Many of us still attend homogenous churches: all the same race, the same general income-level, the same, the same, the same. The good news is that many congregations have begun to discern how to become more multicultural. I am one of these white pastors who laments the lack of diversity, who wants to see our worship hour represent the actual demographics of our neighborhood. I was fascinated by a workshop I recently attended under Dr. Gerardo Marti, a professor of Sociology at Davidson College. Marti has focused research on successfully diverse multi-racial congregations.
Non-black congregations wishing to be more diverse essentially assume that they need to add black people in order to be multi-racial. For example, a multi-Asian church (meaning several different Asian races worshiping together), did not see themselves as multi-racial, and thus made an effort to have more black members. Marti’s research discovered that this desire to have black members in otherwise non-black congregations came from an almost universal human belief that black people worship better than any other race…that blacks have a unique access to God through their “soulfulness” in singing gospel music. Any time I have taken a group of white people to visit an African-American congregation, the response was always, “If only WE could worship like THEM.”
The racism that led to divided worship hour continues to pervade the move to integrate worship. Before anyone hears her sing, most people assume that an African-American is an authority on real worship simply by virtue of her skin color. The standard advice given to make your non-black church multi-racial is to start a gospel choir to recruit new black people…to try and successfully integrate blacks into an other-wise non-black setting. Churches are far more likely to hire a black choir director than a black youth or children’s minister, to put blacks up in front in worship regardless of whether they are more gifted for behind-the-scenes ministry, in hopes that this will somehow bring more black church members. This is called conspicuous color, putting black bodies up for all to see with the utilitarian desire to create a new version of the Body of Christ in your worshiping congregation.
If that is starting to leave a bad taste in your mouth, it’s supposed to. Marti suggests that these moves are the symptom, that the real issue is that your congregational members have not diversified their daily relationships. If we are to become a church of all colors, it has to begin with friendships in the real world with people who are not like you. Not friendships with an agenda. Don’t start befriending a bunch of black people hoping you’ll become so tight they’ll all come to your white church one day. Focus on doing worship well, focus on creating people who look past themselves and seek genuine friendship with people who don’t share the same skin-color, income, sexual orientation, political views.
In my context, multi-racial will mean finding ways to build friendships with ESL students, mostly from Asia. Right now, we are working to build these friendships through community gardening and a “home-visit” program, where ESL families partner with American families who host them in their homes for meals over the course of 6 months.
These thoughts all come directly from Marti’s workshop at the UMC Fusion conference. I’d love to hear what you’re doing in your context to help your people build genuine friendships with others.