There is no way to mandate diversity in a spiritual community.
Since such community is utterly voluntary and more often than not a collection (segregation) of the like-minded, diversity is not an achievable goal. But inclusivity is.
It is almost magical how intentionality about inclusion produces a harvest of diversity where once there was none or little. Even for a church smack dab in the middle of a homogenous (likely segregated) neighborhood or area, engaging in methodical acts of inclusion brings forth diversity. It may be the word-of-mouth factor because people are always interested in a place with buzz that offers the unexpected.
Being part of The Episcopal Church it is both humorous and maddening when Episcopalians imagine they can attract true racial and ethnic identity without changing their Eurocentric music. Music is the soundtrack to worship and inclusion begins with it – no variety in music, no diversity of community. That goes for diversity in age, intellect, theology, and socio-economic class as well. (This rule of thumb appears to break down in exurbia or rural areas where there is only one church of a particular kind, but the negative impact of a narrow music repertoire shows itself in other ways).
Spiritual communities and churches are among the most intimidating places for visitors and the unaffiliated to enter. In spite of the fact that the people inside see themselves as exceptionally warm and welcoming, those coming in often see what they expect to see: everyone else believes all the same things, knows all the secrets of ritual and etiquette, and knows each other. No matter that that perception is not accurate, that is what is often perceived.
We who are on the inside often reinforce those perceptions. We don’t have very good signage (one of the churches I served had eighteen entrances and all we locked); our worship bulletins or screen projections are minimalist rather than all-inclusive; the people greeting and ushering have been doing it for so long they have forgotten what is confusing; and no one talks about what is available to whom, what the expectations are, where to find the bathroom, or why it is okay if my kid makes noise.
Think of our gathering for worship like cocktail parties where you don’t know anyone and you have never been to the host’s house before. That is what it feels like to a stranger coming in, and add to that all the uncertainties and anxieties about “beliefs” and rituals, as well as the public stereotypes of Christianity, and it is a wonder anyone takes the risk.
For example, churches that include “Passing the Peace” are often quite proud of how vigorously they engage the ritual, getting up, walking around to shake hands and embrace. Lots of laughter, joy, and banter. Ironically, it is one of the most isolating and awkward moments for visitors and new people – they don’t know anyone. Often they feel like wallflowers as a junior high dance hoping and dreading at the same time that strangers will greet them.
Try gathering some folks in leadership and together take a guided mediation that includes imagining a Sunday morning (or whenever you gather) and walking up the sidewalk for the first time. Go step by step on your imaginative journey and notice everything you can about that hour or so of being in your worship for the first time. Then brainstorm all the things someone new would not necessarily know, and all the assumptions that are made about what people know and don’t know. By the end you should have a pretty healthy list of items to address.
Even better than your imagination, is convening a focus group of visitors. Ask newish people in the community (less than six months) to invite a friend on a given Sunday to come to church unescorted. Afterward, get everyone (new member and their visitor friend) together and invite conversation about what it was like. See what they see.
- Are the front doors the big end of the funnel or the small end?
- Do you have to believe and do certain things before you can be one of us?
- Are expectations clear, written down and shared? Are they narrow or broad?
- What about leadership in the church, who gets to do that and is the path to leadership specific and clear?
- Is this spiritual community like a club with membership or is it something else? How is it different?
- What gender leads worship? Is sexuality talked about openly?
- Do the people in the pews represent the diversity of the surrounding community?
- Are children integrated into worship; given child-friendly options while with adults and age-appropriate activities on their own?
- Do some people wear jeans and others a tie?
- Can anyone have a leadership role in worship or do you have to earn it?
- Are there subjects we cannot talk about here?
- Are you expected to believe what the leaders/pastors believe, and can you debate with them without feeling judged?
- Is it okay to sit in the back, be quiet, and leave right afterward?
- Does it feel safe to cry? Why not?
- Does everyone sit in the same place every time? Can I move around?
The more we break down what we do and look at it in its constituent parts, the more we will see ways to make our community more inclusive.