Want diversity? Look beyond your walls

Xauxa Håkan Svensson/Wikimedia Commons Xauxa Håkan Svensson/Wikimedia Commons

Across the United States, churches have set up book studies and workshops to better understand the history of racism, current racial injustice and the effects of whiteness on how they see the world.

As I have interviewed pastors and laypeople navigating these waters, many have said they would like more diversity in their midst.

I affirm this hope, but I wonder if our understanding of what it means to welcome diversity is underdeveloped.

Numerous churches have been founded as experiments in building multiracial congregations. The National Congregations Survey reveals that nearly a quarter of U.S. churchgoers attend congregations where no single race makes up more than 80% of the people. That number has nearly doubled since 1998.

Despite this progress, many congregations find that neither openness to racial diversity nor a personal attitude of welcome is sufficient to create a multiracial congregation.

Churches have a long way to go in forming the moral convictions and practices of their people, not least on matters of race.

I have a proposal for how to think about the relationship between moral formation within a congregation and the work of enjoying diverse community and promoting racial justice.

I believe welcoming racial diversity may need to be less a move within our congregations and more a move beyond our walls, developing relationships with other congregations.

For many people, a church is a “holding environment.” Moral change requires a balance of enough comfort to experiment and enough discomfort to make the problems that need addressing impossible to avoid.

A holding environment offers the support — affirming identity and belonging, providing continuity and stability — that makes it possible to confront problems like racial injustice.

When we recognize the value of a holding environment, it makes sense that integrating different church cultures into one congregation presents challenges.

This helps us understand that it might not be helpful to imagine an ideal in which all kinds of people show up in the same building to be universally affirmed and challenged.

Instead, our relatively homogenous church communities can be places where we receive the challenge and support to get to know and collaborate with diverse others in the wider community.

We need to shift our mentality to see the assets in communities beyond our own. Every local church is incomplete, imperfect and incapable of living out the kingdom vision of racial integration by itself. Each needs the others, like our hands need our hearts.

The ways that local churches can explore these possibilities together — in fellowship, mutual exhortation and collaborative service — are innumerable. We will only discover them as we develop relationships with our diverse neighbors.

Jacob Alan Cook is a visiting assistant professor at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, where he is developing new models to form church leaders for peacebuilding and conflict transformation. He is the author of Worldview Theory, Whiteness and the Future of Evangelical Faith (Fortress Academic, 2021).

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