Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Diversity and Worship

I've been privileged to be around a number of discussions lately about diversity in the context of worship. I have opinions on diversity in a faculty and in student bodies. But I've heard a number of perspectives lately on diversity in worship.

One perspective is that of the "homogeneous principle"--groups tend to "thrive" when they are full of like-minded individuals.  I've worded this carefully.  I've put "thrive" in quotes because potentially we are only talking about thriving in certain ways, thriving in number or thriving in terms of the pleasure of the group. Diversifying a group is hard work and like tends to attract like.

Perhaps more significant is the phrase "like-minded individuals."  A colleague of mine has suggested that a multi-ethnic group can actually be a homogeneous group because everyone there is like-minded in the sense of loving multi-ethnic groups (I'm not sure he has put it quite so well as I just did, however ;-)

Still more voices are those who would say we are not looking like the kingdom of God if we have a completely white or a completely black or a completely Hispanic congregation.  I heard a student respond today that she lives out in the country and there is hardly anyone but white farmers in her community.  "Does it make us racist that we have an all white congregation?" she asked.

The thoughts that have emerged in my mind as I've sat on the sidelines of these debates are two-fold.  First, who if anyone are we excluding?  Second, what are we missing out on?

1. Who are we excluding?
One of the great insights of this diversity discussion is to realize the privilege the "in group" often has without even realizing it.  We may not notice the inadvertent challenges the "out group" may face.  I would like to think we're mostly past overt discrimination (although we're not).  Hopefully gone are the days when anyone thinks women are by nature more gullible than men or that a man is of course always going to be more suitable for leadership (we're not).  Hopefully gone are the days when someone really thinks that Germans are a purer or more noble race than the Polish or Africans (we're not).

At least most of us at least know we shouldn't say such things (when we are prejudiced, we're now more likely to give some other reason for the prejudice than admit it).

Where we are now is less about overt exclusion but inadvertent exclusion without intending to.  I may not mean to exclude my Lutheran friends when my Wesleyan friends and I are laughing hilariously about Wesleyan things. And I may not mean to exclude the African-Americans who live on the other side of 38th Street.  Or maybe my respectable, masters degree, middle class congregation doesn't mean to exclude the people on welfare within a few hundred feet of the church.

But I may very well not notice that such people do not feel welcome at my church.  I may be excluding them by accident.  I may be so comfortable with "my type" that I don't even realize I have inadvertently made others feel unwelcome.  It is a matter of omission rather than commission.  I probably don't mean to exclude the women in the congregation by talking about "him," "he," "a man," "him," "he," "him," "he." But that doesn't mean that some of the women in my congregation don't feel ignored.

I suspect the most important question here is "In what ways might we as a congregation inadvertently be  unwelcoming to others who are not like us--not just in terms of ethnicity but in terms of social class or political party, etc?"  The "unlike" may not want to come, but we must be a place where the "unlike" would be welcome to come.

2. What are we missing out on?
There still seems to be something wrong when my little group is not in community with other believers near-by who are different.  Why am I not talking to the Baptists or Methodists or Catholics in my town? I should be, surely.  Why is my mostly white church not in fellowship with the Latino/a or African-American church nearby?  Why don't we worship together every once and a while?

Why is it that we have a Haitian congregation using my sanctuary on Saturday but my white Sunday morning congregation never eats with them, never worships with them ever?  Something seems wrong that we could be so close, be one in Christ, and never talk to each other, never worship together, never eat together.

Do we have to worship together all the time?  Does a congregation need to have a mixture of all races, genders, and social classes?  Something would seem deficient if a congregation were all female.  Something seems more kingdom-like when people of all "tribes and nations" are worshiping together.

But perhaps the bottom line is that we are missing out on something when we are not in fellowship with other believers in our community.  There seems something unhealthily inwardly focused, almost self-centered not to want to connect with other believers around us.

When others are excluded, intentionally or otherwise, when we cut ourselves off from other believers, it is hard to say we are thriving as a congregation, even if we have tremendous numbers.


John Mark said...

Ken, as usual you have summed it up rather well: I think the first problem is that we are blind to our prejudices. I think that class differences are harder to deal with in some cases than racial or ethnic or denominational differences. When there is class difference (which may be as much perception as reality) along with ethnic or other differences it becomes all that much more difficult to address. I think fear, related to the herd instinct, is also a factor. We may not care, but we also may not want to make waves and take a stand. It is costly. Some believe that the demise of Promise Keepers was related to their quest for racial reconciliation; it would not surprise me if this is true.

JohnM said...

Do "we" ever go to "their" church? Is that for any reason a less appealing option than inviting "them" to come over and join us? I think it might require more humility, unless of course we fancy ourselves to be doing someone a favor.