AMES JESUS ANGLETON, the founding director of the CIA, once called espionage a “wilderness of mirrors.” If that is true of spy work, it is no less true of Christian race relations today.
During June 2020, many major U.S. cities were rocked by violence and rioting in response to the killing of George Floyd. ATM’s were bombed by robbers. Police cars were set ablaze. Businesses were vandalized, store owners were killed, and police officers were injured.
What should the church’s reaction be? Black Americans, including many Christians, said it was long past time for racial reckoning in America. And perhaps this judgment should start in the house of God, which in large part continues to be segregated.
Should the white church repent of historically being slow to embrace civil-rights issues? Should multicultural megachurches be concerned when their paid staff is more homogeneous than their congregations? What should the church’s response to the phrase “Black Lives Matter” be? What about the experiences of Latino and Asian-Americans? Does it matter whether or not local churches are multiethnic?
Welcome to the wilderness of mirrors, where the way forward is unclear, and what looks like objective reality is often our own reflection projected back to us. How should we navigate this
To begin to chart a course forward, we need a map. The best map provided for us is the New Testament, which unequivocally points toward ethnic diversity within the body of Christ.
Jesus’ ministry was essentially homogeneous; it was a ministry to Hebrew and Aramaic-speaking Jews. But the makeup of the early church was fundamentally altered on the Day of Pentecost. The 3,000 Jews who accepted Christ in Acts 2 were from different countries and spoke different languages. By Acts 6, this diversity caused conflict so significant that it threatened the early church’s momentum. (Remember that conflict, for we are going to return to it.)
For now, note the church’s ongoing momentum toward ever-increasing diversity. In Acts 8, an Ethiopian eunuch became the first Gentile to accept Christ. By Acts 10, the first Gentile family came to faith—the family of Cornelius, a Roman soldier. One chapter later, we read of an entire church, Antioch, that was composed of Gentiles. The Book of Acts is one long story of the church
becoming increasingly diverse.
This trajectory finds its climax in the worship of Revelation 7:9, where we find Heaven’s endgame is an innumerable multitude of people from every nation, tribe, people, and language joining their voices together in worship. On earth, their skin colors, hair textures, food preferences, and life experiences varied, but in Heaven they are united together for one purpose—worship!
As Pentecostals we love to worship, and so we should, since God is worthy of our worship. But is our worship the kind God desires? Is our worship worthy of God’s throne room? When our congregations look more like Acts 1 before the Day of Pentecost than the throne room of Revelation 7, are we leaning into God’s heart for worship? This is more convicting when we consider that in many places, the rest of the community looks more like the population of Heaven than does the local church!
Recently in my local gym, I looked around at those who were near me. The promise of physical fitness had drawn a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. White, black, and Latino gym-goers occupied various pieces of equipment, each drawn to the same location for a common purpose—gains.
Next to the gym is the local supermarket, where I stopped to pick up a few supplies. It was the same scenario. People from various backgrounds had been brought to the same store for a common purpose—groceries.
Want to wager that 90 percent of churches in my town are less diverse than the gym or the supermarket? Want to wager that the same scenario plays out in your town? Bottom line, America is looking more and more like the melting pot she always claimed to be . . . except at church. Why?
The answer takes us back to the conflict in Acts 6. The increasingly diverse church found itself in conflict between Hebrew-speaking and Greek-speaking Jews. The minority Greek speakers were experiencing discrimination in the daily food distribution. It was not a conscious oversight on the part of the Hebrew leaders, but it still happened. Is it possible for there to be a light form of discrimination that is not intentional, but is nonetheless damaging to both those who experience it and those who unintentionally propagate it? Is it possible that such unconscious bias exists as much today as it did back then?
How you answer those questions will determine the capacity your ministry has for increased diversity. No matter your answers, understand Acts 6 was the first time the Pentecostal momentum that began four chapters earlier was stopped. The energy of the apostles had to turn inward in order to resolve conflict between people who were already saved.
So, I’ll give it to you straight—church work is hard under any circumstances, but it is harder when we are working to be ethnically diverse. Diverse groups reveal that oversights which might have otherwise gone unnoticed are significant issues needing to be addressed. Diverse churches cannot assume everyone engages with the style of service that comes most naturally to the church leaders; instead, they have to work at building a worship service whose style might be novel.
Just as minority citizens find themselves processing how to navigate a world in which they are not the majority, so diverse churches have to invest significant time looking inside themselves—making sure the makeup of the congregation is represented in the leadership and validating the very different perspectives members feel (including significant pain).
In other words, the answer to why churches might be some of the least diverse institutions in a community might be staring us in the face, reflected by the wilderness of mirrors. We just don’t want to pay the price.
However, I want to encourage you. Truly diverse churches are possible, and the price is worth it.
The church I have the privilege of pastoring—Spring Valley Church of God in Reading, Pennsylvania—is approximately 45% Latino, 35% black, and the remaining 20% is comprised of white people like myself. Those numbers do not tell the full story of the many nationalities that make up our church. And even if you understood the diversity that exists on our pews, that would not tell you the story of our diverse leadership team. White, black, and Puerto Rican Americans are joined by African, Jamaican, and Indian Americans. Mixed-race families are a normal part of our leadership and our congregation. Spring Valley is not a fluke, nor does it need to be an outlier.
Diverse churches are needed because God has called the nations together in worship, and we should not wait for the end of time to heed God’s call.
Diverse churches are needed because they are stronger churches than they would be otherwise. Diverse churches exist only where high levels of emotional intelligence, adaptability, and resilience are present, which means our congregations will become stronger on the road to diversity.
Diverse churches are needed because our world needs a prophetic witness loudly proclaiming that the unifying blood of Jesus which Christians share is stronger than all of our differences.
Instead of a wilderness of mirrors, we need an oasis of windows. Windows that are looking out onto the vistas of the kingdom of God—a kingdom of diverse brothers and sisters that is manifesting right here and now, on earth as it is in Heaven.
Kyle Hinson is lead pastor of Spring Valley Church of God in Reading, Pennsylvania.