The following post was first published in The Tablet, a student-ran column publication.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once stated, “Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of Christian America.” Since that declaration 50 years ago, ecclesial segregation largely persists. However, Sunday segregation not only occurs along racial divides. It also extends to age, socio-economic class, educational level, political affiliation, and theological beliefs. Worship tends to be a rather homogeneous experience for most Americans. Many suggest that this is not necessarily a bad thing and that it’s simply natural for people to connect with God among people who are like them. To the contrary, I assert that the uniformity present in most Sunday morning services causes Christians to miss out on the true power of church and the fullness of God’s character.
God has much to teach humanity through diversity. When people interact with those who do not look, act, and think like they do, significant growth often occurs. New perspectives cause the reevaluation of one’s beliefs and stretch one to think about things in a different way. Furthermore, based on their social location and personal experiences, people express the image of God in a variety of manners. In so doing, each person reveals the identity of God in a unique way. Thus, through immersion in diversity, one becomes more connected with the wholeness of God’s character. Contrarily, when people worship only with people who are like them, they come to see God in a very narrow and particular way and miss the richness of God’s identity.
The letter of 1 Corinthians depicts an early Christian community that seems in many ways to have embodied the unity in diversity that our modern churches often fail to capture. As is clear from the letter, this community experienced its share of conflict due to its differences. However, Paul directs the Corinthians to focus on the benefits of their diversity through his metaphor of the body of Christ. His emphasis on diversity is explicitly evident in 1 Corinthians 12:17-20 when Paul states: “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body.”
This passage points to the reality that God desires for Christians to worship with people who are different than they are. To follow Paul’s body metaphor, a church of all feet or all eyes or all noses fails to attain the essence of Jesus’ new community where people from all walks of life are invited to come together. As Paul articulates, the Christian assembly is called to be “many members, yet one body.” As a unified collection of difference, the church ultimately becomes a more complete representation of who God is and more effectively follows in Jesus’ footsteps.
For many, the ideal of diversity in worship may feel distant and unreal. However, small changes can go a long way. For example, introducing worship practices from other traditions or cultures can be a great starting place for opening the minds of congregants to other ways of seeing God. In addition, cooperation with other churches that may have different ethnic populations or theological beliefs is another way to begin incorporating diversity.
Regardless of how it is done, we Christians ought to be constantly striving for new worship experiences with different kinds of people so as to broaden our understanding of God beyond our own formation. May we always be willing to ask the question, “What perspective of God am I missing?” And may we consequently seek to worship with people that can shed light on aspects of God’s image in humanity that we have miss.