Church looked very white growing up in the Primitive Baptist denomination, but in preschool my best friend was a little black girl. We played with dolls, had tea parties with teddy bears, and imagined all kinds of adventures on the playground. I don’t think I thought of race and ethnicity much as a child; my friend was just another kid like me. A few years later my family had moved to a different part of Alabama and a black family visited my childhood church one Sunday. The black family sat in the back row while several church members looked over their shoulders as if to say, “What are you doing here?” My face reddened with shame and anger. The family never came back.
I discovered what racism looked like in my own church.
My family eventually moved to a different Primitive Baptist church where I came to see the church’s calling to demonstrate a countercultural love—a fierce love that tears down dividing walls and brings together radically different people to the table to break bread. Yet for so many of our American churches, we don’t see the rich diversity scripture models. Many are quick to shrug their shoulders and accept the status quo. Racial minorities, for example, are welcomed to attend our services, but the church isn’t going to change anything to create a more welcoming environment for them. We place the larger burden on the minority to assimilate to our community, rather than making ourselves uncomfortable to learn from Christians who are different from us.
When we choose to insulate ourselves with the familiar, Christena Cleveland says we’re failing to emulate Christ and we’re setting ourselves up for conflict:
People can meet God within their cultural context but in order to follow God, they must cross into other cultures because that’s what Jesus did in the incarnation and on the cross. Discipleship is crosscultural. When we meet Jesus around people who are just like us and then continue to follow Jesus with people who are just like us, we stifle our growth in Christ and open ourselves up to a world of division. However, when we’re rubbing elbows in Christian fellowship with people who are different from us, we can learn from each other and grow more like Christ. Like iron sharpens iron.1
I can’t begin to grasp what it must be like to be a racial minority, especially what it’s like to be a young black man. I’m prone to anxiety, but I suspect what I feel when a police officer pulls me over doesn’t compare to the apprehension a black Christian man experiences. Yet as a celibate gay Christian, I can resonate with feeling out of place and misunderstood. I can go under the radar if I work hard enough to disguise my voice and mannerisms and pretend to like manlier things, but I can’t fool God or myself. I understand what it feels like to be different, even if I’m the only one who knows it.
Unlike many LGBTQ Christians, my church experience since coming out has been positive. For small town Alabama, that’s pretty impressive. However, conservative churches still have a long way to go before their congregations will feel like home for sexual and gender minorities. That assimilation mindset still divides us: we’ll take you if you like the way we do business, but if we can’t meet your needs, you need to find another church home. But what if no church in your community takes the initiative to reach out and create a safe environment for LGBTQs to come to Christ and thrive?
Even if we strive to make our churches more welcoming to diversity, Christena Cleveland warns we can still unintentionally signal how unwelcomed Christian minorities are in our congregations:
Many people of color who attend predominantly white churches and Christian colleges and seminaries talk about feeling explicitly welcomed by the majority group but implicitly excluded and disempowered. On the surface (and for the most part), members of the well-intentioned white majority are really, really nice to them. People of color are greeted warmly in the hallways, on the bike path and in the pews. They are explicitly told that they are welcome at the church or school. They are even invited into the homes of colleagues, classmates, and fellow church members. However, despite these welcoming individual actions, people of color often report that their experience at these Christian organizations is marked by feelings of disempowerment, loneliness, marginalization, exclusion and misunderstanding. This response both befuddles and discourages the well-intentioned white people and leads people of color to experience a seemingly unshakeable feeling of what [Miroslav] Volf calls ‘psychological homelessness.’ They feel out of place, on the edge of the circle, disconnected from the life-giving heartbeat of the community.2
As a gay man, I can walk into nearly any church and be greeted with warm smiles, firm handshakes, and casual conversation. That’s not difficult. But most churches are structured in a way that automatically marginalizes me: they cater to married parents through sermon illustrations and series, church events, Sunday school classes and/or small groups geared to stages of life. When gay people are discussed, we’re usually reduced to political issues threatening religious freedom. We’re repeatedly told what we cannot do, but churches use little imagination to envision a vocation and purpose with sexual and gender minorities. Sure, it’s nice for individual Christians to notice my existence, but that’s not enough. Inclusion needs to be holistic. Christena continues:
A focus on explicit, individual actions can lead people in the majority group to ignore the implicit, collective actions that communicate to people of color that they are not at all welcome and they are not equal members of the group. Even though these actions often go unnoticed by the majority group, they ring loud and clear to people of color.3
One systemic issue I’ve noticed is the church’s negligence to affirm minority lives and talk about topics like racial reconciliation and sexual and gender identity from a pastoral, rather than a political, perspective. The privileged have the luxury to say nothing, to avoid tension and controversy. Straight Christians can pretend gay people like me aren’t already in their pews; white Christians can ignore the racism that still lingers in our congregations in subtle forms. The majority has the freedom to overlook minority needs by upholding a one-size-fits-all policy, leaving many marginalized. We want church to be easy and comfortable, but Christ never promised a church without challenges. He calls the privileged to share the kingdom—to listen, to empower, to grow and thrive together in our diversity.
So how does the church majority help minorities to belong? Christena introduces a fascinating concept from Nancy Schlossburg: a continuum of mattering vs. marginality.3 Schlossburg believes five elements must be in place for minorities to feel included and empowered in a majority culture. If any of these factors are missing, outsiders will feel marginalized:
|Identification||Feeling that other people will be proud of your accomplishments or saddened by your failures|
|Attention||Feeling that you command the sincere attention or interest of people in the group|
|Importance||Believing that another person cares about what you want, think and do, or is concerned about your fate|
|Appreciation||A feeling of being highly regarded and acknowledged by others|
|Dependence||Feeling integrated in the community such that your behaviors/actions are based on how others depend on you|
This shouldn’t be all that surprising or difficult to grasp. We’re humans with universal needs and experiences that unite us as image bearers of God. We all want to be part of a community. Perhaps when all Schlossburg’s pieces are in place we can uncover another important factor: safety. When we create tolerant, open-minded, and compassionate communities, we provide sanctuaries for the weary and outcast to talk, rest and grow. The Apostle John says perfect love casts out fear: fear of differences, fear of losing power and influence, and fear of change. In order to love God, we must love our brothers and sisters. There is no “us vs. them,” just one messy, broken, and beautiful family in need of the same Savior.
I may be the only gay celibate in my church, but I am not the only gay person in my community. If the church genuinely wants to help people like me, Christians must rise above the culture war and begin talking with gay people as God’s beloved rather than at gay people as enemies to religious freedom. We must begin meeting people where they are and meeting needs rather than winning arguments. If you believe same-sex marriage is wrong, create an environment for gay celibates and gays in mixed orientation marriages to thrive in your church, while welcoming gay couples and their children with respect, love and grace amid your disagreements. Don’t ignore our existence; make it known that your church is a safe and gracious place for people to talk about anything, including same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria without shame or condemnation. Let your church know that all minorities are valued for the unique perspective and gifts they can contribute to the life of your church community.
Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ has taught me so much about racial reconciliation and the needs of ethnic minorities. But I’ve also found as I listen to people of color like Christena, I better understand myself as a sexual minority. Jesus prayed that the church would be one so the world would know God had sent him. The church body has different theological beliefs, different cultural practices and different backgrounds, but we’re still one church and we have so much to learn from our diversity: black and white, gay and straight, married and single (and so much more).
God’s prepared a table big enough for us all and someday our local churches will model that love for all the world the world to see.
- Christena Cleveland, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013, 21.
- Ibid., 167-168.
- Ibid., 168.
- Ibid., 168-169.