Church Diversity

Church Diversity: Sunday— The Most Segregated Day of the Week
Scott Williams

Confront the Elephant in the Pew

When there is an elephant in the room, acknowledge it. —Scott Williams

Confront the brutal facts. —Jim Collins

One of my favorite leadership books, a book that in my opinion should be in the repertoire of every leader, is Jim Collins’s Good to Great. This book has many great principles and concepts for business and ministry leaders, some of which we will discuss here. One of the key thoughts that Collins rolls out is this: “Confront the brutal facts.” That’s the intellectual version of the saying “Just keepin’ it real” made popular by Jeromey Rome from Martin Lawrence’s 1990s hit sitcom Martin. When we don’t keep it real and avoid confronting the brutal facts, what we are inevitably doing is negatively affecting our situation.

Some of the key thoughts that Collins outlines in his concept of confronting the brutal facts are as follows:

* Confront the brutal facts of the current reality head-on and leaders will emerge from adversity even stronger.
* Start with an honest and diligent effort to determine the brutal facts of a situation. It is impossible to make good decisions without looking at the entire process with the lens of an honest confrontation of the brutal facts.
* Create a culture where people have a tremendous opportunity to be heard and ultimately, for the truth to be heard.
* Stockdale Paradox: The Stockdale Paradox is named after Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was a United States military officer held captive for eight years during the Vietnam War. Stockdale was tortured more than 20 times by his captors, and never had much reason to believe he would survive the prison camp and someday get to see his wife again. And yet, as Stockdale told Collins, he never lost faith during his ordeal: “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.” This paradox is about retaining absolute faith that you can and will prevail in the end regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.
* Get staff to confront brutal facts. Leadership does not begin just with vision. It begins with getting people to confront brutal facts and act on the implications.

Collins has packaged an old saying in a fresh and easy-to-understand fashion. What Collins is talking about is the old adage of addressing the “elephant in the room.” “The elephant in the room” is an idiom for an obvious truth that is being ignored or going unaddressed. The term is often used to describe an issue that involves a social taboo, such as race, religion, sexual orientation, or even suicide. It is applicable when a subject is emotionally charged and the people who might have spoken up decide that it is probably best avoided.

The idiomatic expression also applies to an obvious problem or risk no one wants to discuss. I think a blind man can see that we are not addressing the fat elephant in the sanctuaries and auditoriums of churches around the globe. Ministry leaders are claiming they want to share the gospel with “all people,” but their sanctuaries and their hearts are communicating that they want to share the gospel with those that look like them. Where this becomes a problem is that in the history of the Church, ministry leaders are still trying to ignore the fact that there is big, fat elephant sitting in their sanctuary.

The concept of the “elephant in the room” is based on the idea that an elephant in a room would be impossible to overlook; thus, people in the room who pretend the elephant is not there have made a deliberate decision to do so. They are choosing to concern themselves with tangential, small, irrelevant issues rather than deal with the looming big one. I mean, seriously—ministry leaders spend more time worrying about the color of their carpet, what the deacons are doing, or how they can be the next relevant multisite church than they do reaching “all people” with the gospel.

Herding Elephants

We could make a strong argument that we have come a very long way in the area of dealing with race and ethnicity. However, we are far from arriving. Race is just one of those things that people would prefer to ignore and would rather not talk about. The problem with that approach is the fact that ignoring the elephant is not going to make the elephant (insert elephant noise) get up and waddle out of the sanctuary. As a matter of fact, the elephant has been sitting around for so long that he’s lazy and doesn’t want to move. There are pockets of leaders and churches poking and prodding at the elephant, but not enough to get the attention of his elephant siblings around the world. Herding elephants is not an easy thing to do, and herding racial elephants is ten times as hard as herding any other. The first step in herding elephants is acknowledging that they exist. No one wants to be ignored—that includes the racial elephant. Acknowledgment is the first step to getting it out of the room. When there is an elephant in the room, acknowledge it.

