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Have we embraced diversity or tokenism?

A few years ago, “diversity” was the church buzzword. Everyone was talking about diversity. And like all hot topics and buzzwords, we collectively moved on to the next topic which turned out to be “deconstruction.” I’m curious to see what the next hot topic will be.

After all that talking about diversity, where has that gotten us?

 

Nowhere, really--if I can be honest. We gave it the good old church treatment: talk about it; preach about it; have classes about it and… that’s it. We churches get really good at huddling then breaking the huddle and standing around for the next time we can huddle.

 

One of the reasons why we aren’t better at diversity is many of us want to be diverse for the sake of being diverse — because everyone else is doing it; because it’s another way to try to increase the number of bodies in pews. So we don’t give much thought to what it means to be diverse. Which leads to (what I think) is one of the biggest reasons why we’re not better at diversity: we confuse diversity with tokenism.

I once met with a church whose leadership kept touting the diversity of their staff. When I went to check their “staff” page on their website later, the only diversity in staff were the maintenance and grounds crew.

Another church was boasting about the diversity of their congregation but their entire staff were white, and all their pastors: white men.

Generally, in cases like those two churches, what they want is people who don’t look like them but still think like them — or at the minimum, stay quiet and passive. They want the photo opportunities for their website, social media platforms, and marketing. But that’s not diversity. That’s tokenism.

True diversity not only has people who don’t think like us or look like us or live like us in the midst of our community, but includes diversity in places of authority, influence, and power. That first church with the “multi-cultural” staff? The groundskeeping crew and maintenance staff don’t have a say in where the church goes or the life of the church. They’re usually told to fix things and keep the campus clean and presentable. They are rarely present in meetings that affect the life and direction of the church (they’re usually there afterwards to clean up after us).

This is one of the reasons why tokenism is preferred over diversity: with tokenism, we don’t have to really change anything.

Diversity is difficult but worth it

Diversity is difficult because (surprise, surprise) people who have different life experiences bring different perspectives to the table. To truly be diverse, we need to intentionally include different voices and perspectives at the table and actively listen. It’s easier said than done. We’re inclined to toe the status quo than go through the growing pains of being stretched to see and think differently than we’re accustomed to.

Diversity is difficult because, in order to be diverse, the people who wield the power have to let go. De-centering ourselves for the sake of others — while biblical — is immensely difficult. Letting go of power is difficult enough as it is, but letting go power to empower someone who might not think like the majority of us is downright scary.

We start worrying about who might be offended by such presence and voices and hoping that those who are offended aren’t generous givers to the church and that people won’t leave in droves (which also says a lot about who we maybe as a church if those are our thoughts/fears when it comes to being diverse).

Obviously, being a diverse community doesn’t happen overnight. There’s no shortcut or church hacks to help the process move faster. It takes a lot of work; a lot of learning and unlearning; a lot of listening; and a lot of commitment and love.

Which is why tokenism is easier and maybe even preferable. Tokenism is neither life-giving nor life transforming. It just perpetuates the silence of minority population and embodies the “you can be part of us but you’re not one of us” philosophy.

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In life, nothing that is worthwhile and life-giving and life-transforming is ever easy. Being a diverse community is going to take a lot of work but it’s work that is worthwhile and a reflection of what the kingdom of God was always meant to look like. And it has to be intentional and purpose-driven. Being diverse for the sake of diversity will never last.

I always firmly believed that we were never called to be gate keepers but space creators. So may we engage in the difficult — yet life-transforming — work of creating space at the table for our neighbors, especially those who may not look and/or think like us. 


Joseph Yoo shares TikTok tips on Pastoring in the Digital ParishJoseph Yoo is a West Coaster at heart contently living in Houston, Texas with his wife and son. He serves at Mosaic Church in Houston. Find more of his writing at josephyoo.com.