The other night my wife and I watched “Encanto: Live at the Hollywood Bowl.”
Don’t ask why. And please don’t judge: I’m not really a big fan of musicals. But I digress. I noticed that when the cameras zoomed in on the audience in the 17,000 seat amphitheater, most of the attendees were Latino, which made sense based on the culture-specific story, not to mention that several songs were in Spanish. But what was striking were the faces of the children and their parents—to say they were enthralled would be an understatement. They were beaming at the show with wide eyes and megawatt smiles. A similar experience could be noted when the original “Black Panther” movie released a few years ago: African-American children and adults were mesmerized and thrilled by the nearly all black cast being directed by a black director in a blockbuster superhero movie. It was one of the biggest box office draws of that decade. The experience was obvious: Finally…a movie—or musical—with people who look like me. When you’re the only one of your specific demographic at an event—whether that’s race or gender or age or whatever—the ability to identify with the intended communication or experience is minimized. The meta-message is obvious:
“There’s no one here that looks like me.” “I don’t fit in here.” “I’m not seen.”
The deep human need to be included is powerful. It is one thing to be invited in and even warmly received, but that can never match identifying others in a group or crowd with similar life experiences, who are culturally relatable, and have an assumed shared understanding of what it’s like to be you. When we church leaders say we want to reach young people, or a certain ethnicity, or a particular culture, this is the hard reality we must wrestle with. We have to be very honest about our mission: if we say we want to reach a target audience or a certain demographic, what does our leadership look like? What do the people with high visibility or position look like—our worship team, our hospitality teams, our ushers, our board, our group leaders? This cannot be a “token” approach. It must authentic and intentional. It means real thought and strategies are developed and built with true relational trust. And it must regularly commit to honest empathy by regularly revisiting this question:
How do I feel when I’m the only one in the room that looks like me?
Dave Workman | The Elemental Group