From the perspective of both an attendee and a staff member, I have taken on the informal role of the racial elephant herder. In other words, I’m that guy who brings the diversity conversation to the attention of my supervisors, peers, and subordinates. The more you confront the real issues of race, the less awkward they become. Sometimes I feel like I’m beating a dead horse (to use another idiom); nonetheless, I keep forcing the RMRT (the Right Message at the Right Time). The key is timing, because if you force the conversation all day, every day, and do it at times that are not right, your elephant herding will begin to fall on deaf ears. People need to hear the right message at the right time. If you share the exact same message over and over and not at the right times, those listening may experience what Directional Leadership Team member Sam Roberts refers to as “numbness of frequency.” People will get numb to the frequency of your message and tune your frequency out like a bad AM radio station.

I remember when I was originally hired as the campus pastor of the NW Oklahoma City Campus of Just for a point of clarification, the term “campus pastor” has nothing to do with college, but rather a term we use to refer to our different locations. I was so excited about all of the possibilities of this new community, new location, new people, and new potential. I made a promise to God that I would do everything in my power to be intentional about creating a culture and campus that truly embraced diversity. I remember it as though it was yesterday. I got in my car and drove around the area, praying for all that God would do and praying for a church congregation, staff, and community that truly embraced diversity rather than merely tolerating it. I didn’t experience that type of heart posture at other churches that I was previously a part of. That’s not to be critical; it’s just the brutal facts. I actually never heard the word diversity used unless I was a part of the conversation, and I was perfectly okay with being the one who initiated those conversations. I would often tell people that I felt that part of my calling at was to be a part of elevating the diversity conversation.

As I drove around, I went through neighborhoods and communities within a five-mile radius of a new and soon-to-be vibrant refurbished Wal-Mart storefront that would soon become known as the NW Oklahoma City Campus of, aka “The N-Dub.” I found myself pondering how we could impact this unique community that was comprised of everything from wealthy people to a strip of Section 8 housing and low-income apartment complexes located on an infamous street called Lyrewood Lane. The local fire department referred to it as Firewood Lane. The local police department called it Homicide Lane, and the rest of the community referred to it as Lyrehood Lane. Now mind you, this section was nestled off by itself and the majority of the surrounding area did not look anything like it. Like I said, we had all classes and races in this area.

I began to meet with local community leaders, one being the principal of the Tulakes Elementary School that was located on Lyrewood Lane. This guy was the real deal. He was an African-American man named Lee Rowland, and he happened to be a minister as well. Lee was as sharp as a tack and a great man of God. He also had his thumb on the pulse of this community and a heart to truly make a difference. I remember my first meeting with Lee. I made a simple statement and asked him a simple question. Statement: We want to make a difference in this community. Question: What can we do to make a difference? That statement and question combination still remain at the core of our campus’s relationship with Tulakes and the Lyrewood community to this day—nearly five years later.

I believe that the most important opportunity for a new ministry in a local community is to identify the top 10 community stakeholders and begin to develop a relationship with them. Some of these stakeholders will generally include local school leaders, elected officials, neighborhood associations, business leaders, and other community leaders. Ministry leaders should go to these stakeholders and see how they can help and how they can serve. Before the doors of our church ever opened, we had the keys to the city, if you will, and definitely had potential to have the keys to the schools in our area. People in the community were excited and so were we. When the doors opened, we kicked off with a bang and saw little snippets of potential to make some positive headway in creating a culture that embraces diversity. Over the months we worked hard to reach the community, and within the first year we began to leverage our relationships with the local schools to impact their students. We invited the community and put a sign on our door that truly read EVERYONE WELCOME. We had evangelistic bring-in events that would draw from 600 to 900 students on a Wednesday. That’s right—600 to 900 students at a campus that may have been running a couple thousand at the time. Those numbers were not the norm, as 400-plus students was a common occurrence. The kicker is that our student ministry was, for all intents and purposes, racially split down the middle—50 percent black and 50 percent white, give or take a few. To top it all off, we had students from Lyrewood Lane and other areas walking to church, while we had students getting dropped off in Hummers and S550 Mercedes. This, my friends, is what you call an eclectic group for a ministry that is used to ministering to white suburbanites.

