How Do You Perceive Diversity?

David Fitch, author and professor at Northern Seminary, has posted some though-provoking thoughts and questions about intentionally diverse churches: “The Diversity We Seek: The Danger of Manufactured Pre-Determined Diversity.” Please take a few minutes to read the entire thing; in this post I’ll interact with just a couple of his points that are especially relevant for me these days.  Namely, how we majority-culture (white) folks perceive diversity within a church.

David differentiates two different ways those from his context- “middle class suburban (majority) white people with the comforts of education, stable families, homes and jobs”- think about diversity when it comes to starting a new church.  When thinking about planting a church in Waukegan, a city north of Chicago, diversity is perceived as those who are the most “other” than those planting the church.  The other area where David’s church is planning to plant a church is Hyde Park, my Chicago neighborhood.  Here diversity is seen the though the lens of race, ethnicity, class, education and the large variety of each of these categories.  David goes on to make some helpful observations about the benefits and pitfalls of planting a church in either of these areas.

As white folks consider participating in new, intentionally diverse, churches, it’s interesting to observe different ways the hoped-for diversity is perceived.  A few examples:

  • For some, diversity is most easily seen when a church is made up of those of different races.  Many within the majority culture have little connection with ethnic histories and traditions and thus a hard time seeing diversity beyond obvious racial constructs.
  • Class and (closely related) education divides are among the biggest obstacles to diversity within a church but receive less attention than race and ethnicity.  To my question about a particular church’s diversity, a friend answered, “The church is very diverse.  There are young, educated Asians; young, educated African-Americans; young, educated Latinos; young, educated whites.”  While class and race disparities are often related the overall picture is far to nuanced to solely focus on any one factor when thinking about diversity.
  • Related to David’s observations about Waukegan, some white folks understand a church to be diverse when it is made up of a certain type of person.  This representative can look many different ways, as long as they are noticeably other than the majority culture person.

All of these are limited, if understandable, ways of viewing diversity, especially as we consider the reconciling nature of the Gospel.  It matters how diversity is understood by those coming from the majority culture.  When we assume our view is shared by others, the reconciliation we experience will be limited.

How do you perceive diversity?  How much does your ethnicity/class/education/etc influences your perception?

I’d like to pick this up in the near future as there are a number of additional ideas and questions rattling around my head.  But I’ll leave it here for now, hoping you’ll chime in.

14 thoughts on “How Do You Perceive Diversity?

  1. I’m thinking the way to experience a fuller reconciliation is to bring these (and a few other) views of diversity together under the same roof. My mind goes to the less visible categories, all of which fall in the social or economic or racial categories you’ve listed. In my experience, including my observations, full and complete diversity which captures all these categories is tough. So I fall to the answers found in different types of people even if they’re of the same ethnicity; people with educations from the street and people with transcripts for which they paid many tuition dollars; people who’ve come to church for a lifetime and those who just showed for the first time. I appreciate David Fitch’s observation about pre-determined flattened diversity and our United States of American expectations about diversity. The salad bowl/melting pot dialogue make it really difficult to understand what a diverse church in Waukegan vs. Hyde Park vs. Washington Heights vs. Englewood looks like. You know we can keep talking about this, don’t you?

    1. I do indeed know that we can keep talking about this, and hope we will.

      I think it’s the nuances of what you mean by different types of people that can be difficult for some white folks. Being a majority culture person can mean we don’t have to be aware of these differences. (I imagine this can be true of non-white people too.) Diversity then- as an expression of the reconciling Gospel’s work- can be simplistically reduced to broad categories (generally race and ethnicity) leaving other avenues of reconciliation unexplored.

      This is a dilemma I’m landing on. I wonder about ways to broaden the view of diversity (again, for the sake of the Gospel) while not too tightly labeling something that will always remain somewhat undefinable.

  2. David–this is a topic I’ve been thinking about for years, probably because of the way my life has played out and how I’ve had to wrestle living in many different places, feeling lonely when new, and recognizing my tendency to look for someone like me to be my friend. My natural desire is for friends who will get me, understand me, so my simplistic mind looks for the easy way to do this by searching for people who share my values, perspectives, opinions, beliefs, life stage, education, experiences, etc… That really narrows the field for friends, doesn’t it–and it is a pretty boring way to live.

