During the annual colloquium of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship last week, I made a presentation and offered the following five reasons why congregations with diverse memberships flourish.
I noted, by way of introduction, that before my move to Zurich the congregations I served over the years have been mostly white. When we would fill out the denominational statistics form each year, we usually claimed that we were 98 percent white, but if we had been challenged to describe the remaining two percent, we would have had a difficult time.
The International Protestant Church, where I now serve, is staggeringly diverse. Every time people come forward to receive communion, I think, “This is what heaven will look like.” There is only one U.S.-born member on our leadership board. The rest are from the U.K., Hong Kong, India, Kenya, the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland. (I’m pretty sure they called me to be their pastor because I would add racial and ethnic balance. Think about that.)
- A welcoming name. The word “international,” I’ve come to see, is a beacon. Churches that want to be diverse in membership should pay much more careful attention to their names. If the church I now serve had decided to call itself the First Presbyterian Church of Zurich (or something similar), I’m certain most of our members, especially those from Africa and India, would not have given it a second look. (I’m still somewhat conflicted about the second word in our name, but “Protestant” has some different connotations in this part of the world. We’re located in Ulrich Zwingli’s backyard, after all.)
- Diversity in leadership. Though my church was founded in the 1960s by American expatriots, the founders anticipated a membership that included more than U.S.-born members. And so, over the years, the expectation has been that our leadership board itself would be very diverse. And it is. Being serious about diversity in the membership means being serious about diversity in the leadership.
- Theological generosity. As you might imagine, music styles and methods of serving communion are areas where my church has had to be flexible, but maybe more significant is the need to bend theologically. My church is essentially Reformed in its theological outlook, but the membership is drawn from a much larger theological world – Baptist, Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, etc. Speaking personally, it’s in the area of baptismal theology where I have felt the greatest challenge and need to bend. (Ironically, the church is located just a few steps from a monument by the Limmat River where several Anabaptists were drowned for their heresy. Today, in our worship, Anabaptists sit side by side with strict Calvinists without fear of losing their lives. A bit of progress.)
- Thoughtfulness and sensitivity in every area of church life – including preaching, worship leadership, music selection, and even the potluck picnic. To get along with other cultures means doing things their way, acknowledging their customs and traditions, respecting their views, and of course asking them (occasionally) to do things a different or unfamiliar way. Mostly this works. I find my own greatest challenge in preaching. (References to American baseball, for example, would be mostly unintelligible in a setting like this, though I had a good response yesterday to my reference to the World Cup. I am learning.)
- Learn the language. Even if the church agrees to worship in English, it’s essential for pastors and leaders to learn the language that is most frequently spoken away from the church. At the very least it’s a signal that the newcomer wants to know the host culture. If I had remained in the U.S., and in my previous situation, it was becoming clear that I would have to learn Spanish (or Creole).
Are there are other reasons? I’m guessing that there are. What would you say? Given the changing nature of many congregations, I would say that this is an important conversation to have.
(Photo: Yes, totally random, but cute. Life in Switzerland.)