Church Diversity: People Over Preference

by | Mar 8, 2019

As we examine the diverse church, it is important to understand that this isn’t solely based on an outward appearance of who is in attendance; rather, it should be steeped in rich, free thought expressed through differing ideas and opinions. But what happens when we prioritize our personal preferences over people? Bear in mind that there is a difference between preferences and principles.  Principles are core beliefs found in God’s trustworthy Word whereas preferences are merely our own likes, dislikes, and desires.  The danger comes when we fail to distinguish between these two and proceed to elevate preferences over people.  By doing so, we stifle diversity and miss the beauty God intended, that is a people with different experiences, ideas, and opinions, all worshipping him with one heart and one voice.

But, let’s look at a real-world example of how prioritizing preferences over people can inadvertently create division. A group of friends hang out each week- four are adrenaline enthusiasts and one loves the serenity of the outdoors. The group operates based on a simple majority to maximize the enjoyment of as many people as possible in the group. Due to this mentality, they never go camping.  Over time, the one who enjoys the simple pleasure of being outdoors feels neglected and unheard.  He eventually stops spending time with the other four, and a friendship is lost forever. It is easy to think that he will go on to find new friends who also enjoy camping, but the four friends lose out on a friendship and the experience of camping with him.  Translating this to the church, too often we neglect the people who do not hold the majority opinion, marginalizing them for our own preferences. We rationalize that there are plenty of churches where they might feel more comfortable, but like the friend group, we forfeit a relationship and any new perspectives we could have gained from them.

Change is hard and compromise is even harder. And while these certainly come more naturally for some, we all understand the value of compromising — both sides abandoning their ground in favor of new ground.  Paul encourages the church in Rome to do this when he says, “As for one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions (Romans 14:1)…but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother (14:13)….Let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. (14:19)” Is it possible that our unwillingness to compromise on preferences is an act of “weak faith” and has become a “stumbling block for our brother” that pushes him to find another church?

Where do you see personal preferences taking priority over people at church?  Let me suggest three areas to consider: involvement, hospitality, and worship.

  • Involvement – The Lord calls us to serve the body (1 Corinthians 12), and our personal preferences should not limit anyone’s ability to serve. We should seek to nurture the gifts God has given someone, regardless of race, age, gender, or marital status.  For those we feel may lack maturity, experience, or the right motivation, we should first heed Paul’s warning of passing judgment on the servant of the Lord (Romans 14:4) and then lean-in to be an encouragement in the development of the gift God has bestowed on them.
  • Hospitality – The early church grew by church members bearing witness to the good news and inviting their neighbors to attend their worship services. Shouldn’t we also invite people to our church?  But, if we think that people may feel awkward at our church, then we may need to compromise on our preferences (not our principles) to make our neighbors feel accepted.  This may mean that the church looks more “like a hospital for sinners than a museum for saints.”
  • Worship – We express our love for God through prayer and praise with our whole heart. As unique people indwelled with the Holy Spirit and united to the Father through the Son, our worship is expressed differently.  Uniformity does not leave room for a diverse church.  Allowing people to openly express their love, admiration, and awe for the Lord should be our priority.  Placing limitations on someone’s expression fails to produce a pure act of worship.

Do you see how we can let our personal preferences stand in the way of reaching people and even hinder our own spiritual growth? The easy solution for us is to maintain a homogenous state, creating an environment of exclusivity. Is it sinful? In and of themselves personal preferences are not sin; they’re an extension of our personalities and experiences. However, when they manifest into actions that prevent God’s desire for unity or impose our personal standards on others, we can negatively impact how someone relates to God. Caution should be applied when we are viewing another’s relationship with God through our own personal lens. Each of us has a unique relationship with Him and should be able to share that with others freely. God demonstrates grace when we fall short of His perfect standard, so when falling into an idol of preference: confess, accept His forgiveness, and share His grace with others who may speak, think, or act differently than us.  By doing so, we experience the true beauty of God’s diverse creation.

Jonathan WhiteJonathan White
Pastoral Intern
IBC Richmond