The Downside of Diversity (Curated)

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[Curated]

By Rev. Amy Butler of the Riverside Church in New York, New York.  Rev. Butler writes for her blog, Talk With the Preacher.

For some time I’ve been of the conviction that cultivating diverse communities of faith is critical to living the gospel.

Some tell me creating a diverse community is just not a reality for their church; the community surrounding the church is too homogenous. I think that claim is flatly untrue. The bottom line is that creating diverse communities is an option for all of us, because each human is distinct and unique.

It’s a natural human instinct to gravitate toward people who seem most like us, but learning to value and cultivate diversity in our faith communities is worth the time and effort. That’s not to say creating a diverse community is easy.

In fact, to create a healthy culture of diversity within a congregation, the system must be trained to tolerate a higher level of discomfort as stasis. That is, members of diverse communities tolerate a little more discomfort than they would if they were members of a community where everyone shares a similar life situation, where everyone looks and thinks in generally the same way.

In its best expression healthy congregational diversity can work to create a culture in which people are constantly being invited to stretch and grow, to enlarge their view of the world, and to consistently expand their understanding of the kingdom of God. The realization that God’s love for the whole world extends beyond my own safe and limited view of the world is a transformative gift, a critical part of ongoing discipleship. And when diversity is valued and managed well, it’s indicative of a high level of trust in a congregation.

But like most things in life, there’s a downside to diversity [Read more on Rev. Butler’s blog here…]

Relationships and the sacred space we share

pewsI hear the cliche all of the time: “We are a welcoming church.”

No church thinks that they are not welcoming and, no matter the denomination, each one boasts,”All are invited,” on the marquee.

But I know of a test that truly determines whether this is true: The “Pew Test.”

It is very simple: If a guest comes to your church and sits in any pew, is he or she asked to move because “you’re in my seat”?

I’ve heard horror stories about the “Pew Test” over the years.  We at Trinity have had our share of people who have visited other churches and were told to move from a certain seat.

Yet, I have also learned something very important over the past decade about pews and the people who claim them.   You see, when people have “my seat” in the pew, it is not because they don’t want to welcome others.  It is because our Christian faith is highly experiential and tactile.

It is in church that we experience conversions and born-again transformations.  It is in church that we witness baptisms, baby dedications, and funerals.  There, we are moved with compassion and participate in missions, inspired by God’s Word, and sing hymns that bring encouragement.

We have a variety of spiritual encounters at church, and the seats in which we sit and the rituals that we practice remind us of the variety of ways that God has worked–and works–in our life.

People don’t mean to be rude when they ask you to sit somewhere else; its just that that’s where they’ve sat when they have met with God so many times in their life.  They want to make room for you, but not at the expense of robbing you of the chance to hear their stories, to see why the church is so meaningful to them.

For all of the negative criticism related to rituals, sacred spaces, and monotonous “traditional” worship I’ve heard over the years, I’ve also heard beautiful pleas for why these elements of church-going and worship are significant to those who participate in congregational life.

There is something about sacred spaces–the very pews that we fight over–that gives us opportunities to meet God again and again, week in and week out.  These spaces–both physical and spiritual–are safe places that nurture stability in a world often in disarray and disorientation.

I experienced this in my life in a very personal way.  When my father passed away, his funeral was held in a church that has an auditorium rather than a sanctuary.  There is a stage with a few musical instruments, a simple podium, and a black-curtain backdrop.

It is devoid of icons, crosses, and artwork.  There are no paraments or altar-clothes.  There isn’t an colored antependium that implicitly communicates what season of the Christian year it is.  There are no acolyte candles for children to light or communion chalices to admire, no big open Bible or ambo on a common table that remind us of the centrality of the Holy Word.

The funeral was nice, but I missed my church.  In that moment of sorrow, all I wanted was to sit in my seat in the front row of my church, to be surrounded by my church family, and to find encouragement in that heavy pulpit from which God’s Word had been preached for nearly three decades.

