Differences matter, and it is important to value them. For smaller churches trying to grow, one way they undermine themselves is by insisting on uniformity. Larger congregations are generally more diverse and have already learned to accommodate a variety of people, backgrounds, and preferences. But in smaller congregations where it is assumed that everyone can know everyone and can have some level of relationship with everyone, the sense of togetherness can actually become a means of exclusion.
In times of transition–which is always!–anxiety is a given, and it is important to allow space for diversity so that the way forward can include more kinds of people. But when people are anxious, their gut reaction is to exclude people who are different. They’ll tend to insist that the difference in preference, taste, or personality is the other person threatening the “unity” of the group. When people began looking for ways to express their uniqueness and utilize their gifts, if it is happening in ways that don’t fit the existing mold, the old guard may try to sabotage what is going on. The unfortunate reality is that in many such situations, the group is mistaking uniformity for unity.
Unity can only be meaningful when there are significant differences. I’ve heard it said before that Jesus did not envision his church to be colorblind, but colorful. Jesus said that people would be able to identify the true church because of their obvious love for each other. It should be the case in every church that there are people who experience meaningful connections to each other who, under any other circumstances, would have no reason to even be around each other. The church blends Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, artist and accountant, and every other kind of category into which we might sort people. Jesus wants to see all of these present in the church because it provides an opportunity for his love to overcome whatever differences exist.
Being different is harder than being the same, but it is also in valuing differences that we find a productive way forward. Appreciative Inquiry assumes that it is important to value differences. Varied perspectives and insights, when heard and pondered, provide us with deeper leadership insights and wiser abilities to make decisions.
A few thoughts about how churches can value differences:
- As Timothy Keller has said, when you have more options, more people will opt. People like feeling as if they have a choice in their experience. Worship services at churches are harder places to practice diversity because unless you have multiple services, they are shared by all participants and anything you change affects everyone. You can’t please everyone any of the time in a whole church setting. But in Bible classes and life groups since not everyone can be involved in any single class or group, they provide easier places to diversify. People can be more authentically themselves among others who are likeminded.
- As you create more options, put talented, trustworthy people in positions of leadership and then actually trust them to lead. Many leaders are so worried about some diversity becoming a divisive faction that they will micromanage them and supervise them to the point that they are either stifled or enraged. If people have shown genuine Christian character and you would like to see them become increasingly competent leaders, then give them the space to lead. All of us only learn to lead by experience, which includes both victories and defeats, successes and flops. Love your future leaders enough to let them have the opportunity to fail, or hopefully, to succeed. If they did it themselves, they’ll learn more from it. Make your default position be to trust the people you’ve empowered. Be very hesitant to grab power back from them or to force decisions on them from the top down.
- Encourage groups and teams have some level of shared core values. For example, at my congregation, I started a group that focuses on contemplative spirituality. I created a set of core values that I read aloud at the beginning of every class period for the first several weeks and then again whenever a new person attended the group. I made it very clear that this was a group formed to do specific things for specific reasons. The kind of stuff we were doing was not something that everyone would like, or would even be comfortable doing. I was extremely clear that “if this isn’t your thing, we take no offense, and you’re not obligated to come back. There are always traditional class options if you don’t want to be here.” What we created was a special experience for those of us with a hunger for a different approach to prayer and Scripture that has not led to disunity in our worship or disruption in other areas. We provided a genuinely different option. And on average, about twenty more people did opt to participate who had otherwise not been attending on Wednesday night. If you’re going to create diversity in the form of a class or life group, then allow the diversity to be intentional, high quality, and authentic. Not every new option needs to be something outlandish, but nor should it have to be just a cookie-cutter approach where it is coerced to feel like everything else.