Density and diversity.
Those are the things that make a place a city, at least according to most contemporary definitions. Lots of people word it different ways; some say a city is a place, some say it is a collection of systems, and others say it is a group of people. Regardless, most definitions come back to these twin ideas of density and diversity. How do we know where the city starts and stops? That is getting harder today with urban sprawl, but we usually mark out the city and not-the-city by density. Close on its heels is the reality that the density almost always brings diversity. Different ethnicities, different political views, different worldviews, religions, and cultures. People in cities are diverse by age, by occupation, by income, by hobbies, and by beliefs.
In fact, cities are now so diverse even the word diversity will not do. Many scholars are now opting for the phrase “super-diversity.” Now, super-diversity is a technical term, and it describes something specific. It means more than “really diverse.” The term was coined by Steven Vertovec in 2007, because his research on the city of London could not adequately be described by diversity. Due to record-setting international migration over the last several decades, additional variables made London more than diverse, it had made the city super-diverse. Vertovec writes,
Over the past twenty years globally more people have moved from more places to more places; wholly new and increasingly complex social formations have ensued, marked by dynamic interplays of variables, including: country of origin (comprising a variety of possible subset traits such as ethnicity, language[s], religious tradition, regional and local identities, cultural values and practices), migration channel (often related to highly gendered flows, specific social networks and particular labour market niches), and legal status (including myriad categories determining a hierarchy of entitlements and restrictions). (Find the article here)
That all sounds good, but what is super-diversity? In one sense, super-diversity is the recognition that international migration to our urban centers has introduced a complexity in cultures and interactions past what our present understandings of diversity can describe. In the words of Ulrich Beck, another super-diversity scholar, “we do not even have the language through which contemporary superdiversity in the world can be described, conceptualized, understood, explained and researched.”
In the past, we would speak of majority and minority cultures in a city, or we would talk about “inner city poverty” and “suburban prosperity.” In these conversations, diversity was a binary, it was two different groups. As things got more complex, people still divided by race or by economic status, but these ideas are rather static. The result was simply more categories. While this may have worked up to a certain level of complexity, today’s cities have marched right past that level. In short, diversity can be described, and super-diversity is so complex that it defies tidy explanation.
You may feel this conversation is far removed from church ministry, but I beg to differ. I think this stands right at the heart of Great Commission ministry. People, social groups, and cities are all more complex than we care to admit. This affects the way we bear witness in a super-diverse setting. So much of our talk in evangelical circles today is about diversity and multi-ethnicity. I am thankful for the heart expressed in these conversations. I am thankful for the realization that all nations means all nations, and that our responsibility is to everyone, regardless of color or creed. However, real ministry, ministry that actually meets people where they are, must humbly accept that this mission is too complex for any one church, or one church style. Super-diversity means hundreds of cultures instead of two or three, and it means dozens of languages instead of everyone speaking English, and it means an array of religions. Faithful ministry to this setting requires a vision bigger than one church.
In short, in a super-diverse setting, no single church will be a completely accurate reflection of the vast array of diversity represented. By all means, strive for diversity in your congregation. Churches need more diverse leadership. Church members need to be more comfortable with people different from them and willing to let go of preferences. Welcome everyone (and actually welcome them instead of just saying you do on your website). Just do not fool yourself into thinking your one church will reach everyone. We wear blinders to whole communities in our city when we do this. Instead, consider the potential of a network of diverse churches in your city, all working together, all fellowshipping together, and demonstrating unity in diversity as they each reach various aspects of that super-diverse setting.
In the gospel, there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. The footing is equal under the cross. However, in your city, among those still dead in their sin, there is no common footing. There is no one culture, no one way to bind people together. Thankfully, the gospel is translatable to all cultures and all peoples. It is the only message that can bring unity to super-diversity.