Our youth pastors were enjoying the challenge and had pure hearts; however, they had to face the harsh realities of herding elephants and realizing that they were going to have a lot to learn. They were forced to ask themselves questions about their life stories and upbringing. My associate youth pastor, Anna Meadows, was a 19-year-old young lady who was anointed and gifted far beyond her years—oftentimes referred to as a young Beth Moore. Anna was homeschooled by some amazing parents. They were cool, relevant Christian homeschoolers. Anna had zero experience dealing with the Ray-Rays of the world (translation: boyz from the hood) and was heartbroken by the struggles these students from our community faced. It was disheartening for her that the pizza we served was the only evening meal that some of these kids would eat. Although her heart was pure, the realities of embracing this new paradigm would require some adjustment and learning.

My other youth pastor was Tony Cobb, who had a huge personality and was the mastermind of throwing the big “bring-in” event to get the students through the doors. The challenge for Tony was that the only experience he had dealing with minority kids, according to him, was when he was a youth pastor at Fellowship of the Woodlands, which is a huge church similar to, in the suburbs of Houston. The minority kids included NBA basketball coach Avery Johnson’s kid, which is a little bit different demographic than most of the kids who were rolling through our doors. To top it off, Tony opened up about some of his family history and how his grandfather was the grand wizard in the Ku Klux Klan. Yes, the one that wears the upgraded dunce suit—he wore the red one. Our discussion wasn’t about Tony being part of a racist heritage; the fact of the matter was that when you begin to herd elephants, your life story becomes part of the process. You begin to notice little things inside of you and others that you would never have thought of before or would just like to forget. You begin to have “aha moments”—race is a real issue and you don’t exactly know what to do about it. Have you had those aha moments? If not, there is a good chance you are avoiding confronting the brutal facts.

Over the months it became evident that we had some work to do in blending this culture of students to get them to worship, hang, play, and pray together. Our youth pastors/leaders dug in and began to develop relationships with students, which ignited a heart and passion to reach this new community and new demographic of students. The challenges we faced were not with the students; for the most part the challenges came from the parents and the leaders. Some parents were uncomfortable dropping their students off at a place that—in their mind—looked like the scene from an inner-city street basketball movie. On the other hand, we had leaders who were used to working with the suburbanites and didn’t know what to say or how to address certain students.

At the time we had only one minority leader who happened to be an East Indian guy named Alex, and the funny thing is that one of my youth pastors thought Alex was black! What? Not even close! Eventually my sister-in-law got involved and that brought the minority youth leader grand total to two. We began to put systems and processes in place to help with integration and behavioral issues, but we still had the awkward parent and leader elephant that we needed to address. Each week more and more questions, concerns, issues, and perceptions developed about the demographics of the student population at our campus. This was truly an anomaly for The perception of this issue had gotten elevated to our Central Leadership Team. I remember talking to my youth pastors and letting them know that I was going to attend their leader meeting, and we were going to confront the pleasantly plump elephant in the pew. Well, not in the pew but rather in the multicolor chairs. My youth pastors were looking forward to the discussion and thought it was a good idea. It just became one of those issues where no one knew what to say or what to do. Leaders were saying things that were offending other leaders, youth pastors were saying things that offended leaders, and everyone had the same core agenda—make a difference in the lives of the students. The question was, “How do we move from where we are to where we need to be?”

The day prior to the meeting I remember being on a conference call with my youth pastors and their central team leader. We were talking about a game plan for how to address some of the parent, leader, and student issues that we were having. I informed the central team leader that I would be going to the meeting and confronting the awkward subject of race. This form of ministry is called “calling a spade a spade.” No sooner did I finish sharing my strategy, intentions, and game plans than the central team leader said this, “We are not going to make this about race. You are not going to go in there and make this an issue of race.” I’m thinking to myself, Seriously, do you want to have this conversation? My response was, “Yes, I am going to make this about race because it is about race.” There were definitely some uncomfortable verbal exchanges before the conversation ended. That’s what happens when you confront the brutal facts.