I missed looking at the aged banners that adorn the church walls, the baptistry where my daughter was baptized, the baby-grand piano and the choir loft that’s home to so many familiar hymns and anthems that act as a healing balm to the heart.

I missed seeing one of our children light the acolyte candles to remind me that the Holy Spirit is present with us and that all of us–regardless of age and gender–can participate in our worship to God.  I missed the green antependium, green for “Ordinary Time” in the life of the church, a sign that life still goes on despite tragic loss.

When I did return to my church several weeks later, I found profound comfort in that sacred space.  The songs, the sights, the sounds, and the smells reminded me of a simple message of hope penned long ago by Julian of Norwich: “All will be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

I finally felt the silent love of the “church ladies” sitting in the row directly behind me.  I was warmly embraced by my deacon.  Our pianist preached on my first day back, and his message sent our hearts aright with hope, our tears set aflame with love, and our spirits souring upon lofty places.

Only in a sacred space can you experience that kind of divine interaction.  Thanks be to God.

Learning how to care

Welcome_Hands_1Caring for others is a habit to be learned.

One of the hardest classes I took in seminary was not theology or philosophy.  It was not even Hebrew or Greek.  It was pastoral care.

The aim of pastoral care is to teach students how to listen, confront conflict, counsel and give referrals, and have empathy.  In short, the class is a crash-course in cultivating a “pastoral presence.”

You might assume that having a pastoral presence–the ability to reflect compassion and care in every situation–is something that God gives every pastor as a gift.  That assumption is wrong.  It is hard to learn empathy and compassion, and such lessons must be honed over time.

In fact, everyone needs to learn how to care for others.  It is not a trait that we perfect just because we are human.

A recent article in the Washington Post finds that caring for others, being compassionate, and having empathy are critical values and practices that adults must teach children and one another.

Unfortunately, teaching people how to care is not high on the priority list of things to do.  We take it for granted.

The article highlights Harvard psychologist, Richard Weissbourd, whose research shows that nearly 80% of youths said that their parents were more concerned about their achievements than about how they–the youths–cared for others.

“Children are not born simply good or bad and we should never give up on them. They need adults who will help them become caring, respectful, and responsible for their communities at every stage of their childhood,” Weissbourd said.

Teaching people to care for others must be intentional and strategic.  It must also inspire sensitivity and curiosity about other cultures, faiths, and communities.

And if people have to learn how to care for others, then it stands to reason that churches need to learn the same.

Many years ago, Trinity had a meeting to discuss the direction of the church and its ministries.  In the middle of that meeting, a couple who had attended the church for less than a year spoke up:

“We have been here for some time now, but no one has invited us over for dinner or to an outing.  No one has taken the time to get to know us.”

The whole congregation was flabbergasted and left speechless.   It was embarrassing, but it challenged us to improve our care for each other.

The church made an intentional effort to learn how to welcome guests, build a community of care, and establish ministries that helped people connect with God, with one another, and with the larger community.

It was not easy.  We literally had to tell parishioners how to greet guests and what to say when they saw an unfamiliar face.

We also had to teach churchgoers that the chairs in the sanctuary were not theirs–they may be asked to sit in different places if a new family took up residency in their favorite spots.

Over time, the entire culture of Trinity changed.  I went from asking specific people to greet guests to simply watching people greet guests on their own initiative.

Effective follow-up also improved over time: when guests returned to church, people welcomed them back, not approached them as if it was their first time.

Caring for others had to be taught indeed.

Unfortunately, we live in an age in which the individual and the individual’s needs often trumps the needs of others.  Our policies reflect it, our rhetoric perpetuates it, and our economics thrive on it.

Yet, when we bow before our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, whose care for others set an example for how we are to live, practice community, and enlarge our compassionate embrace, we find that caring for others takes precedence over our own needs, wishes, and wants.