Over the past few weeks I’ve encountered a number of articles about diversity in church leadership. Specifically, I’ve seen discussions about whether churches should make diversity in their pastoral leadership a matter of priority or even consideration. Not surprisingly, given the medium of the internet and the current cultural context, many of these discussions have not gone very well.
Living and ministering as I do in the most diverse city in the world, this is something I have had to think about on a personal level and something my church has had to consider on a congregational level. I’ve got a few thoughts I’d like to offer for consideration and hope you’ll hear and evaluate them. In this article I am going to share some initial thoughts, then ask for your feedback on them. Then I hope to prepare a second article that builds upon it all.
God’s Plan for the Church
The Bible makes it clear that God is building a diverse church. It is God’s plan that a church begun in one place with one people would soon spread across the earth to become a church in every place and of every people. We see the ultimate result beautifully and vividly described in passages like Revelation 5 and 7. God is drawing to himself representatives of all tribes, languages, peoples, and nations, (and, of course, all classes and castes and ages and demographics and …). There will certainly be an ultimate and heavenly fulfillment of this vision when Christ returns, but we naturally long to see a temporal and earthly fulfillment. And we do, through the local church. The local church is the place we are meant to see unity in diversity.
Pause: Let’s discuss diversity. When we speak about it in North America today, we’re typically referring to racial diversity, but we should consider far more than that. We should account for class, age, country of origin, economic situations, and so on. Really, we should look for any way that humanity distinguishes or divides itself and desire to see unity rather than division in each of them. Not every community is racially diverse, but I’d wager that every community is in some ways diverse, even if less visibly. Unpause.
Going back to the early days, Paul wasn’t zipping around the ancient world planting the First Jewish Church of Galatia for all the Jews and, just down the street, the First Gentile Church of Galatia for all the Gentiles. Rather, he was planting churches that would be made up of both Jews and Gentiles—a divide that many considered unbridgeable. Yet he insisted that the gospel of Jesus Christ provided all they needed to experience perfect unity. God’s plan was not to have Jewish churches and Gentile churches, but Jewish/Gentile churches. He wanted them then—and wants us now—to have churches that cross divisions instead of form around divisions. God wants us to have churches that display a heavenly unity-in-diversity right here on earth.
Now, let’s lay down some principles related to the local church.
Principal #1: a church has a particular responsibility to its local community. Each local church has a geographic responsibility. No Bible verse I know of says this explicitly, but I think we can regard it as a matter of common sense (and perhaps an application of the widening concentric circles of Acts 1:8). I have a greater responsibility to the unsaved people within driving distance of my church than to those within flying distance. I have a greater responsibility to the unsaved people of Canada than to those of China. As a global body of Christians we are to reach this great big world, but as individual parts of that body, our first responsibility is to reach our little part of it.
Principal #2: a church will ideally reflect its community. If it is true that a church has a particular responsibility to its local community, it makes sense that the ideal for a church is to reflect that community and whatever diversity it displays. In other words, we should desire that the make-up of our churches reflects the general make-up of the people in proximity to it. This being the case, it falls to us to compare our churches to our communities to see if we can observe at least a general correlation. If we observe that a church is predominantly X while the community is predominantly Y, that is information worth pondering. It may tell us that we are not effectively reaching a people or group in our community. Even worse, it may tell us that we’re just not concerned for the souls of that people or group. And if we aren’t, who will be? It’s not the responsibility of Christians in Tulsa or Timbuktu to reach the people around my church, but of Christians like me here in Toronto. And if it is our particular responsibility to share the gospel with these people, but we are not doing so or not seeing any fruit from our efforts, we should probably be willing to ask why that’s case.
Principle #3: The ideal for a church’s leadership is that it reflect the congregation. Once again, we won’t find chapter and verse to back this up, but I think it falls into the realm of what is obvious. If a church is made up equally of X, Y, and Z, we’d expect the leadership would also be made up of X, Y, and Z. Why? Because God gifts and equips all kinds of people. He gifts and equips young and old, black and white, native and immigrant, rich and poor, and so. There’s no indication that he dispenses the gift of leadership or the qualifications of eldership to one type or category more than any other.
Where a community is diverse we should long to see diverse churches. Why? Because they allow us the opportunity to see the gospel doing what only the gospel can do, which is bring true unity through, despite, and across diversity. You may say your community has no diversity, and it’s possible, but it’s more likely it is there but you are overlooking or failing to observe it. A community can be made up of one race but many cultures, backgrounds, cultures, ages, and classes. Again, it’s important that we broaden diversity to mean more than merely race and extend it to every kind of grouping or division. Look for it, and I think you’ll see it.
Let me go back over the three points I’ve made:
- It seems reasonable to assume that God will hold each local church particularly responsible for reaching its local community. Therefore, we are to be deliberate in identifying and reaching out to the people around us.
- It seems reasonable to assume that God means to save people representing all different kinds or groupings in a local community. Therefore, we’d hope to see diversity in our churches that generally reflects the diversity in our communities.
- It seems reasonable to assume that God will call and qualify pastoral leaders at roughly the same proportion to the people he saves. Therefore, we’d hope to see diversity in leadership that generally reflects the diversity in our churches.
We aren’t looking for exact measures here, of course, but general patterns. And we aren’t looking for immediate transformation, but change that unfolds over time as people come to faith and mature and are qualified and are called. If a neighborhood is diverse but a church is not, it is a potential, though not necessary, cause for concern. If a church is diverse but the leadership is not, it is a potential, though not necessary, cause for concern. God, after all is sovereign. He saves whom he wills and gifts for leadership whom he wills. Still, surely we can agree that a predominantly X church in a predominantly Y area might merit some prayerful consideration. At the very least we’d want to be able to say with a clear conscience that we are doing our utmost to reach Y. Likewise, surely we can agree that a predominantly X leadership in a predominantly Y church, might merit some prayerful consideration, so we’d be able to say with integrity that we’ve done our best to search and train and examine Y for leadership according to biblical criteria.
And this, the consideration, is what I’d like to turn to in a follow-up article. Remember the question that got us here: Should we make a priority of diversity in church leadership? We’ve come to a kind of yes and no answer. No, not to fill a quota or to give us the credibility to write a book or blog about being a diverse church, but yes in the sense that we’d like the church to reflect the community and the leadership to reflect the church. Churches should gladly prioritize reaching their community with all of its diverse makeup, and churches should joyfully prioritize identifying leaders who reflect their congregation. Since most communities have diversity among age, race, class, and so on, we could say it’s important to pursue diversity in church leadership.
At this point I think it would be wise for us to consider a couple of things. First, are our churches explicitly rejecting certain people for leadership? Many churches do, like when they reject older pastors because they want to reach younger families. As soon as we say, “This is a church for X” we are likely to reject Y. Second, are our churches subtly and unintentionally overlooking certain people for leadership? That’s a more difficult question to answer and one we’ve had to consider at Grace Fellowship Church. The answer surprised us.
But before I get to that, I’d like your feedback on what I’ve written so far. The best way to do that is through a Letter to the Editor. I’d love to hear your thoughts and to consider them as I write out the second part to this article.