The next day I received a phone call and apology from the central team leader. He simply said, “Man, you were right. I just didn’t want to make this a race issue. I know you have experience dealing with these issues, so we will just learn from you.” I appreciated his acknowledgment of the problem, and the reality is that his sentiment is how most people think. They don’t want to make this about race. They would rather keep a sleeping elephant sleeping. The problem is, the race elephant isn’t sleeping; he’s awake and we are just ignoring him.

The day after this call, I went in and led the AA meeting. Not the “Hi, my name is Scott and I’m an alcoholic” meeting.” I led the meeting I call “from Awkward to Amazing” with an amazing group of student leaders. We talked about race and some of them shared the fact that truthfully they were uncomfortable interacting with some of these students and really didn’t know what to say or do. Yes! We were getting somewhere. The conversations were initially Awkward but ultimately turned out Amazing. When you confront the elephant in the pew you move from Awkward to Amazing, and you begin the process of “moving beyond the dream.” To make a long story short, our youth ministry became known as the rare breed of youth ministry that was racially split down the middle, and it became a ministry where race is literally a non-issue. The only way race will ever become a non-issue is if you make race an issue. You must confront the elephant in the pew.

Keys to Success

As I look back at the success we had in our student ministry in the area of embracing diversity, it made me realize that there were a number of things we did right. I am certain there are some things we could have done better; however, the end result was a campus and a youth ministry that truly embraced diversity from top to bottom. I definitely bought in to what God was doing. As a matter of fact, what we were experiencing was a result of answered prayers and a vision that God had laid on my heart many years before. It was amazing to see this newfound passion for diversity and the understanding that it was the right thing to do among our youth pastors, youth leaders, students, and the schools these students attended. Everyone began to catch the vision and began to have an understanding that what was happening was special.

What was once perceived as a burden—“What do we do with this diverse group of students?”—turned into a mantra: “There are just a small percentage of student ministries in the country that are doing what we are doing.” It’s always rewarding to champion something or to go where no man or woman has gone before, so to speak. What we were doing was working, and we were all still learning and growing together. The one driving force at the core of this culture of embracing diversity was the genuine passion to reach “all people and all students for Jesus.” We didn’t have to go to some Third World country to reach the least of these or share the gospel with all people; God was sending pockets of all peoples to our doors in the form of mid-high and senior-high students. These students and their families desperately needed Jesus just like every one of us does. The key for us was that we were able to see past where we were to where we needed to be. God sent us this diverse group of 400 to 500 students weekly to prepare us for what it would look and feel like to lead a church with a diverse adult congregation.

We had to be very intentional about assessing our diversity health. It’s almost as if we went through a process and series of checkups. I have thought through some of the checkup criteria that helped us to successfully lead a culture that embraces diversity. If you want to live a healthy life, you need to have regular checkups, right? If you want to have a healthy culture that embraces diversity, you must also go through a process of checkups.

It’s Time for a Checkup
Seven-Point Checkup

Check your heart. We had to start by asking the right questions, the difficult ones that got to the issues of the heart. If the heart is not right, nothing else matters. We didn’t ask these difficult questions only about our ministry and our volunteers—we asked these difficult questions of ourselves. We all laid our past, family past, history, life experiences, and prejudices out on the table. We asked questions like: If I’m being honest, what prejudices or preconceptions may be getting in the way of my heart embracing a culture of diversity? Where is the heart of my leadership on the diversity issue? Have we led our volunteers and attendees to have hearts that embrace diversity? Is diversity a value that we genuinely want to embrace or is this simply lip service? The list of questions, revelations, evaluations, and assessments went on and on. Although it was not our only focus, checking our diversity heart rate was part of our daily journey.

Check your head. As we worked through the difficult questions in the heart check, we then began to focus on exercising our mental muscle. We had to plan events differently, we had to look at our hiring practices differently, and we had to be intentional about issues of race and ethnicity. We celebrated diversity wins, and although diversity may not have been at the forefront of the value system of the overall church, it was definitely at the forefront of our team’s value system. I know God can do anything that He wants to do. However, if your heart is not right and you don’t have a strategy for diversity, it’s not going to happen. Your strategy can be as simple as, “Love God and love all people.” If you don’t truly check your mental muscle as they relate to a strategy to “love all people” and not just the people that look like you and your congregation, it’s not going to happen. It’s a matter of the heart and the mind. You have to dream BIG and think BIGGER. Exercising your mental muscle is the action step to making your dreams a reality.

