I think I can safely say that I am a big fan of multi-cultural and multi-racial ministry. Yes, I think I am able to assert that with confidence. And I am a fan for many reasons: it fosters greater understanding between people groups. It creates a uniquely welcoming and energetic spirit at churches. And multi-racial churches mirror the diversity that Jesus introduced in his ministry, that the early church fostered, and that we see so beautifully on display in Revelation. So I am all for churches that have rich levels of racial and ethnic diversity. Totally.
But I do feel the need to make a parallel point perfectly clear: that diversity cannot always be photographed.
You see, in the United States, we have over-simplified the discussion on diversity to be limited to race, usually the interactions between blacks and whites. And the church has largely adopted this narrative for themselves. In this binary context, a church has diversity if it has a lot of people of different skin colors, hopefully all in equal proportions: equal parts white, black, asian, and latino. That’s a diverse church. And to be sure, this is an important reflection of diversity, especially in the United States.
But to be frank, racial diversity is hardly the only kind of diversity that can exist in the church. For instance, there is generational diversity, where people of different ages and generations come together. This might not seem like that big of a deal, but there are substantial cultural, moral and theological differences between generations of people, particularly immigrants who were raised overseas, but have children who were born in the West. There is linguistic diversity, where people of different primary languages are in community, and anyone who has operated in a bilingual setting knows that this is not easy to do. There is national diversity, where two people may look physically identical, but are from totally different countries with totally different histories. Truthfully, two people can look racially identical and have very deep differences on a national or historical level, as is the case with people from China and Taiwan, Eritrea and Ethiopia, etc. There is theological diversity too, although this is not a big deal because as any church leader would tell you, theological differences have never led to the split of a church. There is also socio-economic diversity. These are all important aspects of diversity that reflect the multi-faceted nature of the kingdom of God, and take a great deal of effort to foster and maintain.
But the problem is that these kinds of diversity cannot be ascertained in a moment, with a quick glance over a congregation on a Sunday morning. These kinds of diversity cannot be photographed and displayed proudly for the world to see: look how diverse my church is! Look how multi-racial my small group is! These kinds of diversity are no less important, no less daunting to address, but receive little to no recognition in the American evangelical world because we continue to doggedly view diversity as an oversimplified and binary discussion about race, and nothing more.
What is truly troubling about this situation is that evangelicals who trumpet multi-ethnic ministry often do so not realizing that they are implicitly trampling on other churches that do not fit their narrow and artificial model of diversity. They make grandiose statements like “mono-ethnic churches will not be taken seriously”, or “segregated churches lead to segregated lives”. I know they mean well and are trying to push the discussion on race in the church forward, and sometimes we have to make such claims. Heck, I may have said such things as well. But tell me, what do such statements say to a church that may be comprised largely of a single race, but possesses brilliant levels of diversity on other, more subtle levels? What if there is a church where everyone is white, but there is broad socio-economic diversity, the poor and rich worshiping Christ in unity? What if there is a church where everyone is Asian, but representing 30 countries? And what if some of those Asians are not supposed to get along with each other? So these churches are not to be taken seriously? Their efforts not AS meaningful? And what if there is a church where there are equal proportions of people from all races…but no chronological diversity, or socio-economic diversity? Does their racial diversity somehow eclipse the homogeneity in the rest of their community? In a desire to be outspoken, many evangelicals are perpetuating the narrow narrative of diversity, and unconsciously dismissing the wonderful work of others in their family of faith.
Again, I say all of this as a HUGE fan of diversity, a Korean pastor who both lives and works in neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly African American. So please don’t misconstrue my statements as a call for churches to be racially or ethnically segregated. That would be unfair, and totally inconsistent with how I and my family live every day. But I am calling on evangelicals to recognize that diversity is not simply about race, and cannot always be photographed. We should celebrate diversity in ALL its forms, not simply in the forms that are easiest to show off to others. If you are working for greater racial diversity in the Body of Christ, thank God for you, truly! I’d like to think of myself as a co-laborer to that end. But in your efforts, don’t minimize the work of other communities that are toiling for diversity in its more subtle forms. That’s not fair to them.