As a diversity educator, and more importantly as a rare Black member of the country’s whitest denomination, I get this question a lot: “How can we get more people of color in our congregation? And how can we make sure they stay?”
I am generally hesitant as a person of color when I hear folks say that they want more Black and Brown people in their congregation but have not done any intentional work to actually connect to Black and Brown people or Black and Brown communities first. All the research shows that marketing or advertising has minimal effect when it comes to church recruitment. Inviting *friends* to church does. While I love Lutheran theology, a lot of super European tradition-filled Lutheran worship doesn’t do much for me. I miss the African descent traditions of spontaneous prayer, extended periods of praise and personal testimony, and texts selected for contemporary relevance. So, if a white person invites me to their church, I have to ask “why?”
I don’t really want to take on offering the gift of my presence and education and diversity to a congregation, to be in service to them, just so they can be better people or save their shrinking church. That’s just not my job. It smacks of painful ancestral memories where Black labor and talent were used to build white institutions and homes or provide entertainment before being sent to separate dressing rooms and back entrances. It hurts … yes, still … in a time of ongoing oppression everywhere from voters’ rights to job and educational opportunities.
If there is a real desire to increase cultural competency, then go into Black and Brown neighborhoods. Do advocacy and activism as a church around issues that affect Black and Brown people. Partner with churches that already have Black and Brown people in them and are already safe and nurturing spaces for them – then do mission or outreach together. Do cultural competency and education during forums and faith formation time to make sure that Black and Brown visitors are not subject to ignorant remarks and microaggressions.
After self-educating and building authentic relationship, feel free to extend the invitation into your congregation to personal friends you have made, people you have an individual connection with beyond the color of their skin. Invite them into leadership and active participation. Make space for their voices and traditions. Listen to them when suggestions are made or ideas are contributed.
There is no quick fix when it comes to adding diversity to a space. There is intentional and systemic change after a period of education and committed involvement that specifically involves going into the spaces you want to be received and earning trust. Any invitation that starts with “You come to me first” is not a welcome that works.