Most Sundays I sit next to other white people at church. Lifeway Research would say, “Of course you do.” A recent study by the group found that only 13% of Protestant churches have more than one predominant race or ethnic group in their pews. Statistically speaking, when you take a seat this Sunday, you will sit in a row of people who look a lot like you.
Trillia Newbell wants more for our churches—more for Christians. She wants the kind of more that makes our todays more like the Last Day. By the end of her book, United, you will want that too.
“God thought it important to let us know in his word that every tribe, tongue and nation would be present on the last day, worshiping together. Shouldn’t we desire to reflect the last day before he returns?”
United excels at expounding scripture so that no one can miss the theme of racial inclusion in the gospel. From racially generic Adam in Genesis to the cultural kaleidoscope of worshipers in Revelation, readers will leave United aware that scripture celebrates diversity. Even at our best, we often view diversity as a public-service issue, but Newbell corrects our thinking. She identifies diversity as a gospel issue by reminding us that all people bear the image of God, and all Christians share equally in God’s family. For believers, the blood of Christ should break down the barrier of race that divides the church. Ultimately, Newbell convinces readers that the pursuit of diversity fulfills the gospel call to love one another. The Gospel motivates Christians to seek racial reconciliation.
“May I submit to you that our pursuit of diversity isn’t really about diversity, after all? Its about love — a radical, whole hearted, grace-motivated love for others.”
Newbell could have taken a purely academic approach to outlining God’s vision. Instead, she marries Bible exposition with personal experience. Her story of growing up as a black woman in the South, attending a mostly white church, and developing cross-racial friendships guides readers through the book. She invites them to share in her struggles, celebrate her victories and become part of her cause. Reading United felt like having coffee with a class professor. United feels less like an apologetic for diversity and more like a conversation where a friend shares the life experiences that led to her convictions. Her approach makes Newbell endearing while also giving her permission to graciously call readers on the carpet.
Will a passionate “Yes and Amen!” from our living room chair cover our responsibility on this issue? Using scripture and her life story Newbell casts a beautiful vision for diversity. But mental assent to the idea of diversity misses Newbell’s point. Readers will find an entire chapter devoted to creating a practicable theology. Within this chapter, Newbell uses James 2:1–13 like an archeologist would use a trowel in order to expose our natural bent towards the sin of partiality. We prefer people like us. Our own comfort often wins the day. Sin breeds the belief that the job of fighting for diversity belongs to someone else. Newbell unearths the specific sin issues that keep us rooted to our all-white church, all-black day care or all-hispanic groups of friends. Without a hint of naivety, she lovingly beckons readers to add color to their everyday. Newbell acknowledges legitimate logistical barriers, things like homogenous neighborhoods, but she refuses to allow those difficulties become a crutch.
“I would venture to say that more often than not, we choose apathy before we aggressively seek to learn about others.”
Most of us find it easy to confuse difficulty with complexity. Pursuing diversity may feel difficult, but it does not require the complete reconfiguration of everyday life. Newbell makes simple suggestions. She encourages cultivating diversity in the home by learning about other cultures. She wants you to ask someone to coffee who has a different background than you. She believes you can make your women’s brunch more inclusive by hosting it somewhere other than the country club. The daily work of racial reconciliation requires intentional decision making not complicated schemes.
Newbell also wants to see the church initiate more conversations about diversity. The (very educational) appendix contains a study guide with three to four discussion questions per chapter. The thought of talking about race makes people sweat. No one wants to offend and no one likes to feel awkward. The study guide questions help navigate the topics covered in United so that a group of readers can have a productive conversation about race.
Newbell has written an approachable entry to the theology of diversity. Her uncomplicated approach welcomes those who have yet to wade into the waters of racial reconciliation. For those who have thought deeply about diversity, Newbell’s story brings a human element that pure academic approaches tend to leave behind. United will leave readers of all kinds captivated by diversity and excited to pursue it.
By Kelsey Hency