Church Diversity Sucks: Why Diversity Matters

Church Diversity Sucks: Why Diversity Matters

June 27, 2011 by

Diversity has grown from a Civil Rights era ideal to a business goal. Deborah Dagit, the vice-president and chief diversity officer at pharmaceutical giant Merck, puts it this way:

“Our work force and our marketplace expect us to be not just culturally aware but culturally competent in how we engage both our employees and our customers. A failure to embrace diversity is a signal to your talent and your consumer that you are out of touch with the current realities of doing business.”

But where is the church? A 2007 study quoted in Time magazine shows that only 7.5% of churches are racially diverse. That study defined diversity as no single racial group making up more than 80% of the congregation. While the business world has caught on, the church still remains 93% segregated, nearly 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr. declared Sunday the most segregated day of the week.

Why Diversity
When I was writing my book Church Diversity, I decided to do some research on corporate diversity. The goal was to learn from the diversity practices of successful businesses and draw parallels for the church. The more I read about the diversity strategies of corporations like Johnson & Johnson, IBM, Coca Cola, AT&T, Marriott, Merck and others, the more I realized that these diversity strategies are marketing and growth strategies. These strategies are not simply for corporate America; they must be strategies for the local church.

Hotel conglomerate Marriott puts a premium on diversity. Their global diversity officer, Jimmie Paschall, put it like this:

“Our business is all about people. That’s why we view our ‘spirit to serve’ culture of more than 80 years as a source of strength that our competitors can’t easily replicate. We strive to create an inclusive environment where the talents and unique ideas of 300,000 employees at our managed and franchised properties worldwide can flourish. When our employees feel respected and valued, we know that they’ll make our guests, suppliers, owners, and franchisees feel the same way, too. This is more than a philosophy—it’s a strategy that works.”

If a successful organization with over 300,000 employees around the globe can embrace and understand the importance of diversity, shouldn’t the local church? To put this in perspective, the largest church in the United States has less than 50,000 people who attend on a weekly basis. Marriott has over 300,000 employees. I believe Paschall hits the nail on the head when he talks about “the spirit to serve” culture that can’t be replicated by competitors. Shouldn’t we be able to say the same of the church? This is more than political correctness or corporate drivel. It’s a strategy that will prove to change the heart and face of the church.

How Diversity
Once we tackle the why question of diversity, the next question becomes how. Again, let’s take a look at one of these 10 corporations that I feature in the book. Marriott is the textbook definition of a great company devoted to diversity.

It starts at the top with Chairman and CEO J.W. Marriott Jr. He’s a visible force for diversity both in the company and in the community. He signs off personally on executive compensation tied to diversity, which accounts for 13 percent of the bonuses of his six direct reports. He also chairs the company’s internal diversity council, which meets quarterly. This degree of involvement is a must for the senior leadership in the church.

Next comes the diversity of staff that you will find in any Marriott Hotel—60.4% minority work force in the U.S. This diverse employee group doesn’t only include the desk clerk and cleaning crews, but there are diverse groups of high-level executive leaders within the Marriott organization as well.

A diverse staff alone isn’t enough. It needs to be an intentional conversation. To make sure all its employees are culturally competent when dealing with customers from all backgrounds, Marriott has mandatory diversity training offered every month.

Marriott also ties some of their executive bonus pay to diversity benchmarks. This could be a valuable tool for churches to encourage leaders to think about diversity, begin discussions about diversity and begin to make the changes necessary to market to a broader people group. You reward what you value!

Marriott’s continued improvement in the face of tough economic times is proof that their diversity policies aren’t just cultural ideals, they’re good business.

Diversity Matters
Church diversity isn’t just a new strategy for the church or the right thing to do. It’s about challenging ourselves to move beyond “what is” to “what will be.” Diversity in the church will allow us to catch a glimpse of heaven on earth.

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Scott Williams


Scott Williams is the campus pastor of the NW Oklahoma City Campus of LifeChurch.tv. You can check out his blog at BigIsTheNewSmall.com, follow him on Twitter @ScottWilliams and read his book Church Diversity: Sunday the Most Segregated Day of the Week.
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14 Responses to “Church Diversity Sucks: Why Diversity Matters”

  • Marc Aune
    June 27, 2011

    I am currently in a graduate school cohort that has far more diversity than my church. I enjoy learning about other cultures through interaction with my peers and I feel that I am becoming a better person for it. Still, I do not think my church’s goal should be to reach the same level of diversity. The reason is the same as the old real estate adage: location, location, location. My church is in a first-ring suburb of the Twin Cities, where over 90% of the population is White. Certainly, I do not think that the church should be 100% White, but being less than 80% White seems impractical. A reasonable goal for the congregation should be to reflect the community around the church. Does it make sense to artificially diversify if it means recruiting underrepresented demographic groups from miles and miles away?

