When I posted "I Go to Church with White People" on my blog, I was nervous. It was the first piece I'd written about racial issues. As an African American woman raised in the black church in South Carolina, my choice to worship at a predominantly white church was not normal. God, however, opened my eyes to the need for intentionally choosing a diverse community.
Embracing a community of faith that is diverse, trusting, and mutually submissive can humbly reveal much about God, and even more about ourselves. Diverse community can give us a clear lens to know and love God, plus help us understand our blind spots. This renewed vision compels us to love others well.
Multicultural small groups—those that are racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse—can be a catalyst to help us love our neighbors because they bring us close to "the other"—people who are different from us in some way. Simple proximity to "others" is a good first step.
We truly become a united people, though, through sacred moments together as a result of prayer, study, listening, and learning. Through the fellowship and community of diverse believers, our hearts are changed and we can re-enter a diverse and changing world again and again as reconciled, transformed, and renewed people who glorify God.
When a watching world sees true heart change, it's a compelling witness. This change begins by drawing close to God and embracing a diverse community. The Holy Spirit changes people, and he uses changed people to miraculously change other individuals, organizations (including the church), and the world.
Diverse Community Helps Us Grow
We naturally value unity in sameness—intimate connections with those who are like us. But it isn't as natural to experience unity with "the other." In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul writes that unity in the body of Christ requires complete humility, the bond of peace, gentleness, patience, and bearing with each other in love (4:2-3). Although God has graced us with different gifts and callings, Paul's number one priority is that the church labors for unity in the faith, knowledge of the Son of God, and maturity in Christ (4:12-13). Christ is glorified and the church is edified when there is sound teaching on, leadership toward, and strong commitment to unity in the body of believers. By embracing diverse community, we learn to unite with one another and grow together in light of our differences.
A multicultural community challenges us to revisit what the Bible says about loving our neighbor and "the other." Divisions in the body are often caused because sin has blinded us. Furthermore, we are far more lenient on those with whom we experience commonality than on those who are different than us. In their classic book, Divided by Faith, Christian sociologists Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith report, "People do not evaluate ingroup and outgroup members in the same way. Even when performing exactly the same actions, ingroup members are evaluated more positively and outgroup members more negatively."
This reality is not simply a concern of our day—we see this partiality toward self-interest and self-preservation throughout the Bible. But God has called us into a new life reflected by a new way of righteous and holy living. Righteous living includes the way that we think about and interact with God and our neighbors. Paul writes: "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs… . Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you" (Ephesians 4:29, 31-32, emphasis added).