This very dichotomy came up a few weeks ago when I had an interesting conversation about race with a few guys from church. I respect these guys very much, though we definitely disagree on various racial and political issues. As we got to talking about race, one of the men said, "I don't think there's anything wrong with white people going to a white church and black people going to a black church. We all have different preferences in music and worship style, so why would we try to force something that's going to create a church style which nobody will be happy with?" While I intuitively disagreed with the argument, I didn't at that time know how to push back. The individual viewed church diversity as a preference, whereas it seemed more akin to a moral obligation to me. After a few weeks of thought, the following is what I wish I would have been able to explore in our conversation.
Yet on Sunday, as I looked around me at church, such was not the picture of the body my eyes received. Almost everyone in our congregation was of a similar hue, and all resided in an almost identical social class. Blame it on whatever you'd like - purposeful segregation through white flight, worship preference, denominational emphases, or impersonal forces of society and history - but my church and our churches as a whole are not diverse, in a land which is very diverse.
With diversity being a word on everyone's mind at the moment, I sat in church and asked myself how I had gotten here. How did I get to a place where there was so little diversity, and how had I not cared enough about it to do anything of substance over the course of a decade? I had chosen to live in a primarily white, affluent neighborhood. I had chosen to go to an almost exclusively white, affluent church. I had never spoken to my pastor, elders, or other congregants about the importance of diversity. I had not advocated implementing diverse worship styles to create an atmosphere more welcoming to a diverse group. I had not participated in ministries or started up initiatives which would have put me in contact with anyone who was not like me. In all my years at my current church, not only had I not done anything of substance to encourage diversity, but I had set myself up to enjoy the comforts of sameness - avoiding conflict, tension, and change. More than avoidance or complicity, I have been an active creator of a community devoid of diversity.
At any point in my past, if you would have asked whether or not I valued diversity, I would have of course said "yes." Despite our continued lack of diversity, I desired it, and I didn't know anyone in my religious circles who would have said that they didn't desire it as well. In fact, I don't know anyone who would say that they wouldn't prefer it. We would love for people of color to start coming to our churches - so long as they conformed to our worship style. We would love for the impoverished to start coming to our churches - so long as they didn't ask us for money after the service. We love the idea of diversity, so long as it doesn't interfere with our preferences and comfort. But the big question I have begun to ask is, is this lack of diversity really a moral problem, or is it a legitimate expression of preference? Shouldn't we desire the church to be an environment where we can come to God unhindered by the distraction of others in order that we may truly worship God?
I am coming to the conclusion that such an emphasis on preferences seems to go against the whole focus of the Bible in terms of its view towards the poor, downtrodden, and outsider. God doesn't desire sacrifices of worship at the altar without a life of sacrificial love. God doesn't want us to come to the altar if a brother or sister in our society has something against us. God doesn't want us to give preferential treatment to the wealthier in society. God doesn't care if we've done miracles in his name, because if we haven't visited the prisoner, fed the hungry, or clothed the naked, we haven't known him, nor he us. We hate our brothers and sisters as much through our inaction as some do through their overtly malicious actions. Worship at church is to be our offering to God, not God's coddling of our preferences. God tells us how to worship him, and that worship comes through the lives we live. What we sing on Sunday is really an outworking of what we've done the rest of the week. Yet we've inverted this. Ministering to those in need has become a preference whereas comfort and desire in what we call "worship" has become the necessity. Unlike King David, we desire to offer to God that which has cost us nothing. We don't want to be put ourselves out, and we blame God for our lack of diversity. We essentially claim that God must want us segregated. I couldn't worship alongside a black brother because I wouldn't like his music, or alongside an impoverished sister because I'd lose my focus or be confronted by the many ways I've horded my wealth. God wouldn't want me to be unable to worship him, would he? So rather than worship being a humbling and sacrificing of self, I make it instead a sacrifice of communion with a portion of the body of Christ I find inconvenient or disruptive. As I am coming to realize more my dismissive attitude towards many parts of the body of Christ, I have begun to wonder how many Sundays I have lifted up my offerings of worship to God, while God was saying to me, "Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!"
Being Reformed, I believe in total depravity, but God still leads me to convictions like these which remind me how messed up I am. How filled with sin am I to claim that I desire diversity, yet use God as an excuse to avoid it? How blind am I that I claim to see the beauty in every nation worshipping God, yet choose to the best of my ability to buy a house where I can most avoid those from other nations? How unmerciful am I that I don't have a relationship with any of the many who are impoverished in my city? I am sick. We are sick.
At this point I want to reference what I believe is a helpful analogy about our sickness from C.S. Lewis. While speaking to a different topic, I think Lewis's analogy will work well for our discussion here today. Lewis says,
"You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act—that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let everyone see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?"
Lewis is decrying an act which is apparently repugnant. We recognize how deviant it is to have these desires within oneself for food, to pay a fee simply to lust over this food as a tease of what will not be made so. To foster and exacerbate the appetite without seeking its satiation is odd, to say the least. But what does this have anything to do with the topic at hand? Revelation 7:9 is referenced quite frequently in churches as a Christian appetite or ideal. It says, "After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands." I hear this passage referenced often in Evangelical circles. We have an appetite for a day when God will gather his church in all its diversity. We recognize the beauty of such diversity, its depiction of God's goodness, grace, and power, and we say we long for such unity. Yet when I looked around in church on Sunday, it felt like I was at a striptease. As I heard diversity proclaimed throughout the week, heard diverse authors and speakers in the news, spoke with others from church about the importance of diversity, and longed for a day of unification - when I showed up at church, the "lights were flipped off," as diversity disappeared right before my very eyes. My appetite was teased all week long out in the world as I saw the beautiful platter of diversity in front of me, and then, it was covered up on Sunday - covered up at the one place within society you would expect such a longing to be fulfilled.