Be prayerful. Ask God to give you a burden for diversity in the church. Don’t confuse a burden for diversity with a change in the specific vision that God has given your church. Pray for diversity in people who will come through the doors of your church. Pray for diversity in both volunteer and paid staff. I remember praying daily for God to send diversity in our worship team, volunteers, first-time attendees, etc. My prayer was, “God, please plant the diversity seeds, and I promise under my leadership they will get love, sun, and water. We will commit to helping them grow.” God must be involved in this conversation. Ask your church to pray for a diverse group of people to come through the doors. A church can’t pray and have a vision to reach all people and not have diversity as a value. If diversity isn’t a point of prayer and a value of consideration, the church should just pray and have a vision for a church that reaches a group of people that look a particular way. In the business of reaching people for Christ, that’s called a prejudice prayer and a prejudice vision. Expand your prayers and ask God to expand the territory you are reaching for Jesus.

Be intentional. There is no other way to address this checkpoint than to say that if you are not trying to be intentional and purposeful about the church diversity issue, it’s a non-issue. Do I mean affirmative action and classic diversity stock images in all media materials? You can call it what you want to and do it how you want to—the bottom line is if you are not intentional, it’s not going to happen. Forced busing was intentional; mandatory interviewing of African-American candidates for NFL head coaching jobs was intentional; and I can name ten other things that were intentional in forcing the issue of diversity. The reason you have to be intentional is that, left on our own, human beings often have difficulty making the right decisions. We were intentional about everything, so much so that I became known as the “Diversity Guy” and we were known as the “Diversity Campus.”

Intentionality is about being deliberate with the actions that come as a result of exercising your mental muscle. Once, I was on a conference call in which all of the Oklahoma City Metro Campuses were planning for a citywide event. The event was called LifeStock and it was a mash-up of Woodstock minus the negativity, with a huge church gathering, party, worship, amusement park, and all-around community event. This event was not only for all of the campuses, but it was to have a community outreach feel as we peacefully invaded and took over a local amusement park for the day. In the conference call we were discussing who was going to be on stage during the evening worship. I mentioned that we needed to be intentional about the band members and on-stage speakers being diverse. Another person stated they were not going to be doing anything intentional and that basically “it is what it is.” That’s not good enough when you have diversity in musicians across campuses. We were fortunate that I had just re-hired Stephen Cole as the new worship leader at my campus. Stephen is an amazing African-American worship leader/Christian recording artist who has the talent and personality to fill up the stage. The fact that Stephen was now available to lead at LifeStock was one little piece of diversity that fell in our lap and wasn’t a result of intentionality on the part of the event planning. The bottom line was that if Stephen and I were removed from the stage we would inadvertently advertise this citywide event as an event for young white people. That was definitely not the heart of the event. Without intentionality, the heart of an event, meeting, organization, gathering, or church can get lost. Being intentional about diversity is not about convenience, it’s about being deliberate. It’s the modern-day forced busing for the Church.

Be confrontational. The conversation between that pastor and I was pretty confrontational, but it was necessary. If we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, we have to be willing to have the tough conversations with each other. Just like Jim Collins discusses in Good to Great, you have to confront the brutal facts. You have to confront the elephant in the pew, in our communities, in our ministries, and in our hearts. You have to fight for what’s right. Pick and choose your battles. The modern-day battle for Jews and Gentiles to join together in one body and one Church and experience the promise of Christ is a battle worth fighting for.

Be authentic. Authenticity is so important. I like to use the phrase “Do you! It’s a statement, not a question.” That’s the phrase I’ve used for many years to describe the importance of “being yourself.” Too often we go through life and try to imitate other people. On an issue as sensitive as diversity, it would be easy to try to imitate a ministry that does a great job with the church diversity issue. You know what I’m talking about. You find out what other churches and other people are doing and you try to do the exact same thing. Beyond attempting to replicate some of the things those leaders or ministries do well, you try to become who they are. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t acknowledge and learn from others’ strengths. In chapter 5 we will look at some ministries that are actually doing this thing we call church diversity well, in an attempt to learn from their successes. What I’m simply saying here is that you need to “do you.” In other words, find your own voice/identity instead of being an imitation.