    To me, diversity means breaking out of that circle that looks like me, thinks like me, believes like me–and stretching to connect with others whose friendship will become precious as I do the hard work of getting to know them, their world view, etc… I always, always, always find treasures when I break out of my small world and enter another’s.

    There are so many ways churches could encourage this–giving opportunity for people to tell their stories is one way. When we hear from each other, we tend to fall in love with what God is doing in that person and want to know more–at least I do. Working on mixed teams, meeting in mixed groups, –putting people together who are different from one another is going to allow people to naturally tell their stories and build friendships. When this happens, I think the effect will be contagious and more people will want to grow their world. This will bring reconciliation as barriers and assumptions are broken. As we fall more in love with each other, the world will know that Jesus is God’s son.

    1. Two quick thoughts:

      Being intentional about developing friendships with those with whom (initially) you seem to share little in common might be the best ways to discover the complexities of diversity.

      Churches can certainly do better at displaying the diversity already present within the congregation. But- in my view- these displays will be limited by how intentional the church is at pursuing diversity.


  3. “There are young, educated Asians; young, educated African-Americans; young, educated Latinos; young, educated whites.”

    Just a great insight.

  4. As we seek to understand diversity, the simplicity of the gospel message shines upon us and humbles us. Humbled people seek out humbled people with whom to share the simple gospel message.

    These are my thoughts after reading your post and David Fitch’s posts and the added comments. Thanks for sharing your insights.

  5. I’ve never liked the term “diversity,” which just indicates “different-ness.” Everybody is different, and there are a lot of important ways that people are different. I think the church need to attend not to difference, but to (dis)advantage. We need to deal with power and inequality. Simply longing for a community marked by “diversity” is a modest goal. We need to be a community that is striving towards justice. This is what Jesus cared about. Of course, a community striving to be just will address justice in both interpersonal, institutional, and social dimensions, meaning our relationships with people of different class/race/ethnic/gender categories need to be interrogated for ways we reinforce social inequality. But the community as a whole needs to be doing more than just interpersonal “reconciliation.” It needs to be standing against social and institutional injustice to truly be about “diversity.”

    1. I agree Brian that the church, as part of its mission, is about justice for the disadvantaged. But I think a church has a much better chance of pursuing this mission on an ongoing basis if the local church demonstrates the Gospel’s reconciliation among those who make up the church. Otherwise, the pursuit of justice can easily become a task or program that the church does on occasion before retreating back to its regular activities.

      When social and institutional injustice is being experienced by members of the body, it becomes nearly impossible to separate justice from the “real” work of the church. This, it seems to me, has been the unfortunate experience of many evangelical churches. Pursuing Christ-centered reconciliation has implications far beyond individual relationships.

      1. David,
        You know I agree, of course. But I’ve come to think that it kind of has to work from the concept of justice towards reconciliation, rather than the other way around. So many churches that make “reconciliation” a centerpiece of their work end up with highly abstract and intellectual conversations about history, sociology and culture among people who share a similarly privileged class position. I think it can hinder the work of the church. I think if the interpersonal conversations flow OUT of the work and life of the church to address injustice and power, however, then those conversations can bring more aspects of diversity into the orbit more authentically.

        I would add, however, that I’m not sure a church working from justice to reconciliation would LOOK a lot different from one working from reconciliation to justice. That is, intentional conversations about race, gender, exclusion, power, and cultural would happen in both settings, but I do think the former focus leads to a more complete view of the church and its mission.

      2. I’m with you Brian. I suppose the reason I lean towards reconciliation as a starting point is related to my understanding of the gospel and its implications. Christ’s death and resurrection reconciles us to God and breaks down dividing walls of hostility between each other.

        Of course, the gospel is also understood in terms of God’s justice being satisfied, though I’m not sure this is what you have in mind.

        I share your concern/observation about those of a similar class position discussing reconciliation in abstract ways. This is why we must include class in our understanding of the divisions made untenable by the gospel.

  6. This topic interest me. Maybe because I usually get “categorized” as minority. And maybe because, sometimes I felt in the past, that my attendance was accepted as “look at her, she is with us, so we are a good group of people.”

