The Daily Telegraph, a daily newspaper in Great Britain, reported recently on the findings of research by the Social Integration Commission (SIC) about the places where people from different backgrounds meet and mix with each other.
The article, with the headline, “Churches are the best social melting pots in modern Britain,” says, “Overall, it found that churches and other places of worship are more successful than any other social setting at bringing people of different backgrounds together, well ahead of gatherings such as parties, meetings, weddings or venues such as pubs and clubs.”
This may come as a surprise to many, as the church is often conveyed as somewhere with a fundamental problem when it comes to embracing diversity.
But this research asserts that the very opposite is true: that the church is one of the best places where people from different backgrounds come together.
The findings resonate with my experience. The church my family and I are part of, Streatham Baptist Church in South London, is incredibly diverse.
A while ago, the minister leading the service asked to have one representative from every nationality present that morning to come up to the front.
So, along with one person who was actually from South London, more than 50 other people, each from different countries across the globe came up to the front of the church and stood together.
It was a moving moment and a powerful visual illustration of ethnic diversity.
And at the church where my work is based, Hinde Street Methodist Church in central London, more than 200 people a day come into the building for 12-step “anonymous” groups, which meet each day from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. at night.
As well as Alcoholics Anonymous, there is Narcotics Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous and a wide range of others relating to eating disorders, debt, gambling and others issues.
Those coming into the building each day could not be more diverse, ranging from those who are on the street and homeless to famous celebrities.
In both of these different contexts, diversity is something that is cherished, celebrated and invested in.
In short, diversity is believed in because it is acknowledged as something fundamental to what it means to be a church.
Of course, there is no room for any complacency. Congregations can easily become inward looking and cliquey.
Whether large or small, it’s tempting for a church to adopt attitudes more like a private club and lock themselves into styles of service and activities that simply provide what the current members want.
I remember running a workshop a few years ago on “connecting with the local community” at a church with a tiny congregation.
To nods of agreement, one older lady said, “Oh, I can’t see anyone wanting to join us here. We’re not very friendly you see.”
Needless to say, that congregation no longer exists.
Despite the exceptions, why are churches better at bringing a diverse group of people together than other institutions?
As I have written about recently, it’s not because churches are full of intrinsically nicer or friendlier people.
I think a key reason is that the imperative to include others who are not like ourselves lies at the heart of the gospel message.
Just consider Jesus’ example. The 12 disciples came from an incredibly diverse spectrum, including both nationalist zealots and their sworn enemies, the tax collectors.
Jesus deliberately spent time with those despised and excluded, challenging the exclusive tendencies of the religious communities of his day.
And the early church, diversified even further with non-Jews welcomed into the Christian church, as both Peter and Paul declared bluntly, “God does not show favoritism” (Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11).
So, despite its failings and struggles, the church has within its DNA a commitment to be diverse and inclusive. It’s a commitment that is anchored in a belief in everyone’s value before God.
This runs deeper than the fashions of political correctness or the fuzziness of good intentions. It is a commitment and challenge summed up well by Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote:
“Worship at its best is a social experience with people of all levels of life coming together to realize their oneness and unity under God. Whenever the church, consciously or unconsciously, caters to one class, it loses the spiritual force of the ‘whosoever will, let him come’ doctrine and is in danger of becoming little more than a social club with a thin veneer of religiosity.”
Jon Kuhrt is executive director of social work at West London Mission and is a member of Streatham Baptist Church in South London. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, Resistance and Renewal, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @jonkuhrt.
Jon Kuhrt is chief executive of West London Mission and a member of Streatham Baptist Church in South London.