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Koinonia

The James 2 Initiative

Calling the Church to a conversation about radical diversity

Original image created as a Free Cultural Work. “NLT” is New Living Translation.

It is a commonly discussed fact among clergy and many churches that collectively we are all facing a steady decline in membership and participation in churches in the United States. Even if a few of us are ‘winning’ so to speak, there are a great many more churches who are slowly shrinking. In these discussions there is often a fear that the decline in membership and participation will accompany a decline in the cultural influence and prestige that the Church overall has held for generations, and with that we will be making fewer and fewer disciples of Christ.

If the downward trend of declining church attendance continues for the next 50 years, then the future Church in America will resemble that of Europe — with perhaps only a paltry 5% of the population showing up for worship services on any given Sunday. To put that in perspective, imagine your current church but with only a quarter of its current attendance. Your church may stay afloat financially thanks to a fat endowment, but not every church has one of those. Like it or not, more and more churches are going to be closing their doors. This will be especially true for more rural or semi-rural parts of our country where population density is not sufficient to halt decline. While some families may be willing to drive a half hour or more to worship at a church that they prefer, I cannot imagine unchurched families being just as willing.

So how can pastors and congregations embody a Spirit-led, forward-thinking growth mindset in the face of a bleak forecast? We need to remember that the Church began as a minority movement, on the fringe of society. This was especially true in the Patristic Age, when the Church was growing under the oppressive gaze of an empire. If times were tough for Christians back then in terms of not having any sort of majority position in the culture, and they were still able to expand and make disciples, then why should we fear the future of a decline? If anything, this may intensify our witness to the culture as we offer something to it the world cannot. In doing so, we need to prepare ourselves for renewal and reform if we want the revival to come with it.

When it comes to this issue of winning the culture back, what does a Spirit-led, forward-thinking growth mindset look like for the typical ‘Main Street Baptist Church’ or the ‘Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church’ or the ‘International Pentecostal Fellowship’ you might find in your city? In one specific way, I think it will look like a congregation that both welcomes and celebrates diversity of thought and lifestyle in a radical way. In other words, we need to embrace radical diversity; and the James 2 Initiative is calling upon all churches everywhere to have a conversation on just that. The specific scripture the James 2 Initiative is based on is as follows:

  1. My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. (2:1)
  2. Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (2:12–13)
  3. What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (2:14–17)

Together, I believe these verses provide a foundation for an ethos that rebukes exclusivity in the Church, replaces it with a greater and deeper inclusivity that is non-judgmental, and actively takes measures that promote radical diversity rather than merely paying lip service to it. What we may derive from that ethos in a continuum of thought and action would be the elimination of partiality or favoritism, rebuking narratives that limit or invalidate the opinions of others, and the promotion of forums where ideas can be discussed in peaceful ways. However, those are simply the means to an end. The ends we should have in mind when it comes to radical diversity is greater unity and wholeness in the Church.

Bear in mind I am presenting nothing new here. The James 2 Initiative is simply rebranding activities we should already be doing. However, my intent in promoting the James 2 Initiative is not simply to pat ourselves on the back, but to critically examine our social context and the communities that our congregations are attempting to reach. Unchurched and dechurched people need to see from churched people that “come as you are” doesn’t mean “come if you agree with me.” Thus, the James 2 Initiative can give pastors and lay-leaders alike a platform or to have conversations about the level of inclusivity, exclusivity, and diversity in their specific setting in order to address the trend of declining church participation.

So now what?

Think about your congregation for a moment. Would it be possible for it to fully express how inclusive it is to everyone in society? I suspect nearly every congregation, if polled, would say “of course everyone is welcome here, Jesus loves them.” But there is a big difference between having a welcoming attitude behind church doors and showing your welcoming attitude in front of those doors. For instance, would you leave your current church if it flew the Rainbow/Pride Flag out front or in the sanctuary alongside the US flag and Ecumenical flag? Or how about a simple sign like “LGBTQIA+ are welcome to worship here” instead?

