By Taylor Bell
Many churches today are confronted with the reality of community and demographic changes. As the community in which the church exists begins to shift demographically, these churches become tasked with being a truly welcoming community to residents who are different to the preexisting congregation.
The Rev. Daynette Snead, in her workshop entitled “Engaging Your Church for Diversity and Inclusion” during the 2016 CBF General Assembly, stated that these churches must answer the question if they will either be an exclusive or inclusive church. The question was rhetorical for Snead, yet it highlighted the necessity for churches to adapt institutional and cultural dynamics if they wish to truly engage their shifting communities. If congregations desire inclusion, they need to possess an Intercultural Ministry Mindset, Rev. Snead stated, or a mindset which observes their church and community through the lenses of ethnicity/race, gender, age and culture. These specific lenses provide unique windows through which the church can highlight how it is inclusive as well as note and change how it is exclusive.
This work involves engaging the church’s culture, or its specific theological beliefs and institutional practices. How does theology and the institution embrace or exclude people based on ethnicity, gender, age and culture? These are the central questions explored through the cultural engagement of the intercultural ministry mindset.
Turning internally toward the church, Snead recommended gauging the “pulse” of the church’s culture by asking the newest members of the church (roughly 10% of the membership) on why they joined the church. This will answer what aspects of the church’s culture are inviting, inclusive and important.
Turning outward to face the community, Snead recommended churches move to examine how their self-presentation either excludes or includes their larger community. Snead points to the external “starting points” for non-members, such as the church website and worship dynamics/style. They say the devil is in the details, and for Snead a church’s exclusion is often found in either unnoticed or unquestioned beliefs or practices. These changes are created and implemented through an understanding of the various communal and religious attitudes of the community coupled with the unique knowledge and skills the church itself possesses.
Through this dynamic, the church can begin to find ways to make itself more inclusive to its shifting community. Implementing these more inclusive changes is not easy, Snead noted. Churches tend to first deny, resist, and minimize such change, she continued. However, if done with patience and perseverance, churches tend to transition into acceptance, adapting the church’s culture so that it may become newly integrated. Integration is a key term for Snead. It does not mean the absorption of a new community into a preexisting church; rather it means the reformation of a church’s culture so that all people may be truly included in the church’s community.
It is clear that America’s religious landscape is shifting, and as both newly-started and historically-established churches seek to respond to these shifts the question of inclusivity and exclusivity is becoming paramount. Many cry out for religious space that is both theologically and institutionally inclusive of the broad and beautifully diverse family that is God’s children. As neighborhoods across America continue to demographically, politically, socioeconomically, racially and even religiously shift, the Church is tasked with the holy responsibility to self-examine and reform its body.
Rev. Daynette Snead’s workshop was a helpful guide into how the local church can become more inclusive, and we can now explore ways in which we can live this inclusivity out together.
Taylor Bell serves as a congregational intern for the Baptist Church of the Covenant in Birmingham, AL. He is currently pursuing his M.Div. from Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, GA.