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“…I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house, solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” – Acts 20:20-21
The above text, among others I could cite, serves, in part, to support my personal stance against certain evangelical denominations, like the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), to which the church I attend belongs, pursuing congregational diversity under the guise of what has been termed as “evangelical affirmative action”.
The apostle Paul provides what I’ve consistently argued is the model for the evangelical church today in pursuing genuine, lasting diversity within the Church: preach the Gospel to everyone. Everyone. Period. Without special regard as to race, ethnicity or cultural paradigm as a “strategy”.
No “targeted” outreach.
None of that.
The Church’s responsibility is, as Paul states, to preach to the entire world “repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
There’s no secret sauce or special ingredients to be added.
Diversity: Organic vs. Programmatic
Subsequent to his conversion on the Damascus Road (Acts 9), the sole mission of the apostle Paul was the expansion of God’s kingdom through the organic proclamation of the Gospel (“teaching you publicly and from house to house”), not through a reactionary response borne out of a fixation that the local church must become more racially and ethnically inclusive in order to remain “relevant”.
Paul understood that his primary mission was to preach the Gospel to “Jews and Greeks”. That is, to all nations (ethnos) and people groups so that those who are without Christ might repent, be forgiven of their sins and saved from the wrath that is not only to come but which, for them, is a present reality (John 3: 35-36).
When the body of Christ focuses on preaching the Gospel, diversity within the body of Christ naturally results.
I can appreciate the intentions of denominations like the SBC, but evangelical diversity is not something that can be “strategized” programmatically (and I say that as a black man who attends a church with a predominantly white congregation.) In fact, I’ve been a member of my local church approximately six years now; and that I am one of only a handful of black members, and that the church staff is entirely white (and has been since I initially joined in 2009), I can truthfully say has never bothered me.
When the Church makes the decision to get involved in the business of trying to remedy what is essentially a matter of personal preference based largely in denominational tradition and experience, it is engaging in a lost cause because, as the saying goes, “you can’t please everyone.
To put it frankly, I don’t go around on Sunday mornings pondering to myself, “Hmm…what can I do to get more [insert race or ethnicity here] people to attend [my local church] so it can be viewed by the world as sufficiently diverse?”
To have such a mindset is no different than that of supporting a quota system (how many whites attend versus how many non-whites.) Instead, I am inclined to concur with the words of the apostle Paul that, “God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:9)
In other words as we, being followers of Christ, are faithful in carrying out the Great Commission to all the world indiscriminately and without respect to a particular race, ethnicity or culture, God will be faithful in leveraging our efforts to draw those to Himself whom He has chosen to comprise His Church. As His Word states in 1 Corinthians 1:30, “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption.”
As it relates to this matter of congregational diversity within the Evangelical Church, I fear we have lost sight of who’s Church we are and by whose power that Church is sustained. It’s as if we suddenly believe reflecting the diversity of God’s kingdom on earth is entirely up to our strength and efforts, as opposed to being in total reliance on the power of the Spirit of God working in and through us.
To whatever extent we are successful in achieving more diversity within our congregations, it is by God’s doing, through the effectual preaching of the Gospel, not our man-made “programs” or “strategies”, that it is accomplished.
We are but clay in the hands of the Potter.
We must never forget this.
The World: Pleasing vs. Preaching
What many people who support an organized effort to increase diversity within the local church are overlooking, is that a primary reason those of different ethnic and racial backgrounds do not make more of an effort to fellowship and worship at each others’ church is simply a matter of personal preference.
Over the years, I’ve approached several of my friends and associates who are black about visiting my local church, and in each instance, without fail, their immediate response is to interrogate me about the particular aesthetics of the worship service.
For example, I’ve had several friends of mine decline personal invitations from me to visit, let alone join, my or any other “white church” because the style of music and/or preaching isn’t necessarily the style they “like”. Conversely, I have had white friends who, after being invited, were hesitant to visit a “black church” because the church was located in what they deemed to be a “bad” neighborhood.
So, if in fact there is any merit to the statement which suggests that the 11:00 hour on Sunday mornings is “the most segregated hour in America“, such an assessment must be considered with the caveat that much of that separation exists by design. That is to say, as a direct result of people’s individual choice.
And when the Church makes the decision to get involved in the business of trying to remedy what is essentially a matter of personal preference based largely in denominational tradition and experience, it is engaging in a lost cause because, as the saying goes, “you can’t please everyone.”
Then, again, the Church isn’t supposed to be about pleasing anyone. Quite the contrary. It is supposed to be about preaching to everyone.
For the Church to attempt to meet the world’s ever-changing, subjective definition of “relevant” by ensuring that the faces of those seated in its pews on Sundays are of a sufficiently diverse hue of complexion, is to tread closer to a gospel that is centered on anthropology rather than theology.
In other words, dark faces with dark hearts gets the Church absolutely nowhere.
Nowhere at all.
The Gospel of repentance and faith in Christ must always take preeminence.
What We’re Missing
In reflecting on the various nuances connected to this issue of diversity within the Church, I’m reminded of the words of the apostle James, who said: “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).
In this text, James calls believers to consider a type of diversity that is often lost in the discussion of whether or not evangelical churches are “too white”.
The question the Church, the body of Christ, you and I, must ask ourselves is this: how effectively are we ministering to widows and orphans? Are we proactive in ensuring their utilities are turned on or that they have enough food to eat? And what about the homeless? Would a smelly, poorly dressed person whose teeth haven’t been brushed in weeks be permitted to sit on the front pew at your church? And then there is the divorced. What are we doing to embrace those whose marriage covenant has been broken, perhaps multiple times? Is your church a place of welcome for them? Or would they feel so ostracized that if they were to attend they would feel compelled to sit on the back row?
You see, this, too, is diversity, my brothers and sisters.
This is the organic, heart-changing, life-transforming pursuit of diversity that results in committed disciples for Christ. This is the kind of diversity the Church needs to be about as a Great Commission priority. Not the superficial, cosmetic, programmatic efforts that boast in the number of brown, black, yellow or red faces there are on Sunday mornings, but is impotent toward compelling those to whom those faces belong to “be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20).
Look, I’m not trying to rock the evangelical boat here, okay? I’m sure there will be those within the SBC camp, and others, that will disagree with my take on this and, hey, that’s fine. All I’m saying is when the unadulterated, unfiltered, expository Gospel of Jesus Christ is preached, people will respond; and that response will comprise individuals from every tribe, tongue and nation (Revelation 7:9).
The Holy Spirit will make sure that happens because, in the end, when our life on this earth is over, what will matter most is whether our heart, not our skin color, is dark or light.
Think about it.
“So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase.” – Acts 9:31 (NASB)