Many memories have been etched into my mind in both the years I’ve spent as a minister and an academic, but one memory stands out in particular. I had just finished my third semester as a bible student at Ouachita Baptist University and was visiting the church I grew up in where my father-in-law was serving as the student pastor. The youth group looked different in at least two different ways. First, it was quite a bit larger than it was when I was a teenager growing up. Second, the room now had just as many, if not more, African-American and Asian teenagers as it did Caucasians. Like many first-year bible students, I was excited to hear the bible lesson (aka offering my two cents from what I had learned in an introductory hermeneutics or exegesis course). Little did I realize how much I would end up learning on that night, from the most unexpected person, in the most unexpected environment.
Sitting in the corner was a young black teenager (we will call him Zane because that was his name). In typical fashion, the lively and talkative group of teenagers began to quiet down when the student pastor (we will call him “big Mike” because that was his name and the adjective was accurate) asked “who wants to read our bible verses today.” As every eye sheepishly looked to their left and right to see who would rise up to the challenge, Zane—who at this point was halfway sunk into the all familiar donated youth room sofa—slowly raised his hand. Panic and perhaps a bit of embarrassment began to set in as Zane frantically flipped through the pages in front of his peers, scrambling to find the book of Acts. After being reminded to use the table of contents, Zane located Acts 13 and began reading the passage. A snicker and quiet laughter filled the room as Zane began stuttering and stammering through the passage. With his voice booming above both the reading and the laughing and snickering, big Mike interjected and said, “and which one of you guys volunteered to read—I didn’t think so.” Suddenly panic and embarrassment seemed to switch places and the room was attentively listening. Big Mike, as far as I could remember, seemed to have this effect on people. Zane, now full of confidence, resumed to stutter and stammer through the reading mumbling over the words he couldn’t pronounce. As Zane approached Acts 13:1 and began reading through the names of the prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch, he got to Simeon with eyes wide and jaw dropped and said, “Simeon called ‘and a word I can’t say’….”
I share this story for two particular reasons. First, I was struck by Zane’s thinking concerning the word Niger, that is, his acknowledgment, whether conscious or not, about the negative connotations that have come to be associated with the word even as an African American. Second, the ability (and arguably unlikely nature) of a six foot something, bald headed youth pastor with little formal theological training, to grow a ministry full of diverse students whose thinking about life and God were even more diverse. I think there is something to be said and to learn about diversity in churches when it comes to this, considering that same ministry is now only a fraction of the size it was and only has Caucasian student since undergoing new leadership.
It has become apparent, at least to me, that one major reason, though there are others, diversity continues to be an issue in churches is because people have limited it to what a person looks like. I would like to suggest that marginalization will continue to happen in churches, particularly in Southern Baptist life, if such a limited understanding of diversity persists. Merriam-Webster, for example, offers two glosses for diversity:
1) the condition of having or being composed of differing elements: variety; especially: the inclusion of different types of people (such as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization.
2) and instance of being composed of differing elements or qualities: an instance of being diverse; a diversity of opinion.
The first gloss, while offering a description of what diversity often involves (i.e., different types of people such as races or cultures) is quite limiting—I think. The second gloss, while a bit vague, does a better job at capturing what diversity is about. A diversity of opinion relates to how one thinks about matters more so than what one looks like.
Let me first explain what I mean by diversity having to involve more than what a person looks like before offering suggestions for a way forward. I was honored to be asked to write a quick post about the important topic of diversity (which I suspect happened first because I was Asian and only second because I might be able to offer a different thought on the topic). In many ways; however, I fulfill the role of what some may consider a “token” Asian because I pretty much grew up in America and think a lot like many American Christians do. This is one of the glaring problems in the understanding of diversity seen in many churches today (even those who claim to be multi-ethnic, though I have witnessed particular churches do multi-ethnic well). Christians often mask marginalization by describing their churches as being “diverse” simply because they have a few different races represented. In 2008 in Indianapolis, Indiana, Southern Baptists celebrated the “growing ethnic diversity” of their churches and LifeWay Christian sources. But “ethnic” on what grounds and growing in what way? Nearly a decade later, SBC messengers denounced the “alt-right” movement as a “virulent and destructive form of racism.” Perhaps we took one “small step” in 2008 and one “giant leap” in 2017, but I doubt it. Perhaps the celebration came prematurely considering Jarvis Williams 2010 book “One New Man” along with his recent contribution (along with Kevin Jones) in 2017 “Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention.” Diversity needs to include differences in thinking and not just differences in appearance (backed by the familiar and often cited Rev. 7:9 passage describing the innumerable multitude standing before the throne) if there is going to be a reason to celebrate.
In what ways, then, should we understand diversity? I would like to offer just a couple of preliminary suggestions that are meant to be less controversial and more to spur on the conversation. First, true diversity can only take place in the presence humility. In my experience, learning best takes place when one takes a posture of humility. First, I emphasize humility because I think it should be the prerequisite to any theological conversation. Second, I emphasize conversation because, in my estimation, it is significant and needs to take place if we want to see true diversity in our churches. Conversation necessarily involves listening to others and asking questions rather than dismissing those whose opinions and perspectives don’t align with our own. In many ways, humility undergirds the points I emphasize because it leads one to engage in conversation, then to actively listen during the conversation, and (perhaps most important) shift one’s positions if need be. This by no means implies that one should abandon all of their own convictions, but to listen in such a way that the breaking of bread, and the bond of fellowship, is not so easily broken or abandoned on the grounds that some people just don’t think about matters of theology, the church, and the world in the same way as others do. While this is not the place to have a discussion on matters of soteriology, the SBC has faced numerous consequences because of the insufferable behavior of some of its members (from both sides) concerning their thinking the topic.
Understanding diversity as something worth celebrating, particularly as Southern Baptists, means no longer marginalizing those who do not think about things in the way we want or would like them to think. I would challenge all of us to be more willing to practice humility, engage in conversation, actively listen, and to not be afraid to move from our long-held positions if need be. If, as Southern Baptists, we cannot do this within our own convention, how then will we embrace true diversity from those whose theology and perspectives are not shaped by our own Western American context? Sandra Maria Van Opstal, in her book The Next Worship: Glorifying God in a Diverse World says it well when she comments:
“As long as our worship makes people feel excluded or in constant visitor status, we are not accomplishing the ministry of biblical hospitality. . . . However, when we are creating an inclusive table in which there is room for all, the meal and the experience will represent all who sit at the table. . . . In a multiethnic community no members should be made to feel like they are perpetual guests.”
I have the privilege of studying alongside Koreans, Africans, Lithuanians, and Christians from other countries whose thinking on matters of theology, church, and the world do not align with my own views. I have listened and I have learned from brothers and sisters all around the world, and my own understanding has grown along with my ability to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which I have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1–3). Some of them have become my closest friends and conversation partners, and even in the midst of disagreement, I never feel like a “perpetual guest” at the table. While much more could be said and expanded on the notion of diversity, I hope this will spur on the conversation in a way that we, as Southern Baptists, can begin to see a bit clearer what the biblical picture of the saints around the throne in Revelation 7 might actually look like.