4 Ways to Handle Diversity (Your Church Has Already Chosen One)

April 29, 2013

North American life is more diverse than it has ever been. In my community there are 80 first languages spoken in the public schools. And in my congregation, people from 10 countries of origin may attend on any given Sunday.

If this is true in the heartland of Indiana, it is probably the case where you are also. Every congregation must decide how it will respond to diversity.

Friends holding hands outdoors

Most churches have made this choice already, they just don’t know it.

And diversity isn’t just a matter of ethnicity. Many churches now include four generations, Builders, Boomers, Generation Jones, Generation X, and Millennials. The information age has allowed people to form affinity groups on very narrow lines so that even within generations there are multiple subcultures.

Churches respond to diversity in one of four basic ways. Which choice has your congregation made?

Homogeneous Churches

The idea here is that people like to associate with others of the same culture. They normally choose to be around those who share their language, style of dress, sense of time, favorite foods, and other cultural markers, so why not create a church for each cultural unit?

I first encountered the homogeneous unit principle in the 1990s when a friend set out to create a Gen-X church. “We don’t care if Boomers attend,” he said. “We’re not trying to reach them. This church is specifically designed for people born after 1965.”

Most ethnic churches are homogeneous churches, though few are that intentional about it. They exist specifically for one people group, such as Koreans, Hispanics, or African-Americans. Others can attend if they want to, but they won’t be sought after. Homogeneous churches operate in only one cultural time zone and let someone else reach “the nations.”

Homogeneous churches solve the problem of diversity by recognizing only one culture.

Assimilation Churches

Assimilation happens when people of a minority ethnic group join a majority group and blend into its culture. Assimilation churches usually welcome, and may even seek, people of other cultures. But they are expected to fit in when they arrive.

For example, an assimilation church might welcome Hispanics by including a few words of Spanish in the greeting time, but the service is in English and everyone is expected to know the language. An assimilation church will unapologetically favor the music style, sense of time, leadership style, and other cultural preferences of the dominant group.

In an assimilation church, you may hear statements like, “Everyone knows the King James Bible is the only reliable translation,” or “We play only contemporary music because that’s what everyone prefers now.” While assimilation churches often say that they are colorblind, they really mean they are culture blind.

Assimilation churches solve the problem of diversity by elevating one culture over others.

Pluralist Churches

Pluralist churches recognize that many cultures have equally valid ways of doing church. Unlike homogeneous churches, pluralist congregations seek to include people who are different from the majority. And unlike assimilation churches, pluralist congregations allow other cultures exist within body.

Generally, they do this by placing the different cultures side-by-side. For example, a pluralist church might create a second venue for people who prefer contemporary music, or it may begin a second service conducted in Spanish. These mini congregations will be part of the existing organization but will have a place to experience their own culture. Pluralist congregations sometimes try to create a common identity by holding occasional large group celebrations in which all cultures are represented.

Pluralist churches solve the problem of diversity by allowing multiple cultures to exist in parallel.

Integration Churches

Integration congregations both recognize other ethnicities and celebrate their cultural differences. Integration churches include multiple cultures in the same congregation so that a third culture emerges.

For example, an integration church may use both classical music and contemporary music in the same service with no attempt to blend them. Or, an integration church have preaching in English on most Sundays and offer Spanish translation, but occasionally have preaching in Spanish with an English translation.

Integration churches solve the problem of diversity by creating a new culture.

Each of the four approaches to diversity has strong proponents in the church, success stories, and a theological foundation. Which one is best? I’d love to hear your reaction to that.

Which approach to diversity has your church chosen?

Lawrence W. Wilson


I blog about Christian faith and ministry. I've also written a few books including The Long Road Home and Why Me? Straight Talk about Suffering.