I hope that this blog post will generate some honest, polite and important dialogue. I am not trying to stir anything up – but sincerely want to get your feedback on a question I got.
Several months ago, I received the following question from a listener to my podcast:
Good morning Karl,
I am… (name and church removed)
I listened to your podcast, and absolutely loved it! Great job, keep up the great work that you’re doing for all of the professionals in the kids ministry world.
I did have a question, however, that I would love to see you address. The question is, “How do you encourage and promote diversity in your kids ministry?”
We are living in a day and age, that unfortunately, kids and families are exposed to the rise of division because of race and ethnic background.
How do you promote unity and diversity in the mist of these unfortunate events?
This is a fantastic question – but I must admit, I had to really wrestle with it because the premise of the question bothers me, that we live in a day and age when, yes, there are a lot of events that promote conflict between races. (Our recent presidential race magnified these events.)
Here is how I answered, and I’d appreciate your honest (and polite) feedback. You do not need to agree with me! But I would like to know what you think:
Dear (name removed),
Thank you for your email and words of encouragement – I did get your note, and it has sat idle a bit as I have been trying to thoughtfully and prayerfully consider your great question.
I struggle with it because I think our culture has made a huge mistake in trying to “promote diversity” – I think this is harmful, and let me explain what I mean. When we promote diversity we are focusing on what makes us different – and actually encourages people to look at others according to what makes them different than us, rather than seeing them as God sees them. When I see bumper stickers that say, “Our Strength is in our Diversity,” I cringe – because I don’t believe our strength is in our diversity – I would suggestion that strength comes rather from Unity.
So I’m not sure I can even answer, “How do you promote and encourage diversity in your ministry?,” because I don’t want to teach kids to see others as different. In my own ministry, I would want to instead focus on what makes us the same – God created all of us, different races, different abilities, different cultural or economic backgrounds, different personalities and dreams – but he made us ALL, loves us ALL, and sent Jesus to die for us ALL.
I remember when my little sister, at around age 5 or 6, was playing with an African America girl in our neighborhood in Chicagoland. A well-meaning adult said to her, “That is so nice that you are playing so nicely with that black girl.” My sister looked confused and responded by saying, “Oh, I didn’t even notice that.” This well-meaning adult was pointing out that skin color made the other girl different and commended my sister for playing nice with her, as though the normal response would be to discriminate on skin color. My sister didn’t need to be taught diversity – she was living out unity! Race was irrelevant to her. She saw the other girl only as another little girl to play with, but an adult saw kids of different races who ought to “play nice” together. But they already were!
I fear we do a disservice to children by emphasizing differences – and then telling them to ignore the differences that we pointed out. It’s a bit like the old joke, “Don’t imagine a pink elephant.” Immediately you do! So to say, “Don’t look at that other person as ______.” You have just caused them to do the very thing you are wanting them not to do!
I hope this makes sense, it is true that our differences are valuable, that is why the Bible talks about the Body of Christ and how each part has an important role – but we are different from each other in countless ways beyond race, but the diversity emphasis in our culture today I believe is actually having the opposite effect as intended as people are labeled and put into groups. Even politicians are now encouraged to focus on various groups instead of simply pursuing what is best for everyone. Don’t we all want the same things? Love? Security? Friendship? Freedom and Liberty? But we have pushed everyone into separate groups and then said, “now get along.” They would get along better without being separated and divided in the first place.
So all that to say, I don’t want to promote diversity in my children’s ministry – I want to promote God’s love for everyone and teach, focus on, and celebrate the unity that we have in Christ.
I look forward to your feedback – am I completely off base? Is this the thoughts of a Middle-class, Midwest, Middle-aged White Male? Or can I just be Karl without the labels?
UP-DATE since blowing up Facebook in several groups. Overall, folks have seemed to agree – some however have taken issue with me (and that is fine) but then go on to say nothing I disagree with, so I tend to think they misunderstood or took what I said to a further conclusion which I am not proposing or suggesting. I want to be clear and add a note even though I can’t reprint nor represent all of the MANY comments this spurred.
I am NOT saying that I don’t want diversity! Far from it. We ought to foster it, celebrate it, embrace it, teach it and welcome it! I am merely pointing out that if we don’t address the issue wisely, our sincere efforts can actually contribute to the problem rather than address it.
I am thankful to everyone who has chimed in! I wanted to get a conversation going, and boy-oh-boy did I! (Should I say girl-oh-girl too, just to be inclusive?)
So many have posted good feedback and even great practical examples and stories of why this is so important, and everyone has been civil and respectful, which is the first step to the unity I spoke of.
If you are interested you can read the comments and my responses here, here and here as well as below in the comments on this blog. It’s good reading for those who want to dig a little deeper into this important topic.
Keep it coming!
ANOTHER UP-DATE for those following this.
My initial e-mailer replied with some clarification on what he was seeking:
Thanks so much for reaching back out to me. Your words of encouragement and your phenomenal wisdom is very much appreciated!! What I was trying to ask is how do we make children – who come from different backgrounds, ethnicities, races, and cultures feel more welcome? I hope that makes better sense.
Essentially, our challenge now is that our children’s ministry doesn’t match the social, economic and racial diversity of our city. And my hope and prayer is to get it to do so. However, being in children’s ministry, obviously, we can only rely on the parents who bring their children. But unfortunately, we are not seeing a growth in diversity our children’s ministry (with both staff and kids) but our main service is.
I think part of the struggle is breaking the barrier initially – once you are diverse, diversity will naturally grow… it is that initial family that may feel they don’t fit what they see who is so important, its like building a giant snow ball, you have to start small, but once it grows and starts rolling it gets easier and easier.
A few questions (you don’t have to answer, just for reflection, though you are welcome to)
1) If the main service is getting more diverse, are their children in there that need to be invited to the kids area?
2) Are you doing any targeted outreach to areas that are more diverse? Park outreach? Tutoring ministry? After school programing? People come if real needs are being met.
3) It starts with us. How are kids that don’t fit the present ‘look’ of the ministry greeted when they visit? Do we take the extra step to make sure they are greeted, celebrated and invited back? Post card in the mail, phone call to parents, “So glad your child visited, we hope to see them again next week!”
It’s much like starting a special needs ministry, you have to first take great care of the special needs kids you already have, before hoping to attract more families who have children with special needs.
But in the end, our goal is to minister to the kids God sends us. There is no need to feel guilty if your kids ministry isn’t diverse… your job is is to love, reach and teach those God brings you – but wanting to better reach the community you are in is of course, ideal.
It may mean getting outside the walls of the church and going to where they are, and that may mean a different focus in programming, funding and how your time is spent.
I’ll pray with you!
Here is a good link a fellow posted to one of the Facebook discussions.
I have appreciated the response to this discussion, and the many emails and messages I’ve gotten privately. We need to be bold and discuss these tricky topics, because EVERYONE is important and we need to reach everyone we can. “Whosoever will….” does indeed mean WHO SO EVER! -Karl