In 1963, shortly after his “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic.”
Some 50 years later, more than eight of 10 congregations in the U.S. are still of predominantly one race. And a recent study of churchgoers indicates that most Americans like it that way. Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, which conducted the study, says, “Surprisingly, most churchgoers are content with the status quo in their churches. In a world where our culture is increasingly diverse and many pastors are talking about diversity, it appears most people are happy where they are — and with whom they are.”
“When demographics rapidly shift, it can be difficult for established churches to adjust. That’s why church plants provide a unique opportunity to pursue diversity.”
But Marc Champagne is not content with the status quo. As a church planter in Cincinnati, he believes that the community of the church should reflect the community in which God has placed it. But when demographics rapidly shift, it can be difficult for established churches to adjust. That’s why church plants provide a unique opportunity to pursue diversity. Champagne says, “It’s a theological reality that God has placed people exactly where He wants them. There’s no mistake that there are shifting demographics.” So Champagne determined to study his community, ask what God was doing, and figure out how the church could reflect that reality.
In 2011, after 12 years at North Cincinnati Community Church in Mason, Ohio, Champagne gathered a core group of those interested in a multiethnic church plant. Dale Watson, a member of that original group, is still part of the leadership team at Redeemer Church — the fruit of their initial dreams after they began worshipping together in 2012. He says it was important to have a diverse core group. “We had African-American, Asian, and white families. The people interested in the vision were diverse themselves.” He recognizes that church is often the last place people of diverse cultures and races come together, but he says that as hard as it is, it is worth it. “When people come together and trust is built, there is understanding and a different perspective,” says Watson. “In a country that is increasingly changing demographically, there is a great opportunity for those inclined to do it.”
Tearing Down Barriers
Champagne tells one dramatic story of a changed perspective. A man he had known previously came to worship at Redeemer but after a few weeks told Champagne that he couldn’t participate in communion. When asked to explain, the man described holding strong biases against some of the racial groups at the church. He said he couldn’t take communion because of what he had said and done in the past. “This was an opportunity for confession and repentance, and an opportunity to move forward,” says Champagne. “I don’t see where else this can happen other than in the church.”
This is why Champagne says he pursues diversity — not for its own sake, but for the sake of the Gospel. “The Gospel fundamentally tears down barriers. One of the purposes of Christ was to bring reconciliation,” he says. “When He does this, it can only have an explanation beyond men. It can only be God’s work.”
But those barriers do not come down quickly or without investment in relationships, says Wenetta Turner, Redeemer’s children’s ministry director and also a part of the initial group gathered by Champagne. She says the best way to cultivate a culture of openness to different races and ethnicities is to allow conversations to happen organically in relationships. She said their early small group spent many months getting to know each other — Indian and Chinese and Indonesian and black and white. “We spent a long time trying to understand what it might mean to be a multiethnic community, and trying to understand each other’s point of view.” She says that now conversations in the church community still happen not as a result of programs, but in the context of relationships. For example, once women of diverse races study the Bible together in a Redeemer First Fridays event, they finally feel free to ask the questions that they’ve long wondered about, explains Turner.
Initially, Turner didn’t find the concept of a church plant appealing. But, she came to realize, “To make people feel welcome, there has to be an understanding of our differences. It is hard to foster that understanding in an established church.” Having grown up in the black church in Minnesota, Turner had adjusted to her position as part of a very small minority in Cincinnati. She says, “I have been on the other side, where you own the burden of making everyone feel comfortable with you. But if we are going to have an impact on our communities, you can’t put the burden on the new person.”
Champagne explains that those in the majority culture sometimes have a hard time understanding this. “If no one is there who looks like me, there is an unintentional barrier that the church has erected,” he explains. “If you’re part of a minority population, you’re giving away a certain measure of your own preferences all week. If you have a choice of where to worship on Sunday, why would you go to a place where you once again have to give up your preferences?” That’s why the Chinese church in north Cincinnati is flourishing — it’s a cultural center for the immigrant Chinese community, says Champagne. “We all lean toward homogeneity,” he continues. “It’s just easier.” But he emphasizes that as a white American, he has the choice of whether to put himself in a minority position in certain situations, whereas people of other races are always living in that reality.
A Long Learning Curve
Because the work of creating multiethnic communities pushes against the inertia of human nature, pastors working toward this goal need support. Champagne, alongside two African-American pastors, spearheads a network of more than 130 people who gather bimonthly to share the vision of churches reflecting Cincinnati’s diversity. “We want church to look like heaven,” says Champagne. “My learning curve is remarkable. This takes a lot of listening by the majority culture.” He says this isn’t a sociological endeavor but a theological one. “The basic doctrine of humanity from Genesis 1 to Revelation 7 doesn’t just support but propels us toward diversity.”
In its third year, Redeemer is now 35 percent nonwhite, with at least eight different nations represented. Turner says that she now has lifelong friends of different races that her family would never have gotten to know apart from the experience of planting a church together. “When I look at my children, they are growing up in a very diverse environment. They don’t have a sense of ‘I’m the only one here,’” she says. “This is what life is, and they don’t know any different.”
For Champagne, this is just the start of a long-term relationship-building process. He prays for non-Western converts because when they come to America and buy a big house, some feel they’ve “arrived” and don’t feel a need for the Gospel. As a suburban church, he admits, Redeemer doesn’t experience the same challenges as Cincinnati’s urban core. Still, he says, “The opportunities for learning are so dramatic. The hope of the world is the local church, we know, but the community doesn’t see it.”
Yet when he stands in front of his congregation, he sees a way out of the tragic segregation that Martin Luther King Jr. decried. “I look out on the sea of faces that reflect the breadth of God’s kingdom,” he says. “I feel like I’ve arrived. It brings me so much joy!” ψ
Susan Fikse is a wife, mom, and freelance writer in San Diego. You can find more of her writing on Twitter @SusanFikse.