    As I studied abroad, I became friends with individuals who practice diversity without thinking of it. They make my life richer and meaningful and I hope others will experience them, too. I think that is a part of a “gift” that diversity could bring to a person’s life.

    What common with all those friends of mine who gave me the gift of “diversity” to my life, is that they seems to see each person as an individual. That is it. They saw me as a person. Beyond how I look or what kind of handbag I carry. Or whether I wear Prada or something from Target, they seems not to care.

    Their open heart is the statement to me that diversity could exist in a community. I want to be a person more like them. When more and more people feel and see each person as “a person,” and have an open heart for understanding, I believe such place would be a fabulous place to live. I want to say, understanding someone and agreeing with someone is different. Having a heart to listen is somewhere I can begin.

    At the September 11th, I was studying in Spain. I was a total stranger, my Spanish was not so “fluent.” That time, my studio neighbor cared so much about us. I was so thankful. In New Orleans, I was taking trashes out from homes along with totally diverse group of people. We are united in a way that working together can bring – “we are working for the same goal.” We do not need to have tragedy to bring us together. Yet, I felt more in a community when I was shoveling the dirt out of the house.

    I want to have an open heart. I am working on it. I know I have my own “thinking” and “feeling” and its a good thing. At the same time, I want to have a heart to really “listen” and see each person as a person. I assume I am feeling this way because sometimes I felt that some people completely misunderstood me. So, I feel like saying, “Here I am. This is who I am. If you really want to hear me. And I am here to listen to you.” Some people will keep the image of me they created in their mind, rather than really knowing me. Inviting me because I am a minority. And it makes them feel good to be “kind to minorities.”

    When someone just talk about their beliefs, they are not really listening. Because they are so focused on broadcasting what they believe, they do not have conversation. They cannot have one. Because they are the ones doing the talking. Rather, one can have a conversation. Then we can begin to understand each other as individuals. I think that God see each of us as a person.

    My experience tells me that you do not become friend with “everyone,” and you do want to choose who you hang out with. I physically cannot be friend with everyone because I am here and there are only 24 hours a day. But how I limit my circle of influence define how open minded I am. I am in training….

  7. Hey David,

    Found your post through David Fitch’s blog. You raise good points about how limited majority culture perspectives on diversity can be. I’ve come to realize there are almost an infinite number of differences we can find within our congregations and neighborhoods if we have the eyes to see and ears to hear. That has to be acknowledged, lest we trip ourselves on areas of diversity which while prominent are less consequential than other tacit kinds of diversity. It’s worth trying to find the social or cultural boundaries which are truly the thorn in our collective sides. That may not be the same for each community.

    In addition to that, there are thorns which may not bother us, but nevertheless cast a long shadow over our witness. Why? Because they are part of a historical legacy which precedes us or engulfs us. Race/Ethnicity and economic class certainly can play that role in America. They are like those genes which predispose individuals to cancers or heart disease that one continually needs to be aware of, even if they never cause illness. Our failure to see the importance of racial reconciliation or educational divides bridged in a particular neighborhood, may confuse our witness and make it less potent. So sometimes social boundaries external to the congregation or fellowship still have to be broached or lived out internally.

    All in all, I feel we as Christians have little excuse NOT to follow the call to cross some kind of social boundary with so many kinds of divisive differences out there. And usually the boundary we hem and haw about crossing is the one Jesus keeps calling us to.

    1. Really appreciate your perspective on this Joe. Thanks. This sentence is an especially helpful way to consider the implications of our racial legacy:

      They are like those genes which predispose individuals to cancers or heart disease that one continually needs to be aware of, even if they never cause illness.

  8. We’re an “intentionally multiethnic” church plant in Columbus, OH. The fifthteenth largest city in America is hardly the place where you’ll find a tremendous amount of diversity, but friends from Chicagoland have commented that Cbus feels more integrated than their hometown. They made this observation from seeing so many mixed couples in public places and in our church.
    Our leadership team has been teasing out the word “reconciliation” which is problem for many leaders in multiethnic ministry who argue that you can’t reconcile what never was, ie blacks and whites in America. Instead they prefer the term racial integration or racial righteousness. I’m still wrestling with this myself.
    Thanks for sharing the article from David, David.

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