When I was called into full-time vocational ministry at my home church,, I was immediately surrounded by a lot of gifted leaders with some serious “skilz.” It would have been easy for me to gravitate toward their style, their ways of thinking, and their particular cultural elements. I could have easily lost my own identity and originality. I had to recognize the tension of who I was created to be and what God has called me to do, while at the same time embracing the culture, DNA, values, and mores of the organization. If handled correctly, that’s an appropriate tension to have. That same tension is important for the Church, as well. Make these heart changes and mental muscle changes, at the same time embracing the uniqueness of the vision for your church, ultimately understanding that the vision for the Church can’t be outside of the important principles of what it means to be a Christian—love God, love your neighbor, and make disciples of all nations. Be authentic.

Be patient. It doesn’t matter if you are a ministry leader wanting to create a culture that embraces diversity, a denominational leader wanting to do a diversity heart transplant for a conglomerate of churches, a volunteer that wants to have a diverse group of people serving alongside you, or a congregant that wants to see your church reflect the heart of Jesus—a church where everyone is welcome—it is necessary for you to be patient. This is going to take some time. It’s taken thousands of years for the Church to be one of the most segregated institutions on the planet and change is not going to happen overnight. Get your heart right, exercise your mental muscle, be prayerful, be intentional, be confrontational, be authentic, and be patient. God’s timing is perfect.

What You See Is What You Get

When it comes to what the congregation of a church looks like, it’s usually a direct reflection of what is represented on the platform. One of the many questions that people walking through the doors of a church, especially for the first time, are asking is this, “Is there anyone in this church that looks like me?” Another question is, “Do I see someone like me on the platform, pulpit, or stage?”

When it comes to embracing a culture of diversity, too many churches miss the mark for the simple reason they have a homogeneous platform. By homogeneous platform I’m talking about the church platform, stage, pulpit—or whatever you call it—where everyone leading, talking, singing, and preaching is the same race and for the most part looks the same. If you were to name a church by the representation of their platform, the names of most churches would be as follows: Church of the Middle-Aged Skinny V-Neck T-Shirt White Guys, Church of African-American Suits with Fat Knot Ties, First Church of Old White Men, International Church of Men in Robes, Calvary Church of White Hair, and so on. On a homogeneous platform, everyone you see on the stage looks the same from the perspective of race, ethnicity, and oftentimes style. People want to see themselves represented, and minorities will generally relate with another minority. If I am Hispanic or Asian I might feel welcome for the simple fact that I see an African-American on stage or vice versa. There’s something about being in a minority culture that makes you tend to relate to other minorities. I have heard similar stories from white people attending predominately black churches and immediately connecting with the few white minorities in those churches. The same thing is true for females; they are looking to see if they are represented in any shape, form, or fashion.

I remember a good friend of mine who attended a church where he was one of the small number of African-American families that attended the church. He was bragging on the church to me and telling me how the church was impacting his life and family in general. After bragging and celebrating what was going on in his church, he said something to me that I will never forget. He said this: “Although we love what’s going on at my church, it’s challenging for me to bring my sons to a church where they never see anyone who looks like them in some sort of leadership role. I want to be able to point and say, ‘Look—that could be you.’ I want to give them something to aspire to. It may sound crazy or shallow, but it’s real.” I couldn’t agree more; it’s real. No matter the ethnic framework of your church, that simple truth is real, not only for my friend and his children, but it’s true for people in general. I even heard my senior pastor Craig Groeschel mention something very similar when we had a world-renowned female speaker, advocate, and pastor from Hillsong Church—Christine Caine—speak at Craig mentioned that he wanted his daughters and other young ladies to be able to look up and say, “Hmm, that could be me one day.”