    I would argue that an international organization of 300,000 employees has incredible advantages that makes diversity almost automatic compared to the challenges faced by most locally-based churches. I also wonder how many employees Marriott had before it decided to focus on diversity as part of its business plan, or if a diverse workforce was always highly valued throughout its 80 year history. My hunch is that diversity is more of a luxury than a necessity for their business—more of a “nice to have” than an essential means to turn a profit. Sorry for the skepticism, but let me know if I’m wrong.


    • Scott Williams
      June 27, 2011

      Marc, Thanks for your comment: Great Comment and great thoughts… In the book I actually point out the different schools of thoughts and one of them is reflecting your local community. It’s a great start, however there can be progress beyond that with intentionality and perspective changes. People will drive across town, across the tracks and around the block to attend a church, if they truly feel welcome.

      As far as the corporations, most of the corporations that I researched including Marriot, IBM, Johnson & Johnson… made it an intentional part of their plan and then began to see results. Coca-Cola was on the wrong side of the largest discrimination lawsuits in history and took stock of who they wanted to be as a diversity leader and now they are one of the diversity leaders in the world. If we look at the Southern Baptist Conventions recent intentionality and strategy to have more diversity in leadership game-plan and the recent fruit of Pastor Luter being named the 1st Black 1st VP of the SBC. Intentionality came first.

      ABC = Assess, Believe, Change!


    • Scott Williams
      June 27, 2011

      Marc, thx for the comment and thoughts! Great thoughts, I actually talk about this exact thing in my book. I think being reflective of the community is a great place to start; however I believe that people will drive across the tracks, around the corner, across town, to the suburbs, to downtown…
      if they feel welcome at a church. It’s a matter of intentionality and the heart behind the intentionality of making disciples of “all nations.”

      In the research that I’ve done of corporations including IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Marriot… they were intentional and then they began to see the fruit. For instance Coca-Cola, was in the wrong side of one of the largest discrimination lawsuits in the country and took stock of who they wanted to be and now are a diversity leader in the world. The Southern Baptist Convention first made diversity in their leadership as a priority and then began to see the fruit… They recently announced Pastor Luter as their 1st African American 1st V.P.

      I think the important thongs is for us to begin having dialogue, if we don’t talk about the “Elephant In The Pew” we won’t address.

      Thanks for talking and thanks for the comment.


  • Stephen
    June 27, 2011

    Businesses can MANDATE diversity and back it up with the power of hiring and firing and with the force of law. What denomination can mandate affirmative action in membership, then dismiss “managers” who fail to meet the goal? What church has the power (or would want the power) to decide who gets to come in the doors and who doesn’t based on some diversity criteria or another? Comparing business practices with church practices is, in my opinion, a false canard. Churches are not businesses, do not have the same power or purpose and do not serve the same ends. Businesses promote and sell in order to make money, churches call and serve all who may feel the call, regardless of who they may be. If the church wishes to be diverse, it is not to business practices that it should look.


  • Chris Todd
    June 27, 2011

    I think that a healthy church should mimic the demographics of the geographic area it serves. A suburban church that serves an area that is 75% white , 15% black, and 10% hispanic should have roughly the same make up in its congregation. An inner city church that might be 80% black, 10% white, and 10% hispanic should roughly be within an are of roughly the same demographics.

    I am a youth pastor at a rural church where the area we serve is 97% white and 3% “other”. Our conregation simply reflects that. We cannot “recruit” people 30 miles away to come to our church for the sake of diversity. Diversity is wonderful. God created His children all different ways. But we we also have to be practical.


  • Scott Williams
    June 27, 2011

    I think your point is well taken… Diversity matters to the business community because it matters to their bottom line. As the Body Of Christ, our bottom line is winning people for Jesus and making disciples. Reaching all people for Jesus has to matter.

    In my opinion, it’s not an issue of power, but rather an issue of the heart.

    We don’t have to mandate, but we can be intentional about making sure the sign on our church’s doors reads “everyone welcome” instead of merely “some people welcome.”

    I agree that we should go to the Bible and in the book, myself along with Pastor’s and leaders around the globe share the biblical accounts as to why this matters. I do think we can learn from strategy, technology, marketing and other principles form the business community and vice versa.

    Thanks again for the discussion…

    Dialogue will help us move from where we are, to where we need to be.


  • Mark Harris
    June 28, 2011

    I once had a friend tell me that if I long for diversity in the church that I am apart of I must be willing to fight for it. He said it wasn’t going to be easy, but it was worth it. I think his words and advice align with the some of the thoughts of Marriott in that they are both very proactive and intentional in their diversity practices. If we are going to stand together as one body in the future than why aren’t we standing together now? Unfortunately, I think words “practical” just get in the way and allow us to take the easy way out.


