Showing broad acceptance of people of different sexual orientations, as well as other diverse backgrounds should be our goal. The message of Christ is for the whole world, and all who embrace Christ become part of the body of Christ, the church.
Many North American congregations, however, do not do particularly well with outreach to those who differ significantly from the majority of the church membership. Members of the same congregation or parish tend to be of similar economic level, ethnic background, sexual orientation, and place in society. Accepting diversity is a challenge for the church—in accepting gay and transgender people, but also in other ways. It’s helpful to recognize the breadth of the problem.
- Most congregations have not been able to successfully embrace any significant range of economic diversity. In the typical community, there are some congregations that are composed primarily of low-income households, the majority that are essentially middle-income, and a few that are high-income. Many churches that claim to have people of all economic levels are, in fact, almost exclusively middle-income, with a few persons going through temporarily difficult times of unemployment and perhaps one or two high-income households.
Martha lived on a small disability benefit and often had trouble making it financially through the end of the month. She occasionally got help from the food pantry at First Church and liked the two volunteers who ran it. She decided to start attending the church and liked the worship services. Martha felt ill at ease, however, as she increasingly realized that almost everyone in the church had more financial resources than she did. People made purchases, went out for brunch together often, and took vacations of which she could only dream. She knew no one intended to make her feel badly, but the lifestyle assumptions that others made kept her from feeling comfortable or truly a part of the congregation.
- Racial diversity obviously poses a significant challenge to congregations, but there are other kinds of ethnic diversity which are also difficult. Several Protestant congregations have historically been so identified with a particular European ancestry, that it is difficult for them to as quickly embrace persons of other backgrounds. When persons in these congregations meet a visitor, their first line of conversation is likely to be an effort to discover whether or not they know someone who knows the visitor. To the visitor, this sounds like a test for acceptance.
- While most congregations have grown more accepting of members who have been divorced, many still find it difficult to immediately embrace persons who are single parents. This becomes especially hard if the single parent has never been married but has chosen to raise a child. All of our communities, however, have large numbers of single parents who are open to church involvement, if the congregation can truly welcome them.
Janice, a 24-year-old single parent of a two-year-old, moved into a new community and began attending a congregation of the same denomination to which she had belonged before. She found that members in the church responded to her warmly until they learned that she had never been married. Then she began to feel a subtle rejection, a cold shoulder from some people. She had been warmly embraced by people in the last congregation who spoke of admiring her for the decision to keep the child. She was not prepared for the rejection and quit coming.
- Many congregations which are composed largely of older members find it awkward to fully embrace younger people who are living together but are not married. Yet the reality is that those congregations always have members with sons or daughters who have chosen to live with someone before getting married.
We must recognize the reality of the diversity in the body of Christ and of the mission statement which Jesus gave those of us who call ourselves Christians:
Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. Mark 16:14
We seek to create congregational cultures in which people of diverse ethnic background, income, sexual orientation, and place in society all feel welcome and comfortable.