Sometimes I hear people say that they don’t really pay attention to the ethnic diversity or lack thereof on their stage or church platform. Generally speaking, individuals who say that are probably attending a church that does not have any reflection of ethnic diversity on their platform or in their congregation. Those churches that have ethnic diversity represented on their platform and in their congregation not only see it each and every week, but they can feel it, love it, embrace it. It just feels good. A little glimpse of heaven. There is something distinct about a church culture that at least considers embracing the notion of every tribe and every tongue. A church doesn’t want to be located on Sesame Street. “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn’t belong. Can you tell which thing is not like the others, by the time we finish this worship song?”

Individuals who happen to be the ethnic minority of a particular church not only feel the presence of a diverse platform, but it speaks the love language of welcomeness not only to them but to everyone in the church. In other words, someone that looks like me—my cousin, my friend, my neighbor—is welcome here. That same love language of welcomeness translates to the ethnic majority of the church as well. There are many ways to begin the process of creating a culture of embracing diversity, and the first place to begin is having a diverse platform.

Theory of Looking-Glass Self

I remember back in my early days in college as a psychology major learning all of these really cool psychological theories and concepts. My knowledge and understanding of those concepts makes me smarter than you and allows me to have the supernatural ability to out-think you. As a college freshman, I think I really believed that to be true, but later found out—not so much. I did learn some cool theories. You have probably heard some of the theories: Pavlov’s Salivating Dog Theory, Freud’s Sexual Theories, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and countless others.

One theory that always stood out in my head was Cooley’s Theory of Looking-Glass Self. This theory is a social psychological concept created by Charles Horton Cooley in 1902. This theory basically states that a person’s self grows out of society’s interpersonal interactions and the perceptions of others. The term refers to the fact that people shape themselves based on other people’s perceptions. As a result, people shape themselves based on what other people perceive, and confirm other people’s opinions of themselves. They basically buy into the perception versus reality argument, and other people’s perceptions become their reality.

The key concept of this theory as it relates to the Church and the importance of everyone seeing some representation of themselves in a leadership role is critical. Not being able to see a representation of themselves could create a barrier based on this looking-glass self theory. This is an important piece of information for the church to be cognizant of. This will help ensure that we truly place a high value on each and every individual walking through the doors of our churches. If the church is sensitive to this theory, leadership decisions will help individuals get over any mental barriers of perception and get to the place where they see themselves as God sees them. Whether we want to admit it or not, there is a perception versus reality tension that exists for people coming through the doors of the church—especially those walking through the doors for the first time. Embracing diversity will help people tear down any barriers to people beginning to see themselves as God sees them.

I remember having a conversation with a female pastor friend of mine about my buddy’s thoughts regarding his sons being a part of a church where there are not any leaders that look like them. This female pastor attended the same church as my friend. She happens to be white and her husband is black. She said, “Wow. I didn’t even notice these perception issues until my daughter said, ‘Mom, why am I the only one that has a brown daddy that picks them up from class? Mom, why are none of my teachers brown like me and daddy?’” She didn’t notice it, but her daughter did. Even though her daughter is growing up in the most colorblind generation of our time, she is still affected by this Looking-Glass Self Theory from a very early age.

This theory highlights the ways in which an individual’s sense of self is derived from the perceptions of others. Just like the reflections in a mirror, the self depends on the perceived responses of others. According to Cooley, the looking-glass self is derived from three basic thoughts:

1. Envisioning how one appears to others. Asking questions like: I wonder what the people around me in church are thinking about the way I look. Do I fit in? Am I welcome? Can I connect with the God of the universe here?

2. Imagining what others must think of one’s appearance. Since there are not many people that look like me, I bet the majority of the people don’t even want me here.

3. Developing self-feeling—feelings such as pride. I am not going back to that church. I was definitely not comfortable or welcome, and remember, it’s all about me and how I feel.

The Church can fall into the category of fostering environments that encourage these types of negative self-talk, instead of being intentional about breaking them down. Jesus created environments where no matter who you were you were truly welcomed and embraced in an awkwardly good way. Intentional love wins every time. If you are not intentional with your love, you can miss the mark. If you don’t believe me, ask the countless married guys who think they are being loving husbands and because of the lack of intentionality, their wives don’t even think they care about them.

