The Church Birmingham Needs

I’m going to try to be as honest as I possibly can about my hopes and dreams for this new church, which means saying some things that may make people uncomfortable, and taking a risk on saying something that may be wrong. That’s okay. I’ve been wrong before.

One of my deepest longings for this new church is that we will have a diverse congregation: black, white, Latino, and “other” (a category I always find amusing on demographic questionnaires, considering what “other” means in theology and sociology), straight, gay, lesbian (and “other”), old, young, (and “other”), rich, poor (and “other”), hard-core believers, agnostics (and “other”). Given Birmingham’s history and the continued political and social dysfunction we experience in our city as a result of that history, I believe we need churches that are as diverse as the Kingdom of God, who represent a community that truly believes “that God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34, Galatians 2:6).

It is difficult to express this vision to others. I often get the response that “we can’t just have diversity for diversity’s sake.” I agree. We need diversity because it expresses the action of God in Jesus Christ who deliberately preached and acted on reconciliation and justice in his whole ministry. We need diversity because it strengthens our community. I am happy that most churches are at a point where they realize if their leaders are all old, white men that something is wrong. I am glad to have served churches that, as they are choosing leaders, will say, “we need a young person on this committee” or “we need some female representation on this team.” The leadership of these churches have gotten over the idea that this is “diversity for diversity’s sake.” This is about leadership and the mission of the church, about reaching new people for Christ and the realization that our own vision is limited. We need a diverse community to lead well.

Since moving and beginning the process of church planting full-time, I’ve been trying to meet as many people as I can. Yesterday was the first time we encountered old-school Birmingham racism. A man struck up a conversation with us, and we started talking about area schools. (We homeschool because traditional school didn’t work well for our son, but people attribute to us all sorts of reasons for our doing so. It’s interesting what our decision to homeschool reveals about other people’s attitudes.) He approved of our decision to homeschool, because he didn’t approve of the way public schools “indoctrinated” kids about civil rights and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Wow.

The conversation made me aware of how much I’ve gotten used to being around people like me (white, middle-class, generally open-minded), and how easy it has become for me to be unaware of racism in my own context. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been used to moving in a social environment where the “soft” racism of privilege is still acceptable. People talk about crime or neighborhoods instead of race or class. It’s just that I hadn’t bumped up against privilege’s overt cousin in several years.

I can tell when I start talking about this stuff that people squirm a bit, and I have to be honest that I feel the sting of my own words. I’m living in Crestwood, a neighborhood that is “gentrifying,” that is on the right side of the tracks (literally) for urban renewal. I’ve had people tell me that churches that manage to be diverse don’t talk about such things. They just focus on Jesus, or just focus on relationships. While I believe in the importance of Jesus and developing interpersonal relationships with my whole heart, how can I not speak the truth?

I recognize that the challenge will be not coming off as paternalistic. Nobody wants to be part of a church where they are valued only as token members of a demographic. But I also recognize that churches do spend a huge amount of time figuring out how to attract people between the ages of 18 and 35, and they have done marketing and theological acrobatics to reach the “Nones.” They have celebrated preachers with hipster glasses and tattoos who have the same tired evangelical theology of their great-grandparents but who repackage it as “edgy.”

I am not interested in being edgy. I want to be truthful. I think that’s the church that Birmingham needs. Perhaps it is naive of me, but I do believe that all people need to hear and experience that kind of community.