Pursuing the Discipline of Diversity
“It gets you out of your solitary conceit.” That’s how C.S. Lewis described the impact of worshiping and cultivating Christian community alongside people who are different from us. And yet, in too many local churches, authentic diversity in which people from dissimilar sociocultural and ethnic backgrounds pursue Christ together remains an abstract ideal instead of an actual practice. To put it bluntly, many churches claim that they welcome everyone, but they never confront the painful question of why nearly every family that attends their church happens to be ethnically and socioeconomically similar.
This is not descriptive of every congregation—but it does, sadly, describe the overwhelming majority of churches in the United States. More than eight in ten pastors agree that churches should strive for diversity. Yet 86 percent of these same churches consist primarily of a single racial or ethnic group. This problem might be attributed to the lack of ethnic and socioeconomic diversity in many neighborhoods, but even this is a reality that developed in part due to systemic racism in American cities enacted through historical patterns of redlining and rezoning. Furthermore, a lack of diversity in neighborhoods is only partly to blame for the lack of diversity in our churches. American neighborhoods are approximately ten times more racially diverse than the churches in those neighborhoods. In the simplest possible terms, even when neighborhoods are diverse, churches within those neighborhoods are not.
This problem is even more pronounced when it comes to family ministry. Thus far, the family ministry movement—with its emphasis on parental discipleship of children—has flourished almost exclusively among stable families that are white and suburban. I have led family ministries in a multiplicity of low-income contexts, and I have mentored doctoral students who are studying family ministry models in Korean and Hmong communities—but all of these projects and experiences are tiny drops in a vast bucket of need in this area. A decade after the first edition of my book Perspectives on Family Ministry, the family ministry movement remains far wealthier and far whiter than the world as a whole. We desperately need to know what effective family ministry looks like in diverse inner-city communities, in rural family chapels, in African American churches, among Native American peoples, with first- and second-generation Hispanic believers, and among immigrants and refugees.
Not only are many churches failing to transcend racial and ethnic barriers in their family ministries, but they are also struggling to develop patterns of generational diversity. Nearly forty percent of churched American teenagers have no adult in their churches to whom they might turn in times of distress; another twenty-seven percent have only one or two such adults. This isn’t because young people are unwilling to interact with adults. Around eighty percent of churched youth enjoy conversing with adults in their church communities. Among youth who do not know any adults in their churches with whom they might converse, sixty-one percent wish that they did. And yet, when churches are structured so that discipleship occurs exclusively in age-organized contexts, few opportunities exist for children and youth to develop meaningful relationships with older Christians in their churches. As a result, students become more connected to their peers—who are likely to scatter after high school graduation—than to church members who will be present and available for decades to come. All of this has developed in our churches despite the fact that one of the most significant predictors of whether or not young people remain in the faith has to do with whether they have developed meaningful relationships with older believers.
The discipline of diversity in the body of Christ must not remain an abstract ideal, true in the universal church at the end of time but not in local assemblies in the present time. When Jesus called his first followers, he assembled a band of Jewish males following a Jewish male—but he refused to allow his disciples to remain a homogeneous group. He led them into the presence of Syrophoenician and Samaritan women (Mark 7:24-26; John 4:9, 27) and expanded his circle of disciples to include both men and women and men (Matthew 27:55; Mark 15:41; Luke 23:49). Moments before he left this planet, Jesus commissioned his disciples to proclaim his truth among the Gentile nations and to participate with these nations in the life of the Triune God (Matt 28:19-20; Acts 1:8). This commission set the first disciples of Jesus on a trajectory that took them from Galilee and Judea to the edges of the known world, to assemblies of men and women from every nation of the Roman Empire and beyond (Acts 2; 6; 8–10).
Early Christians took this call to diversity seriously and saw it as a necessary outgrowth of their commitment to the gospel. When Peter and Barnabas backpedaled from their earlier embrace of the discipline of diversity by hesitating to share a meal with believers from a different ethnicity, Paul declared that they were “deviating from the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14; see also Acts 10:34). For Paul, the practice of diversity was clearly an implication of the truth of the gospel. What’s more, Paul’s letter to Titus makes it clear that the discipline of diversity must include the development of age-diverse discipling relationships as well: “Older women … are to teach what is good, so that they may encourage the young women. … In the same way, encourage the young men” (Titus 2:3-6). From Paul’s perspective, Christians could not “be allowed to exist in self-selected and self-serving groups.” To be a Christian was to pursue the discipline of diversity. This perspective represents a deliberate rejection of the homogeneous unit principle that the church-growth movement experts popularized in the latter decades of the twentieth century.
Practicing the Discipline of Diversity
So how can we lead our churches to practice the discipline of diversity? I now serve as one of several pastors in an inner-city congregation where we have set our sights on pursuing kingdom diversity, and I can tell you that the process is far from easy. It is painful and costly and complicated. In my experience over the past several years, the process has consisted primarily of four steps, repeated over and over and over:
- Learn your place. Know the demographics of the neighborhoods around the places where your congregation gathers and be aware of socioeconomic strata or ethnic groups that your ministries may be overlooking.
- Listen to your place. Humbly hear the challenges that people in your neighborhood face; learn to see life from their perspective. Listen to them long enough to know the barriers that would keep them from feeling welcomed in your church.
- Love your place. When you walk through your neighborhood, do you feel a surge of affection for these people? Do you become choked up as you recognize how much you want the people in this place to hear the gospel? When you look into people’s eyes as you pass by them, do you love these people? Stop wishing that your context looked more like someone else’s context. Quit whispering to yourself, “If only we had this, then we could really do ministry well.” God will provide all that is needed to accomplish the task that he has given to you in the place where you are. Love the people and the place where God has positioned you and your church. In a multiethnic context, that will mean developing multiethnic relationships. You cannot grow a multiethnic church while leading a mono-ethnic life.
- Develop leadership that looks like your place. If you want to see older believers mentoring younger believers but everyone who leads your church is in their twenties or thirties, it’s likely that your church will struggle to develop mature men and women to disciple younger generations. If your context is multiethnic but your leadership isn’t, your congregation will remain mono-ethnic. Diversifying leadership doesn’t require your congregation to develop a large staff. What it requires is gospel-centered leaders who reflect the beautiful diversity of your community and who are placed in visible positions of authority. It means submitting yourself to their wisdom and making yourself accountable to them. In time, it will mean releasing some of your authority and giving it to persons whose perspective and background are quite different from your own. If you do not raise up diverse leadership, you will never move toward diverse fellowship.
These steps are not flashy or fast; they are incremental and mundane. I do not pretend that following these steps provides a quick or easy solution to the problems of segmentation and segregation in the church. That is primarily because I do not believe there are any quick or easy solutions to these problems. Lasting transformation happens through tiny actions repeated over years and decades—through “liturgies,” in the best sense of the word—not through massive shifts that happen in moments or days or months. The most difficult aspect of implementing this process is simply staying focused on the same commitment for the long term. And yet, I do believe that, over time, these simple steps can multiply the diversity of our congregation and provide a more effective witness to the watching world.
From the revised and expanded 2019 edition of Perspectives on Family Ministry
Written by Timothy Paul Jones, edited by Isabella Wu