Open Hearts, Open Minds
Chattanooga's Drew Barton addresses the need for diversity in Chattanooga churches.
“So much of Scripture is about community. You look at Jesus' ministry, and he was bringing people together," says Drew Barton. "Somehow as the church we have gotten away from that, and now the church has divisions that were never supposed to be there.”
Barton is the Director of Youth Ministries and Community Connections at Signal Crest United Methodist Church. He also coaches Howard High School baseball. He is a tall man who comes across as relaxed and comfortable. Barton loves spending his free time outdoors, doing something active, or just spending time with friends and family. Using all of his different roles and passions, Barton has worked to bring different groups together. For example, he worked to combine youth from the Signal Crest youth group, the Howard baseball team, and the Bethlehem Center into one youth group. This has been a big success for Signal Crest in its efforts to diversify and branch out into the community. Barton says the most fulfilling thing about diversifying his youth group is seeing kids build friendships and connections that they may not have built otherwise.
Barton was connected with Howard baseball six years ago through a basketball camp he organized at Signal Crest. Campers were asked to donate money if they attended the basketball camp. That first summer they decided to give the donations to Howard sports. The donations were used to buy sporting equipment. When Barton took the donations to Howard, the baseball coach found out he played college baseball. Since then, Barton has helped and coached Howard baseball.
When Barton first met the Howard team, they did not know Barton worked in the church. He didn't tell them because, “A lot of times when you tell people you’re a youth
pastor or work for a church, they will put you in a box or just assume things about you. And they also will kinda shut down because they feel judged.” After Barton built relationships with the players, he invited them to attend Signal Crest youth group. Now the Howard baseball players attend youth every Sunday evening. Barton thinks he made more progress by building relationships with the players before talking about Jesus.
Diversity in churches has been a challenge for a long time. According to an article by the Equal Justice Initiative, “Today, 86 percent of American churches lack any meaningful racial diversity. It is still true that, as Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed, ‘the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning’” (Racial Segregation in the Church). This is something that Barton noticed in the youth group in his church. Barton told the story of when he first noticed how bad segregation was in churches. He recalled, “The first time it was really apparent to me was in high school. I played high school basketball and one of my teammates came to church with me that was African-American. We walked in the church… and I saw some of the people in the church kind of look at him as different and that was the first time I was like, ‘We are very segregated.’” Barton remembers being frustrated that the church was not welcoming to his friend. Barton became more and more aware of the issues of race in the church as he continued on through college and into the ministry.
“Today, 86 percent of American churches lack any meaningful racial diversity. It is still true that, as Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed, ‘the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning’” (Racial Segregation in the Church).
After Barton noticed how bad the issue of segregation can be, he focused on making his ministries more inclusive. He says one of his main callings is working to diversify the church. Barton says that diversifying churches challenges congregations to not be comfortable. He also says diversifying churches is important because it gives the congregation a different context. He says having a diverse congregation gives the most complete picture of God. Barton explains, “I may have one context, but my brother or sister in Christ that lives 15 min away might have a different context. Understanding each other's different contexts helps us to better understand each other because, ultimately, when it comes to Scripture, the world that we grow up in is not the world that Jesus lived in.” Barton has shown the diverse groups can function well by bringing together multiple communities into one youth group.
“I may have one context, but my brother or sister in Christ that lives 15 min away might have a different context. Understanding each other's different contexts helps us to better understand each other because, ultimately, when it comes to Scripture, the world that we grow up in is not the world that Jesus lived in.”
Diversity in the church is definitely a problem. In a Window to the World article by Jinnifer Cotto, she reports, “According to the Equal Justice Initiative, 86% of American churches have no significant racial diversity. The Pew Research Center reports that 57% of churchgoers attend a predominantly white congregation” (Cotto). Barton agrees that segregation in churches is an issue that runs deep. He says a lot of segregation and lack of communities coming together is from a lack of wanting to be open and hear each other's stories. Barton says to start fixing the issue, people must “open up your doors to something different, but also be willing to walk into doors that are something different.” Barton also says people must build relationships with people of different backgrounds because relationships don't start with “Hey, this is my theology, and this is what I believe.” He says that relationships start with finding common interests.
Barton knows the issue of segregation in churches will not be solved overnight. He knows that there are lots of politics and opinions involved in the church. He has seen some members of the church object to his efforts for various reasons. Still, Barton continues to be fueled by his passion for diversity. He believes Signal Crest can work on becoming a more diverse community and set an example for other churches. Barton claims that the only way segregation in churches will get better is by making an effort to get to know other people from other backgrounds. Barton sets a good example of what we are called to do: be loving and kind to everyone.