How strange it is to identify as a major joy of the eschaton the satiation of our longing for diversity, while doing little, or nothing to achieve that end and satiate that desire as the body of Christ now. How strange it is to proclaim our great appetite to be united to those from every tribe, tongue, and nation in eternity, while not seeking to join them in our finitude here. How strange it is to recognize ourselves as those whose message is good news for the poor, only to exclusively preach de facto a message to the affluent. By my assessment, we Christians don't seem much different than the attendees at Lewis's striptease. We have perverted our spiritual desire for unity in diversity into an ideological lust rather than the actualized form it ought to take. Appetites are intended to lead us towards appropriate fulfillment, not towards ascetic abstention, and not towards provocative and indulgent stripteases.
I've tried to imagine what our current logic with diversity would look like if played out elsewhere. One day there will be no pain in the new heavens and the new earth, so I won't try to ameliorate pain today. One day, there'll be peace in the new heavens and the new earth, so I won't seek peace today. One day there'll be no sin in the new heavens and the new earth, but I won't try to live a holy life today. All of those sound ridiculous, yet we essentially apply this logic to diversity. One day, there will be wonderful diversity in the new heavens and the new earth, yet preference reigns supreme now, and we won't seek diversity today. Health, peace, and holiness are pursued as ends today, though we know those ends won't ultimately be achieved until Christ returns. We pursue those things even through seeming futility. We recognize them not as preferences, but as moral obligations. They're obligations we'll fail at and stumble through, of course! But they're ends we pursue with all our effort through the enabling of the Spirit. But then we act as if diversity is the one thing which is only future oriented, as if that wonderful day of unification has not already begun. As if the nations aren't now being made Christ's footstool. As if the gospel hasn't already been sent forth into all the world. As if the slave has not already been made our brother. As if all are not one in Christ now.
No, diversity isn't a preference. It's a necessary depiction for those who recognize Christ's reign as supreme, his love as infinite, and his message as boundless. Diversity must be pursued now. But how do we become a diverse church? How do we capitalize on the reality which Jesus has already set in motion? I think that answer is worth exploring, though the answer is very long and I'm only beginning my journey down the road of trying to figure it out. It's probably unwise for an addict to try to gain insight from another addict, and I'm in the same boat as everyone else from a monochromatic setting. But two things stand out to me in my infancy on the issue. First, the church should be at least partially composed of the people to whom we minister. Diversity ultimately results from the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ which is for all people. The church of Antioch and their diversity should be a model for us. When the gospel is preached without boundaries, the diversity of the church will know no bounds. You can look at James or Corinthians and you'll see that there are clearly very wealthy and very poor within the church. Groups of people who would never associate with each other in a society far more stratified than ours, did associate and become a community through the church. I think that part of the reason our churches aren't diverse is because we choose to live in, minister to, and invest in communities like ours and with people like us. I don't think church composition is the problem, but rather the result of a problem. If we begin to preach and live the gospel without borders, our churches will reflect that borderless message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Second, church should not be primarily defined by comfort and preference. Sure, we all have preferences in worship style, but diversity seems more like an obligation than a preference. We know there will be music in heaven, though we don't know what kind. There may be a good mix of Gregorian chants, gospel, country and rap - or it could all be 1970's choral. Who knows?
We also know there will be diversity in heaven, but unlike music styles, we know exactly what diversity will look like - people of every tribe, tongue, nation, spiritual gifting, gender, etc. The New Testament doesn't prescribe specific music for us, but it does tell us how to conduct our communal living. In fact, the famous chapter on love is a section break in the middle of two chapters discussing gifting, diversity of gifts, and community. There are only two places I know of in the New Testament where people in the church died as a result of their actions within the church; one was from their specific handling of communion in relation to diversity, their problem being the ostracization of poor believers in the community (I Cor. 11). James discusses the working out of community without preferential treatment, I John talks about the love of community, and Hebrews tells us not to forsake assembling together. Community is of utmost importance and we would do well to be far more concerned that we lay down our rights and preferences to foster the type of body which would best represent the actions and desires of our head, Jesus Christ.
It is going to be a long journey to reach racial reconciliation and church diversity. In fact, it's one of those things which will likely never be perfectly achieved until the return of Jesus. However, these are imperatives which must be pursued - not for the sake of themselves, but for the sake of Christ and his gospel. Our message seems awfully disingenuous when we proclaim a gospel for all to only a few, and when we declare the unifying nature of the gospel message while cloistering ourselves in a group which is lithified in almost every meaningful way imaginable (class, race, major theology, politics, etc). We say we believe that the gospel is power, yet we never unleash it. Perhaps that is because we have never allowed it to truly be unleashed on us in all its transformative glory. The gospel of Jesus Christ changes lives not just upon its initial acceptance, but upon our adherence and submission to it every subsequent moment of our lives. The gospel ought to transform us daily. We are still a people in need of transformation, as will we always be, and we must pray with fervor to our God that he would unleash the gospel of power afresh on us as individuals, but even more importantly, as a community. When he does, perhaps we will more fully seek with zeal the Kingdom Christ brought, proclaimed, will establish, and is establishing even now through the diversity of his body in the world.