For over 90% of American churches, the idea of having a racially diverse congregation is something that is not thought about or is an opportunity that has yet to be realized. One well-known evangelical church, Willow Creek Community Church (located outside of Chicago), is featured in a fascinating article by TIME in which Willow's attempts at racial reconciliation and diversity are examined.
As a leader in the evangelical mega church phenomenon, Willow Creek and its senior pastor, Bill Hybels, is admired for its ability to reach the unchurched. But it has only been in recent years that it has begun to have a greater representation of American ethnic minorities within its congregation (its members are now 20% people of color). Even with the increased diversity of its church, the leadership of the church is still made up overwhelmingly of those of European descent.
As a church that exploded in numbers based on the principles of the People Group approach to evangelism and church growth (popularized by individuals like Donald MacGavran, Ralph Winter and C. Peter Wagner), the leadership of Willow Creek realized that people are most likely to come to faith and get involved in a church community with those that are most like them. Willow grew as a church because they focused on meeting the needs of white, suburban, middle-class individuals and families. They are now attempting to change the DNA of their church by becoming more inclusive to those that don't necessarily fit the above categories. Although this reality doesn't mean that a truly diverse congregation can't happen for them, it does make it extremely challenging.
Although the bulk of my local church experience has been in congregations with those that come from similar cultural backgrounds as my own, that hasn't always been the case. During my time as a campus minister at Kent State University, I was a member of a large, predominately African American church in west Akron. Even though I have many fond memories of my time at The House of the Lord, it was not always an easy experience. I was well-aware that I was in the minority in a congregation that was nearly 90% black. All but one member of the pastoral and administrative staff was African American. The praise team was all-black and only one or two members of the choir looked like me.
It was a tremendous learning experience for me to me part of this church. I developed some really good friendships, learned a lot about the black church and African American culture in general. Much of what I learned has been invaluable in my ministry among students of African descent. But the reality was that I was someone that was already a Christian. In fact, I was in vocational ministry to African Americans. The experience would have likely been much different for someone that grew up with a similar background to my own but was not already a believer in Christ.
And so it is for most people that are in the minority in a church setting. As loving and caring and kind as the people may be, you never forget that things are not necessarily designed (intentionally or not) for the context of your culture. But it doesn't have to be that way. Churches can take intentional steps to recognize and value its members that are in the minority (no matter what their ethnicity may be). Seeing diversity up front and in its leadership, references in sermons to music, movies, literature, etc. from various ethnic communities, playing various musical styles during worship services and emphasizing God's attitude toward racial injustice in messages and small groups are several ways that churches can include various ethnicities.
With nearly fourteen years of cross-cultural ministry experiences under my belt, I know firsthand that these things are not easy. For the individual that wants to cross long-established racial and cultural boundaries, there will be a price to pay. I have paid some of them and you will, too. Having said that, I don't believe that multi-cultural church models are the only way to "do church." I still think that most people in the world will come to faith and be nurtured in their faith in a community from their own culture. And there is nothing wrong with that as long as they are not intentionally excluding those not from their community. But for those that are willing to make a sincere and intentional effort to build a multi-cultural community, there are few pursuits that are more challenging or rewarding in Christian ministry.
Even as Willow Creek continues on its admirable pursuit of greater inclusiveness, they are still a long ways off from fully embracing and affirming all the cultures represented in its membership. For example, even though it is now comprised of 20% ethnic minorities, it still means that 80% of the membership is white. In essence, which changes or adjustments have its white members made so that its non-white members are more included and empowered? Successful multi-cultural churches require real sacrifices and until there has been equal sacrifices across the board, I don't think it can be defined as a truly diverse church. But, still, Pastor Hybels commitment to racial justice and unity is noteworthy and hopefully more churches will examine this area within their own fellowships.
*Thanks to Justin Taylor for the link.