  • Miss Bible
    June 29, 2011

    “Diversity in the church will allow us to catch a glimpse of heaven on earth”.

    This is the main thought that I had when I first read the title of your post. It’s just that simple. The Lord didn’t call only “whites” into heaven, or “blacks” into heaven, or asians into heaven…etc., etc.

    I never thought of, however, taking a business or corporate approach to diversifying.

    I was reading some other comments that were left here on your post, which I usually don’t do, I just don’t have the time. But something that somebody said, I think about their area, and that their area only reflects a certain percentage of whites and “other”. And then you had said something about welcoming everybody.

    I agree with you 110%.

    I hate to say this, but I’ll say it anyway. I think the reason why somebody would say they only have a certain percentage of people in their church because of their area and the people around, and that there church is a reflection of the demographic in that area is because:

    (1) they are lazy. they just don’t want to take the time to get out of themselves and go reach out.
    (2) they really just don’t want people from another nationality in their church. I’m sure of course they wouldn’t admit that, and tha’ts okay, the truth only sets a person free when they are willing to admit it.


  • skoz
    June 29, 2011

    I think the important word here is “culture”, because what really divides most churches isn’t the race of the congregation, but the culture of the majority and how it is reflected in their worship (and even in the message, often catering to issues that are most pertinent in that culture). People often seek out a worship experience (and thusly, a church) that most reflects the culture they identify with. Sure, there’s a part of everyone that feels more comfortable when “these people look like me”, but I would submit that someone would stick out much more by singing, dancing, jumping up and down, waving hands, and shouting “Hallelujah” at a mellow, mild-mannered worship service than they would simply by being in the racial minority. It’s an issue of “culture of worship” that is obviously informed by societal cultures, which of course in turn tend to historically trend along racial lines. It’s not simply homogeny of skin color on Sundays.


  • Will
    July 6, 2011

    Our church is primarily white people in a community that is only about 55% white. As we contemplate how to better represent our community, we decided against pursuing diversity as a value. Rather we’re committed to pursuing as one of our values the “dignity of humanity.”

    We found that if we pursue diversity as an end in itself, then we’ll do whatever it takes to get a diverse group of people in our makeup, even if it comes at the price of devaluing them as people. In fact, when we pursue diversity for diversity’s sake, we tend to view people as objects, not as people–like was mentioned in one of the comments above about companies and their bottom line.

    However, when we value the dignity of humanity, we’ll seek to reach a very diverse group of people. For us it’s an issue of motivation. We don’t ever want to end up with a church that’s diverse but where we’re treating people as check boxes or where we’re pursuing some form of affirmative action. We want to end up with a diverse church because (besides the reasons you mentioned in your post) we value all people, regardless of race.

    Again, that’s just how we’re approaching it to help keep our motives in check.


    • Kevin D. Hendricks
      July 7, 2011

      Will, I wonder if your “dignity of humanity” approach and Scott Williams’ ideal of making everyone feel welcome are really the same thing. You can pursue any of the concepts we talk about here on Church Marketing Sucks with the wrong motivation (not just diversity).

      I think the real question is how valuable is diversity?

      I’m no expert on diversity, but this was hammered home for me when we were in an adoption class talking about multi-racial parenting. I expressed some of these same complaints–that seeking out friends of a different race or varied entertainment or whatever aspect–seemed insincere. The presenter looked at me with absolutely no sympathy and said, “So what?” The bottom line was that for children in minority situations it’s too easy to assume a negative attitude towards their own race based simply on the examples they see around them. If all the baby dolls in the house are white, the white dolls must be better. It may be a little uncomfortable for me to directly address this issue for my child, but the risk of not addressing it is far worse. (And for the record, I still struggle with this.)

      Now granted parenting and adoption are a little different than church, but I think the same ideas and issues still apply. If all the leadership at the church is one race (or age or gender), a value is communicated. Or at the very least a lack of value–the minority isn’t important enough to consider. You want to talk about dignity?

      These diversity questions are not easy. I don’t think there are any easy answers. But I do think welcoming diverse people to our churches is important. We need to find some way to do it. And if all you can do is small steps, like exploring more diverse music or using quotes from diverse leaders in the sermon, then start there.


  • Jason
    July 20, 2011

    Diversity is/should not be relegated to black/white/hispanic/other ethnic groups. We need to think about socio-economic, socio-political diversity, age and gender as well. We should draw a 5 mile circle around our churches and research the people who live within that circle. Do the demographics of that circle closely match up to the demographics of our church? What about the 10 mile circle? I believe the local churches should be actively developing ways to meet the practical needs of its immediate neighbors.


  • Ranika
    January 22, 2012

    If one wanted to study with you or another mentor or “guru” on church diversity, how would he/she go about it?



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