By: Trevin Wax
I’m thrilled to have Trillia Newbell on the blog today. Her writing has been published in numerous places including the Knoxville News-Sentinel, Desiring God, True Woman, The Resurgence, and The Gospel Coalition. She currently is the consultant on Women’s Initiatives for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention and the Lead Editor of Karis, the women’s channel for the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
Trillia is the author of United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity, so today she and I discuss what diversity looks like within the church and why ethnic and cultural diversity in and of itself should not be the goal to which Christians aspire.
Trevin Wax: Your book begins reflectively, first with a celebration of our society’s move toward integration in various aspects of public life, and then with a lament that “separate but equal” continues to exist in our churches. What are some reasons the church’s strides toward ethnic integration have been so slow?
Trillia Newbell: This is something I continue to explore. I spend a chapter in United dedicated to the difficulties most likely associated with the pursuit of diversity. The most obvious hindrance could be a sin of partiality.
James addresses our potential to gravitate towards those we believe are superior or that we would prefer above others (James 2:1-13). He is addressing a preference for the rich over the poor but I believe we can struggle with this tendency as it relates to ethnic diversity as well. We can simply prefer those more culturally like us to the extent of isolating those who are not. So, as a result we have homogenous churches because we aren’t relating to others outside of our own ethnic groups.
As far as other reasons, our history of racial tensions in the United States definitely plays a role. There’s an element of trust and comfortableness that must be established in any congregation and we are still working to apply the gospel to this issue relationally.
In regards to history, churches that have been long established may have a difficult time building diversity if they have been historically homogenous. Other reasons might be: church location, city demographics, and specific neighborhood demographics.
Finally, we might simply be complacent. It takes effort to reach out to neighbors, evangelize, and exercise hospitality.
Trevin Wax: I love how this book includes real-life examples of friendships you’ve developed across ethnic lines. You talk about your friendship with Amy (white) and Lillian (Chinese), and why your friends’ diverse backgrounds and experiences are one of the best parts of your friendship. Why do many Christians assume that it’s best to be “color-blind” rather than celebrate the richness of cultural variety God has given us?
Trillia Newbell: I think people use the term color-blind as a way to say “I’m not a racist.” They may want others to feel welcomed by them. The problem is, unless you are truly color-blind you do see color. What I think people ought to say instead is that they don’t differentiate or discriminate based on ethnicity.
God created us all with a variety of shades and backgrounds. We can celebrate this rather than shying away from it. We are his and his creation. This is a good thing. So I’d encourage us that we don’t need to say we are color-blind and instead get to know the unique ways the Lord has made each of us.
Trevin Wax: One of the most memorable parts of your book is when you say the “diversity” in general terms isn’t what we are supposed to pursue. It’s love. Explain what you mean by this.
Trillia Newbell: I’m so glad that you picked that up, Trevin. It is the only real motivation for a pursuit of diversity. What I mean is, it would grieve me for the church to pick up yet another trend. Building diversity for diversity sake isn’t the aim of United.
Diversity is about love because diversity is about people. Jesus died for the Church (people). God sent His Son because He loved the world. A Christian approach to diversity is about getting to know and welcoming in brother and sisters in Christ, made in the image of God. So, to put the pursuit of diversity into action requires that we die to self and love our neighbors as ourselves.
Diversity has been made into a political term. But when Christians pursue diversity, it is (or should be) out of a desire to show the love of Christ to others. The gospel compels us to love others and it is the gospel that breaks racial barriers. We are much more the same in Christ than we could ever be different.
Trevin Wax: There are plenty of pastors who read books and interviews like this and say, “Yes, I want my church to be more diverse, but I have no idea where to start!” A recent study from LifeWay Research found 83% of pastors said every church should strive for racial diversity, but only 13% say they actually had a diverse congregation. It’s not as easy as just “welcoming” other ethnicities into a church that is predominantly one culture.
What are some practical things a pastor can do to begin to move his church in this direction, taking into consideration that it’s a long and arduous struggle that will not happen overnight?
Trillia Newbell: This is a great question and one I have received several times. I want to start by saying that I’m glad you acknowledge that it may not be easy. I have spoken with pastors who have had an easier time because they started their church on the onset with a mission to be multiethnic. But most pastors, it seems, develop a desire for diversity after a few years in ministry.
I’m currently running a series on my site, TrilliaNewbell.com, to assist pastors who desire to pursue diversity but don’t know where to start. I’ve asked other pastors to share their unique experiences and perspectives to equip pastors and congregations as they seek to implement strategies.
With that said, a few ways that pastors might begin to pursue diversity would be:
Develop a diverse staff
Share about a theology of race and diversity from the pulpit
Cultivate a love for all nations, tribes and tongues
Begin to invite others into your home
If you don’t have a diverse staff for various reasons, invite speakers that are diverse.
This only scratches the surface but perhaps it will inspire some. I also spend time in United addressing some of the hindrances to the pursuit of diversity. I hope, though, that pastors would take a look at my short series. You never know what the Lord could do if you try. He is faithful.
Trevin Wax: What do you hope your book will accomplish in the church’s ongoing discussion of how best to display our unity in the gospel?
Trillia Newbell: I’m praying that we would no longer fear the conversation. I wanted to make the tough discussion about race and diversity accessible to anyone. Perhaps reading about the experience of another person will help also bring the issue into light. If even a few people begin to ask questions and open up with their friends, I think that would be encouraging and worth the effort to write the book.
I pray United will inspire people to pursue diversity through friendships—it’s doesn’t have to be as complicated as we make it. And I hope that for the person who has never considered how the gospel unites and transforms racial divide, that it would cast a vision for the beauty of diversity in the church and all of life. New convictions, greater awareness, wonderful friendships…that would be amazing.
And finally, local churches catching a vision and beginning to reflect that Last Day when all nations will be rejoicing together.