Thursday, September 22, 2011

What characteristics will draw the great diversity (racial ethnic, age, gender, etc.) of our country into our community of faith in the 21st century?

One simple "answer" to this question is: when the good news of the gospel in Jesus Christ is shared in word and in deed, in ways that speak authentically into the cares and concerns of our lives today; when faith communities gather around the table of the Lord, sharing joys and bearing each other's burdens; when we take seriously the task of spiritual discernment in our communities and in our lives; when we follow God's leading out from the church and into the world in mission; then, I believe, a great diversity of people will be gathered by God into one body of Christ.

In other words, there is nothing we need to "do" to attract the great diversity of our country to Jesus Christ. The person and message of Christ alone speaks to people from every race, ethnicity, gender, etc... In many ways, it is our job not to get in the way of that.

That being said, we must identify the ways in which we do get in the way of being the inclusive and diverse community of God that we are called to be. Here are a few thoughts.
1 - We wear blinders. 
Some blinders we willingly put on ourselves, when we decide to whom we will reach out, who we will welcome into our communities in genuine ways, and what our concerns are as a church. Necessarily, every sermon, every class, every discussion, everything we do has a particular focus. When our focus is primarily on the concerns of white, middle-class America, who do you think we will attract? When the 9/11 attacks occurred, I think that one reason we (when I say "we," I am referring to white, middle-class America, because that is the majority of the PC (USA) and I am part of it) were so shaken is because we could easily imagine - "that could have been me." Working in an office building, wearing a business suit...  When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and killed nearly 2,000 people, when we saw images of (mostly poor, minority) individuals crowded into the Superdome, we had compassion and pity, but how many of us really thought, "that could have been me"? Perhaps more of us thought that after the tornadoes that devastated Tuscaloosa (a university town) and Joplin (a town with racial demographics roughly equal to the PC(USA)). How disconnected are we from what is going on in the rest of the world? How disconnected is our worship from what is going on in the rest of the world? From what is happening in our country? If our preaching and worship and the programs and foci of our church are primarily geared to and shaped by the concerns of white, educated, middle-class America, we will continue to attract white, educated, middle-class America.

Some blinders we wear without knowing they are there. If we are ignorant of the privileges in our society (white privilege, male privilege, socioeconomic privilege...), how can we address the systems of injustice that we perpetuate? I just saw a tweet from the GAMC meetings remarking about how all of the faces in a new video on evangelism in the church were male. How many people working on that video planned, made, and edited it without recognizing that oversight? 
Do you think people were paying much attention to tax collectors and sinners during Jesus day, or did Jesus draw the attention of the good, upstanding citizens in a new direction? Jesus challenges the authority that we don't even realize we take for granted. In the church, we must seek understanding in the ways that we have knowingly or unknowingly participated in systems of oppression and injustice, and repent. This is a huge educational component that must be undertaken in the church if we are to be a community that truly seeks peace and reconciliation, and preaches that from the pulpit.

We also need to educate our churches about the changing demographic landscape. It is easy for diversity to remain a non-issue in many churches - particularly in communities that remain predominantly white. Even in those churches, and particularly in areas where there is more diversity, we need to be more aware of how our communities are changing, where immigrant populations are coming from and where they live, and where people live on the margins. 

2 - We need to be aware of the power of our structures. Many of our church structures were established by white, educated, fairly wealthy men. Intentionally or unintentionally, our structures have served as gate-keepers, ensuring a continued homogeneous body of church leaders who often lack the very awareness of the privilege of the majority to make any substantive changes. We have tried to insert structural "fixes" to the lack of diversity, but they are still part of an overall structure that is blind to its prejudice. As a result, we have "let in" some additional diversity, but how much of a voice have we allowed that diversity to have in terms of making substantive changes? I think particularly of immigrant communities and the many structural hoops that make it much more difficult to receive official recognition and inclusion into the PC (USA). The new Form of Government makes some strides in loosening certain structural obstacles, but more work needs to be done.

3 - "We" need to be willing to let go! So much has changed in our lives and in society in the past century, except in many of our churches, where 19th and early to mid 20th century models for church are alive and well! Perhaps not well, but still alive... In times of change, we anxiously hold on to the familiar. Perhaps we equate the saying "In times of change, God is still the same" to "In times of change, the church is still the same." In our churches, we need to honor what has been without idolizing it, and let go to make room for the new thing that God is doing through the Holy Spirit. In our churches, we need to be open to receive and use the gifts of a diversity of people - even if it means doing things differently or dropping some beloved traditions.  We need to enable diversity in our leadership wherever we can - on sessions, in committees, in worship leadership, and in programming. We need to let go of the idea that this is "our church," we need to stop worrying about "the way we've always done it," and instead recognize that in God's church, when the Holy Spirit moves, it can be a bumpy and ever-changing ride!

4 - We need to broaden our horizons. Most of the growth in Christianity is now happening in the Global South. There is a wealth of music, liturgy, stories, images, and resources that are being created and used across the globe, and we can benefit by incorporating it into our own worship and mission. If we truly believe that we are joined with believers in every time and every place, our worship should reflect that! Our fellowship should reflect that! 

5 - We need to have courage! We need to be willing to try new things, willing to do things differently - and willing to FAIL. The church does not exist to continue in perpetuity. It exists to follow Jesus, and that ultimately leads to death before resurrection can take place. Are we willing to risk even our existence for the sake of being the body of Christ that God is calling us to be? Are we willing to use the resources that we have  - and let's face it, many of our churches have *substantial* resources, even as budgets, membership, and giving decreases - in order to fund new initiatives and new ministries specifically to reach out to those who are missing from the church? To meet the needs of a changing world without any agenda but sharing God's love and hope to a world that hungers for it? I write this from my office in a large church building on Main Street, in the "new addition" that was put on to the church in the 1960s. The congregation was founded 228 years ago, making it (we think) the oldest Presbyterian church in Kentucky. And this church is one of the last mainstays of a "traditional" worship service in town. In other words, I can appreciate what a huge, scary, challenge this all sounds like. But we must have courage, grounded in the hope of Jesus Christ, who came and shook things up, and hasn't stopped shaking since.

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