Four ways ministries grow in ethnic diversity

When ministries grow in meaningful ethnic diversity, God's kingdom advances rapidly. A loving multiethnic community is the most powerful witness to the gospel's power. Our best evidence that Jesus' death and resurrection has made a difference in the world shines forth when people can see racial and ethnic barriers torn down.

Here are four ways I've seen ministries grow in ethnic diversity.

1. Visually

The easiest changes are the optical ones. Put a more diverse cast on your publicity. Use stock photos if you must. Pull a person who looks different from the majority of the group up on stage. At some point or another every ministry that wants to grow more diverse must make this jump.

I've wrestled with this step because so often it merely amounts to tokenism and window dressing. The brochures don't match the boardrooms. The appearance of diversity can actually serve as a roadblock to experiencing true diversity (and the reconciliation necessary to make that happen). But ministries that want to grow more diverse always have to take this step ... and often before they feel ready.

When I served with InterVarsity in South Florida we struggled to get white students involved in our ministries. We had lots of Haitian, Black, Latino and Asian students, but few white students involved. On some campuses, we were the only campus ministry present. And with our vision to reach every corner of campus, we knew we had to make an intentional effort to reach white students. Having white students on our marketing materials and at our events made a small but noticeable impact on our ability to reach an unreached corner of our campuses. But, I'll be honest, it felt uncomfortable to be so intentional about the pictures we used.

2. Culturally

Cultural expressions and artifacts can create space for people to connect across barriers and boundaries. I've argued elsewhere that culture is a gift from God that he can use to guide his people through the debris left by racial and ethnic barriers. Ministries that grow in ethnic diversity will find ways to share and enjoy a diverse set of cultural expressions: languages, musical styles, food, and dress are a few of the expressions I've seen used to help a ministry grow in diversity.

Multiculturalism almost always comes before multi-ethnicity.

I'll never forget the first time I heard musical worship in Spanish. The stadium at Acquire the Fire in Tampa softly sang: "Dame, dame, dame más de ti, bendito Señor" (listen here). I'd heard all kinds of Spanish language music in my house and at my relatives' homes, but I'd never heard anyone sing musical worship in Spanish in the mostly white churches that I went to as a child. This experience had a significant impact on my faith and its integration into my life. I shared something special on that day with my Christian friends from different ethnic backgrounds.

3. Temporarily

This is the most difficult truth about ministries growing in diversity. There's something in the world that pulls us toward homogeneity. As a ministry grows more diverse, people might get hurt and pull back. Other might feel newly excluded and pull away. Building a multiethnic ministry requires constant adjustment and will almost certainly involve seasons of failure.

When I joined InterVarsity at Duke the chapter had just started to grow in multi-ethnicity. My year had a balance of white and Asian-American students. The year that followed me had a few more Asian students than white students. Now, 15 years later, the chapter is almost all Asian and Asian-American. I've seen this pattern repeated time and time again: white flight, black flight, Latino flight ... they're real and really difficult to forestall.

Additionally, I've seen ministries gain momentum in diversity and then lose it. One ministry went from employing one to seven Latino staff in just 4 years. But a series of strategic decisions and some hard realities beyond the ministry's control broke the momentum. Three years late and that ministry now employs three Latino staff. Momentum matters and proves difficult to maintain.

4. Persistently

No ministry will experience long-term growth in ethnic diversity without persistence. 

Growing in ethnic diversity requires work at every level in an organization. Adjustments happen at the leadership level, in recruitment, in teaching and worship style, in marketing, in discipleship approach, in evangelistic communication ... the list could go on and on and on. A ministry must be deeply committed to multi-ethnicity for it to grow in ethnic diversity over the long haul.

This persistence only comes from a conviction that multi-ethnicity is essentially tied to the mission of the ministry. Individual leaders must be captured by the vision of a multi-ethnic community. They have to learn to articulate how diversity and mission are connected with each other. They have acquire stories of victories and failures, sacrifices and blessings, pain and joy.

What else do you see as essential for a ministry to grow in ethnic diversity?

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