I think many pastors (including me) would shudder or squirm in response to that hypothetical even though we acknowledge that diversity must begin with inclusivity. We might hear statements like: “it is not that simple” or “if we do that then good people will leave.” I think that is because many pastors operate under a fear that congregants will hold their tithe checks hostage if certain ways of thinking are not upheld. One part of that problem might be due to the fact that for every ‘Main Street Baptist Church’ in a given city, there is probably some ‘North Side Baptist Church’ that you can go to. It is all too easy to jump ship if you do not like the captain. And I get it. No judgment here. After all, if you do not agree that the LGBTQIA+ lifestyle is biblical, then why welcome it?

I think ancient churches faced similar problems when they were a minority under the Roman Empire. Imagine a Roman centurion walking into a congregation one Sunday morning with a well-known local sex worker during the 1st century, claiming they want to know more about Jesus. Would that couple have been welcome? We might also imagine an exclusively white church in the Jim Crow era South putting up a sign that read “colored people are welcome to worship here.” How do you think that would have gone over for that church?

It seems that we could pick any time period we want, any location, and discover difficulties that the Church would face in terms of being more welcoming and inclusive of people that are in some minority status. Those difficulties rest only in the perception of other people from a position that is partial to what the majority is (be that of race, gender, theology, sexuality, identity, reputation, etc.). One of the reasons why the ancient Church was so successful was because it preached against favoritism and partiality of any kind, and this is why all sorts of people from the top to the bottom of society were able to forge a community together.

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. ~ Galatians 3:26–28 (NIV)

Allow me to re-read verse 28: There is neither black nor white, gay nor straight, rich nor poor, nor is there conservative and progressive, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. To think of my re-reading here as controversial would be correct, considering the original verse 28 was probably also controversial when Paul’s recipients first read his words aloud. But no matter how you read verse 28, you cannot get around the phrase “all are one in Christ Jesus.” All means all.

The deeper point here is to not only be welcoming and inclusive towards LGBTQIA+ individuals, but also welcoming and inclusive towards individuals who do not think the LGBTQIA+ lifestyle is biblical! That’s what radical diversity truly means. Church should be a place where people with completely different biblical outlooks can come together to worship and serve the Lord without judging one another. Right?

But let’s not forget that radical diversity goes the other way too. It is somewhat fashionable in our current cultural climate to be critical of “The Patriarchy” (any ideology that prescribes heteronormativity and male-led hierarchies). This critical attitude can lead to the invalidation of opinions espoused by white men because they embody “The Patriarchy” more than any other demographic. And I get it. But the fact that some white men have expressed a fear of being silenced in the Church means we are not doing a good job of creating safe spaces where they feel like they can share their opinions openly without being discriminated against on things that have nothing to do with their opinion. (And if you’ve already dismissed this whole paragraph as me “mansplaining” how it is, then you’re contributing to the problem.)

On a related note, some female colleagues of mine have expressed similar fears of being discriminated against (due to sexism associated with a patriarchal culture in the congregations they serve), to the extent that they feel incapable of standing up against prominent congregants or certain elders and deacons in their role as a pastor. The pattern I have found in the stories of these women is that they receive criticism of some kind (and not in a nice way), and in the course of standing up for themselves, they invariably create some interpersonal conflict that shifts congregational confidence in their leadership. In order to avoid the conflict altogether and thus retain job security, these pastors are made to suffer in silence or at the very least to not rock the boat.

In closing, whatever your personal situation is as either a pastor, lay leader, or church member, we must be careful not to let conversations turn into conflicts. Radical diversity can be uncomfortable, and some people may not be prepared or willing to work through the discomfort of sitting next to people that do not look, dress, act, and think like them on Sunday mornings. But to me, the alternative of sitting next to less and less people over the coming decades is far more uncomfortable.

This article is the sole opinion of the Rev. Gordon Tubbs and has not been endorsed by the leadership of the church he is currently serving at, nor by anyone else associated with the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Respond below if you have already had conversations like these in your church. How did they go? What came of them? For those of you who want to have a conversation about radical diversity but think it would be too divisive, why do you think that? Thanks in advance for your thoughts!

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Rev. Gordon Tubbs

Clear and critical thinking-out-loud about philosophical and theological topics from the perspective of an ordained Christian minister.