“What you see is what you get” is all about intentionality. It’s about breaking down the “Theory of Looking-Glass Self” to the “Theory of Christ in Me.” The “Theory of Christ in Me” is when people begin to see themselves as Jesus sees them and they also begin to see the Christ that lives inside of them.

Is It Just About Race?

Every time I have a conversation about diversity in the Church with ministry leaders and congregants in general, the most commonly asked questions that I receive are (1) How do I incorporate diversity into my church? and (2) is church diversity only about race? Those are both great questions and I pray that concepts from this book will help to identify answers to the first question. The straightforward answer to the second question is, “No, church diversity isn’t just about race.” Ethnic diversity is a key component to the overall diversity conversation, because it’s the one aspect of diversity that we can visually notice instantly. You can easily scan a sanctuary, lobby, Sunday school, or platform for ethnic diversity. It’s much more difficult to scan for diversity in socioeconomics, age, interests, and background.

Imagine the person in the diagram on the next page is anywhere in a church and this is their visual spectrum being combined with their thought process. People subconsciously view their church experience through this spectrum. The conversation about race is where everything begins when you talk about diversity. As I mentioned, ethnic diversity is generally the one type of diversity that you can see and it’s the most obvious. I can visually acknowledge that someone is Asian; however, I have a much harder time identifying whether or not someone is rich or poor. Socioeconomic status is a much more fluid type of diversity. It’s one that you have to wonder about unless it’s someone who comes to your church with the stereotypical homeless look, and even then there is no guarantee that’s the case. The “homeless” look has actually evolved into a style of some sorts; as a matter of fact, many of you reading this have a band member or two that could stylistically fit the homeless build.

Again, the fact that ethnic diversity is the most obvious type of diversity provides a direct correlation to the other types of diversity. I see ethnic diversity and therefore I subconsciously assume that there is a mash-up of other diversity.

Diversity is important in understanding what lenses people are looking through as they walk through the doors of your church. What they see directly affects their perception of how they process their encounter with God, therefore directly affecting the Church’s ability to reach the lost.

* Does everyone in my church look like me? If the answer is yes, I stop there and settle for “This is how it is” or “This is how it’s supposed to be.”

* I see ethnic diversity within my church. I begin to ask questions like, “Am I in the majority culture?” If I am in the majority culture, it’s easy for me to spot individuals who are not in my culture. If I’m in the minority culture it’s easy for me to not only spot individuals in the minority culture, but gravitate toward and have a desire to connect with them. I must be welcome here because they are welcome here.

* I assume that other types of church diversity exist. Because of the ethnic diversity that I see, I instinctively assume that other types of diversity exist. I begin to appreciate the spectrum of diversity that must exist within my church. Bring on the sinners in need of a Savior who don’t look like me, talk like me, act like me, dress like me, and who have totally different backgrounds than me.

* I see a sign on my church’s door that reads Everyone Welcome. I have reached the apex of how I view my church. My church is not just talking about reaching everyone for Christ—they are living it out. The sign on the door of my church reads EVERYONE WELCOME.

Church diversity is not simply about the color of skin, but rather people and the wages of sin. The wages of sin is death and there are people outside our church’s doors who are going to hell. The Church must move beyond being concerned about “churchianity” or being the next relevant multisite movement to being more concerned about reaching all people for Christ. Church diversity is about reaching all people—period!

Church Diversity Challenge 2

* What does the “elephant in the pew” look like in your church?

* What are some things keeping you from addressing the “elephant in the pew” and what steps do you need to take in your church to begin the process?

* What challenges do you expect to encounter once you address the “elephant in the pew”? How are you prepared to handle these challenges?

* If you were reading the sign on the front of your church, what would it say? If the sign wouldn’t read Everyone Welcome, what can you and are you going to do to change it?

* Share your thoughts on the diversity spectrum diagram. Are you able to move past I-See?

Scott Williams is the former campus pastor of the Northwest Oklahoma City campus of LifeChurch.

This article “Church Diversity: Sunday – The Most Segregated Day of the Week” by Scott Williams was excerpted from: website. April 2010. It may be used for study & research purposes only.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”