Today, the Daily Telegraph reports on the findings of research by the Social Integration Commission about the places where people from different backgrounds meet and mix with each other. The article, with the headline ‘Churches are the best social melting pots in modern Britain‘, states:
‘Overall, it found that churches and other places of worship are more successful than any other social setting at bringing people of different backgrounds together, well ahead of gatherings such as parties, meetings, weddings or venues such as pubs and clubs.’
This may come as a surprise to many. From the incessant media coverage of it’s sexuality rows, the church is often conveyed as somewhere with a fundamental problem when it comes to embracing diversity. But this research asserts that the very opposite is true: that the church is one of the best places where people from different backgrounds come together.
The findings resonate with my experience. The church my family and I are part of, Streatham Baptist Church, is incredibly diverse. A while ago, the minister leading the service asked to have one representative from every nationality present that morning to come up to the front. So, along with a one person who was actually from South London, over 50 other people, each from different countries across the globe came up to the front of the church and stood together. It was a moving moment and a powerful visual illustration of ethnic diversity.
And at the church where my work is based, Hinde Street Methodist Church in central London, over 200 people a day come into the building for 12-Step ‘anonymous’ groups which meet each day from 7.30am to 9.30pm at night. As well as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), there is Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) and a wide range of others relating to eating disorders, debt, gambling and others issues. Those coming into the building each day could not be more diverse – ranging from those who are street homeless to famous celebrities.
In both of these different contexts, diversity is something that is cherished, celebrated and invested in. In short, diversity is believed in because it is acknowledged as something fundamental to what it means to be a church.
Of course, there is no room for any complacency. Congregations can easily become inward looking and cliquey. Whether large or small, it’s tempting for a church to adopt attitudes more like a Member’s Club and lock themselves into styles of service and activities which simply provide what the current members want.
I remember running a workshop a few years ago on ‘connecting with the local community’ at a church with a tiny congregation. To nods of agreement, one older lady said:
“Oh, I can’t see anyone wanting to join us here. We’re not very friendly you see.”
Needless to say, that congregation no longer exists.
‘God does not show favouritism’
Despite the exceptions, why are churches better at bringing a diverse group of people together than other institutions? As I have written about recently, its not because churches are full of intrinsically nicer or friendlier people. I think a key reason is that the imperative to include others who are not like you lies at the heart of the gospel message.
Just consider Jesus’ example. The twelve disciples came from an incredibly diverse spectrum, including both nationalist zealots and their sworn enemies, the tax collectors. Jesus deliberately spent time with those despised and excluded and challenged the exclusive tendencies of the religious communities of his day. And the early church diversified even further with non-Jews welcomed into the Christian Church. As both Peter and Paul declare bluntly ‘God does not show favouritism’ (Acts 10:34 & Romans 2:11).
Oneness and unity
So, despite its failings and struggles, the church has within its DNA a commitment to be diverse and inclusive. It’s a commitment which is anchored in a belief in everyone’s value before God. This runs deeper than the fashions of political correctness or the fuzziness of good intentions. It is a commitment, and challenge, summed up well by Martin Luther King:
“Worship at its best is a social experience with people of all levels of life coming together to realise their oneness and unity under God. Whenever the church, consciously or unconsciously, caters to one class it loses the spiritual force of the ‘whosoever will, let him come’ doctrine and is in danger of becoming little more than a social club with a thin veneer of religiousity.”