survival strategy?

  1. Rachel says:

    I completely agree. Highlighting racial lines for any reason, in my opinion, is not only unnecessary but rude. We should not reach out to “people of color”, we should reach out to *people*. Period. Whether they’re black, white, purple or polka-dotted.

  2. PS says:

    I’ve sometimes had the same reaction to some people in our church who talk about getting new people in the church for what they can do for us, ie, need new people for committees, etc. instead of how we can serve them.

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