Diversity is Not a Virtue

Although it is a unit of measurement

Somewhere in the tiny Himalayan country of Nepal, there’s a small Christian church. In fact, there’s quite a few. Nepal has one of the fastest-growing Christian populations in the world.

Imagine I—a curious, white, English-speaking, American Christian—land at tiny Lukla airport. Maybe I’m about to trek up the rocky face of Mount Everest. Before heading for base camp, I stop for Sunday services at a small rural church. I’m far from home. I’m really cold. I’m a little scared, too.

Is the church ‘ready’ for me? Is there an English-speaking greeter, ready to make me in particular feel comfortable? Is there a group of English-speaking western worshippers, guaranteed to make sure I don’t feel ‘out of place’ or ‘othered’? Will the liturgy accommodate my western expectations?

To put it another way: how is the Nepalese church’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategy going?

The thought experiment isn’t quite fair. But there is a fair number of American Christians and Christian institutions calling for similar diversity efforts here at home. A charitable read of their efforts would suggest more reasonable expectations: that the people who make up our congregations would reflect the communities we’re in; which are on average much more racially and ethnically diverse than a small Nepalese village. 

There has been racial and ethnic partiality in the American church in the past. Still, modern calls for focused diversity efforts in American churches are often problematically shallow. The Nepal thought experiment, silly as it might be, offers a helpful illustration. Diversity for diversity’s sake doesn’t make sense when it’s applied without context. The American church isn’t just one church, but hundreds of thousands. Widespread undertaking of “diversity” efforts within churches and ministries warrants a few questions on the front end, then.

First: what do we mean by “diversity?” Modern conversations tend to use the word almost exclusively to describe diversity of either race or ethnicity. But what about diversity of age? Of socioeconomic status? And does diversity for diversity’s sake—when we widen the definition — always make sense? Imagine criticizing a college ministry for not having elderly members. Imagine faulting an urban church in a city center for not having enough farmers in its congregation. The logic breaks down.

This leads to another question: why, exactly, should we pursue diversity? Often Christians advocating for diversity programs answer by reminding us that partiality is sinful, and that the global church at the time of Jesus’ second coming will include people of “every tribe, nation and tongue.” In other words, calls to achieve diversity are meant, in part, to encourage Christians to celebrate diversity. Celebrating the wide human diversity within the body of Christ is a good thing in itself. And while it’s true that a lack of diversity (of all kinds) in a church that’s located in a diverse community can be evidence of a real problem, it is not necessarily so.

The problem in that case is not at its root a lack of diversity. Diversity in-and-of-itself is not a virtue, but it is a measurement. A lack of diversity in a church could mean simply that the church is in a Nepalese village. Or it could mean that the church is sinfully partial, self-absorbed and aloof from its neighbors, or even actively hateful toward people who look different than the congregants. These are the real problems. But they will not be solved by a diversity quota.

This brings us to the last and most fundamental question: what is the role of the Church? That verse from the book of Revelation, which describes Christ’s Church at His second coming as beautifully diverse—that’s descriptive. It is not prescriptive for every community church trying to care for its own “square inch” of the kingdom before Jesus comes back.

Every church, big and small, exists in a unique context. Some are urban; some are rural. Some are in elderly communities; some are on military bases; some are on college campuses. The Bible, in particular Paul’s New Testament letters to the growing church, is clear that each church is called first and foremost to serve, minister to and equip the people inside her doors. It’s an oxygen-mask situation: just as airplane passengers are always instructed to put on their own oxygen masks before assisting others, churches can’t hope to be any sort of light to their outside communities unless they have a healthy congregation flourishing inside. The healthiest congregations will be vigilant to ensure that only essential distinctions (such as faithful doctrine, ecclesiology, worship) define them, rather than divisions such as age, wealth, and so on. But that will be the work of the Holy Spirit and will reflect the unique communities we’re in; not a one-size-fits-all “diversity” meme.

In fact, churches that are hyper-focused on diversity efforts (especially when such “diversity” is pitifully narrow) often unwittingly send a biblically false message to those already inside their doors: your demographics make you a little less important to us; and until this church family includes enough people with different demographics (enough persons of a specific nationality or race, etc.) you’re not a faithful church. They also send another message to the people they are ostensibly trying to attract: you are a thing we want; once we’ve merely arrived at certain demographic numbers then we can see we are a faithful church. This is objectification by a woke name.

Imagine church diversity efforts going in the direction no one ever seems to advocate. Imagine instructing a majority African-American church that they need more white members. What are we after? Bodies? Bodies that look a certain way? Is that what Christ’s family members are?

It is not inherently sinful or shameful for Christians to feel drawn to congregations that include some people with similar demographic data points. English-speaking people probably won’t thrive in a Spanish-speaking church. African-American Christians might prefer to worship in a church with others who also know what it’s like to be an African-American Christian.

“Diversity” efforts and advocacy hurt us by either masking or distracting us from real sins. It’s up to individual churches and pastors to determine whether their particular level of diversity or homogeneity is appropriate and healthy or if it’s the result of sinful impulses that need challenging. But numbers alone can’t give that answer. We rightly caution pastors and churches against counting warm bodies in pews as evidence of healthy, thriving Christians. But just as bodies in pews aren’t hard evidence of heart change, neither is a certain type of bodies in pews evidence that a church is racist or self-absorbed—or that a church has practiced true hospitality. Christ builds his Church. Christ is already building a diverse Church from every tribe, tongue, and nation. It’s our job to celebrate and welcome that while serving each other and spreading the gospel in the time and places in which He has—for now—scattered us.

*Image Credit: Pexels

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Maria Baer

Maria Baer Maria Baer is a freelance writer who lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband and two young daughters. She graduated with a journalism degree from Ohio University in 2009 and is a regular contributor to Christianity Today, WORLD, and The Gospel Coalition and is cohost of the Breakpoint This Week podcast at The Colson Center for Christian Worldview.