Emory Report

 September 29, 1997

 Volume 50, No. 6

Diversity is difficult, but
possible, in America's churches

One of the most profound changes taking place in American churches today has little to do with denominational politics or doctrinal disagreements. It occurs as the world's cultures encounter each other in the pews, thereby altering the church experience for everyone, said Charles Foster, professor of religion and education at the Candler School.

"No visionary leads this movement," noted Foster, who receives calls from reporters who discover thriving, culturally diverse churches in their communities and invariably ask: "Are there other congregations like this one?" Foster confirms for reporters that they may indeed be seeing something of a grassroots movement. In both small and large cities across North America, an increasing number of congregations are embracing differences that would typically be stumbling blocks elsewhere.

Foster, who has been studying multicultural congregations for several years, has written the forthcoming Embracing Difference: Leading Multicultural Congregations, one of the few guides for pastors and lay people seeking to help their churches deal with diversity. Foster uses the term "embracing" to challenge readers not to give just lip-service to cultural diversity but to "take seriously the radical differences that exist between generations, races, genders, social classes and cultures and to affirm the integrity and value of each."

To do that, the way people think about diversity has to change, said Foster. The presence of an increasing number of cultures and nationalities in many areas of the country is making familiar notions of toleration or assimilation seem out of step. "In congregations that embrace diversity, difference is affirmed as a gift and a resource," he said. "The reality is that if these congregations are going to continue to be a community, they have found they must embrace diversity to survive."

In his book, Foster examines how congregations negotiate the differences they encounter and explores practices these churches use to bind diverse people into a community. He stresses that there is no set formula for success. "Almost every pastor with whom I talked emphasized that most of what they learned about leading congregations that embrace difference occurred through trial and error," Foster writes in the book's introduction. In the absence of formalized leadership training programs, Foster's book seeks to help fill the gap.

Foster began examining what he calls "practices of embrace" when he and Ted Brelsford, a doctoral student at Emory, conducted research on three multicultural congregations in the Atlanta area. The study, published in the 1996 book, We Are the Church Together, looked at the dynamics of these congregations: what made them different, what made them successful. Yet despite the vitality of these diverse congregations, Foster stressed that they are volatile communities. "Almost anything that happens in these communities can be a point of coming together or breaking apart."

One strategy that may help churches struggling to deal with cultural differences is what Foster calls congregational conversation. "When we begin with the affirmation of difference, then the ways we talk to each other have to be taken seriously," said Foster. "We find ourselves struggling with the most obvious and simplest things." Everything, from the way people greet each other (bow? shake hands?) to the way children are nurtured and taught, to the way decisions are made, becomes part of the "curricular undercurrent" that may support or undermine the formal practices of worship, teaching and meeting, he said.

Even in culturally diverse settings, conversation does not come easily. One church Foster studied had 17 nationalities in its midst. Despite important cultural differences, it took six years to start conversations on how children should be reared. In most instances, he said, "conversation begins when something occurs that has to be talked about."

True conversation means the willingness to both speak and listen, said Foster. That may mean people need "to suspend their own personal, cultural and religious ideas and practices to listen for the experience and meanings of others."

Conversation also involves a willingness to acknowledge when your words and actions are misunderstood and a readiness to attempt to restore bruised relationships. As one pastor in Foster's study put it, "We've been stomping on each other's toes long enough; it's time we asked each other for forgiveness."

Ultimately, in the midst of ongoing conversation and mutual respect there "becomes a point where people begin to share the pain and joy of their lives across cultures and differences," said Foster. "Churches are one of the most difficult places for the embrace of diversity to occur because church life is so cultural. At the same time, churches may be among the best places for embracing diversity because the larger mission of the church involves embracing the diversity of God's creation."

-Elaine Justice

Return to September 29, 1997 contents page