Representation matters


We’re confronted with the idea everywhere: we need to see more diverse faces and hear from more diverse voices in our media so that all of us feel that we are ‘represented’. This tends to focus on groups who have been historically marginalised or who continue to have or be perceived as having less power. In the past similar moves would have been to increase opportunities for women, today these tend to focus on race or sexual orientation.

In the church we’re most likely to face this when thinking about how to best welcome and include those joining us or coming to faith who would look at our church family and wonder if they belonged. We’re a white majority church, so for us we might be thinking about how to best welcome and include the significant minority of Black African families who worship with us—it may be different groups depending on your cultural context, and it won’t always be about race.

I’ve been involved in church leadership for around 10 years in two different churches and we’ve been talking about (and to a lesser extent acting on) these issues for the entire time. This isn’t a reaction to our current cultural moment, but it is made more fraught by it, and perhaps counter-intuitively it makes it more difficult to openly talk about in church.

The kind of question a leader might face is:

I have a number of Black African families joining my church, which I think is wonderful! I’m trying to form some friendships and break down some cultural barriers, trying to spot my blind spots and help them with theirs, but I know that takes time. I don’t want to rush the real work of building relationships but from past experience I’ve found it harder getting minority groups to feel like this is their Family and to get involved midweek or serving on a Sunday. I’d like to make that easier. Should I deliberately get some Black people in visible front-facing roles (perhaps in the worship team, or invite one of them to preach occasionally) so that they see themselves represented, or should I just appoint people to roles based on merit, picking the best person for the role?

Now, to blow the punchline, that’s a false dichotomy, and the answer to both options is “yes”. And since it was a made up question I wrote so I could make the point, that doesn’t get us very far.

Developing people means you need to give them a go at things sometimes before they’re “ready” and then help them to grow into a role, churches should be doing that. If your church has a significant minority group already attending and none of them are represented in visible roles you need to ask yourself why that is and do something about it. Our culture would say that’s because you’re a racist. It could be. But the reasons why it could be are legion, but in that scenario it’s a question worthy of serious attention and effort to resolve.

My church is not yet an example of how to do this well, but we would like to learn how to be.

If you talk to the minority groups in our churches, if they don’t see themselves represented at the front or in “leadership” broadly conceived then there is often a sense of “I can’t play a part here”. They may feel very welcome, they may well faithfully attend and be developing friendships, but if they don’t see themselves as being able to play a part, they won’t, and we’ll all miss out.

It is helpful for all us to hear others’ stories within the church, and to cast the net wide for who we develop, with all of the confusion and cultural missteps this can cause. It’s not just race, though that’s the most expressed right now. It’s men & women, different ethnicities and cultures (which is not always what we mean today by ‘race’), married & single, parents & childless, University educated and not, working & middle class, young & old. Each of these brings its own confusions and missteps and requires work.

The desperate need for representation

I’m more interested—in this piece at least—in the question of whether representation does matter in the manner people seem to mean. I think the assertion that it always does is undergirded by several assumptions, some of them really good and commendable, some of them contrary to Christian theology.

It is good to help people see that church is for them. It is vital to the work of the gospel that people come to see that they are wanted by Jesus and therefore by his people. It is good for people to understand that your church is a place that they can grow to be more like Christ. It is especially important pastorally that these three things are clear to those who have received messages to the contrary from our wider culture or from the church elsewhere.

The future of the church (e.g. Revelation 7) is of a diverse group of people from every nation, cultural group, class, life situation, language, and colour of skin. God loves diversity. It isn’t a mistake that we all look different. Each one of us is fearfully and wonderfully made. God loves your skin colour. God loves your language. God loves your ethnicity, your nationality, your race. The average local church should look as near to this as is practical depending on their locality, we should look like our neighbourhoods in this regard.

But the discourse, such as it, has decided that representation needs to go beyond making sure its clear that people are welcomed and can play their part. We seem to be in a place where representation matters because you can only speak to a group’s issues, or even act a part in a drama, if you belong to that group. We are starting to take “representation matters”, which I firmly believe it does, to also mean that I can’t be represented by people who don’t look like me.

The issues this raises for representative democracy aside, this is a problem for Christians. If you can’t be represented by a middle-aged working-class Jewish tradesman, who spoke a couple of languages but not English, who lived millennia ago under the yoke of a continental empire in a sophisticated ancient kingdom at a time our island’s inhabitants were still painting themselves blue… we have a problem.

To be a Christian is to be represented by Jesus. He stands in our place both on the cross and before the throne of God. We are caught up into God because we are reckoned to be ‘in Christ’, counted as though we were him. We are freed from our previous bondage being represented by Adam (another man who would be little like us) and brought into the glorious life of being represented by Jesus. Representation matters.

If we can’t be represented by people of a different sex, skin colour, nationality, language, etc, we can’t be Christians. Now no one is attacking this doctrine that I’m aware of, but the logic of some of our cultural trends undermines it.

We must firmly believe that we can be represented by people who don’t look like us, that we’re one. God loves our diversity, and in Christ we are one. We aren’t very good at acting like it, but we really ought to fight for it.

It is good to think about representation, but we need to deny that it is vital. The idea that a particular lived experience is required to understand someone is a problem. We should all see it can be helpful, but “lived experience” is not our bellwether of truth. Truth is a person, born into a very particular human body. Jesus was no everyman, and his very specific Jewish body matters.

Yet, most who would notice that we are sliding into a solipsistic bog are fairly antagonistic to the idea of representation. We should be people who are fervently for doing what we can to help people see that they are welcome, wanted and can play their part. We should also be people who say that there is truth, and I can tell it to you even if I look nothing like you.

We must be people who say: you and I are siblings in Christ, we’re family, water is thicker than blood.

Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash