Recently I have visited several different Gospel believing, Jesus lovin’ churches ranging from charismatic to conservative. Yet time and time again I left frustrated. The churches were not teaching things contradictory to the Gospel, there were no snakes involved in worship and the pastor, elders and congregation desired to be about Jesus and not themselves, why then, was I so disheartened? Was I being too picky? Was something wrong with me? Was I being un-Christlike? No, my problem is rather simple:
I didn’t want to worship with a group of people who look exactly like me.
Repeatedly I would glance around and notice everyone looked alike: 95% of the congregation were under 30, white, middle class Americans. If I was lucky, no more than two couples would be over 30 and an average of 3 people would be a race other than Caucasian.
I thought back to church in Ethiopia where my team, all seven of us, were often the only non-black people in a church of a couple hundred believers, but I wasn’t bothered then, why am I bothered now? In the city I was in, the three largest ethnic groups (the Amhara, Tigrayan and Oromo peoples, all “black”) made up 98% of the city’s demographics. When all other ethnicities made up the remaining 2%, it was no wonder we were often the only Caucasian people in the entire church. Also, we worshipped right alongside mothers, owners of restaurants/hotels and homeless people – in other words, they all came from a variety of economic backgrounds. Lastly, as I worshipped I would occasionally make a silly face at the three year old in front of me while smiling at the 70 year old grandpa singing off key behind me. That congregation looked like the city it was in.
In Spartanburg, however, 51.77% of the city is Caucasian, 44.09% is African-American and 3.46% is Hispanic. We have mothers, business people, restaurant owners and homeless. 23.8% of our population is under 18, 61.5% are between the ages of 19 and 64, and 23.8% of people are over 65. (Statistics courtesy of the US Census Bureau).
Young, white, middle class churches do not accurately represent our city.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that my problem is not merely not wanting “to worship with a group of people who look exactly like me” like I said earlier, but rather that I don’t want to worship with a group of people who don’t look like our city.
Once I was finally able to pinpoint that, I was then forced to determine if that issue was merely rooted in my wants, desires and preferences, or if that was biblically based. And then this morning I heard a great sermon on Acts 12:25-13:3 that helped clear things up.
“When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark. Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said,“Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
The speaker, Kyle Estepp, explained how this church at Antioch could be considered an “international” church, as the people mentioned were extremely diverse.
- Barnabas: Levite from Cyprus, lived in Jerusalem
- Simeon called Niger: “Niger” is a nickname that means “The Black”, suggesting that he was dark skinned
- Lucius: likely a Gentile
- Manaen: having “been brought up with Herod the tetrarch”(v1), he would have been extremely well off
- Saul (Paul): Roman citizen, Jew, very educated
Mr. Estepp mentioned this morning how this church at Antioch was the foundation for all mission work and how they were responsible for bringing the gospel to millions of people.
“Different strokes for different folks” is the response I have received in the past when voicing my frustration with the lack of diversity among the Church down south. But after reading the above few verses in Acts, I now know why that idea doesn’t sit well with my spirit. A diverse church is not simply a preference I have, instead I believe it’s at the very heart of our Father.
Acts 17:26-27 explains how God’s heart is for the nations. The creation story tells us we are all created in the image of God. As Dr. Menjares puts it, “every person on earth, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or station in life, is to be valued because of the image of God.” Isaiah 61 explains Jesus came for the poor, brokenhearted, captives and prisoners, and Romans 1:16 says the Gospel is for “anyone” who believes, both “Jew and Gentile.” The people Jesus chose to be His disciples were not all one age, race and economic background, but were poor and rich, fishermen and tax collectors, young and old. In John 4, Jesus himself, a Jewish man, chose to share His love and truth with a Samaritan woman, something that would have been extremely controversial due to gender and race. Again I say, a diverse church is not simply a preference I have, instead I believe it’s at the very heart of our Father.
In the 800 square miles of Spartanburg there are 600 churches. However, 75% of our population remains unchurched. I read Acts 12:25-13:3 and know that this diverse church is what God used to bring the Gospel to millions of people and I can’t help but wonder if the reason ¾ of my city remains so lost is because our churches choose, consciously or not, to look the same. I’m not saying that God is constrained by our lack of diversity, please don’t hear me wrong. But I know this, people are more likely to listen to me (about whatever), if they can relate to me. I will have a much easier chance of witnessing to college students, rather than 80 year olds. In the same way, my Grandma can better reach people her age than she can college students. Wouldn’t a church be better positioned to reach our city with the Gospel if we could relate to our city? That would mean having a multi-ethnic, multi-generational body of believers.
So what? If you’re like me, a 20 year old, single college girl, you don’t have the option to go start and lead a multi-generational, multi-ethnic church and you don’t have a husband that you can support and encourage while he goes and starts/leads a multi-generational, multi-ethnic church. However, that does not mean I, we, can’t make an impact.
Who are the group of people you are hanging around day in and day out? Who are the people you are inviting to church? If we have friends from different economic and racial backgrounds that we’re sharing the Gospel with, then very slowly our churches might become more diverse. I challenge you, this week, to make at least one friend that isn’t exactly like you.
Also, the Bible constantly tells and shows us the power of prayer. Pray alongside me that God would give us, our friends, our elders, our pastors and our churches a heart for the nations, a heart after His own heart. Pray He would raise up passionate leaders who envision churches that transcend race and socio-economics.
Heaven will not look like most of our churches look like today; instead, young and old, Caucasian and Hispanic, African-American and Asian, poor and rich will come together to sing praises to our Savior…don’t you want a glimpse of that on Sunday morning?