What the Evangelical Church Can Learn from Tech about Diversity

The technology industry is not known for great diversity. A few years ago, top tech companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft started to publish their ethnic and gender diversity numbers publicly, in an effort to be more transparent. There’s usually a narrative to explain these numbers, along with initiatives for improvement.

The American evangelical church is not known for great diversity – especially ethnic and cultural diversity. There are pockets of ethnic-specific churches within denominations, which mostly account for their denomination’s diversity. Even aspiring “multiethnic” churches will admit they are still a work in progress. Individual churches don’t tend to disclose their diversity numbers publicly, or any initiatives to improve them, for that matter.

As an average evangelical church goer and as a 20-year veteran of the tech industry, I can see many similarities in the diversity landscape in both institutions. Both are predominantly white institutions with mostly white male leadership. Both exist in highly competitive environments where audiences are fickle. Both have increasing pressure to change and adapt or become irrelevant and die.

But being a resident in both worlds has allowed me to see some nuances. In the last couple of years, tech companies have accelerated their focus on diversity in almost every area – recruitment, programs and training and promotions to leadership – and have used their improved numbers as competitive differentiators. The evangelical church, on the other hand, has stayed pretty much the same or worse, declined in its focus due to the current political climate.

What can the evangelical church learn from tech when it comes to ethnic and cultural diversity? I’d like to suggest a few ideas.

  • Do the right thing, even with mixed motives. Tech companies are driven by their need to show profit to the Street, and at the same time, they need to demonstrate innovation and future growth in their strategy. To continue to innovate, tech companies need to attract and retain the best talent – and that talent pool is ethnically diverse. Moreover, the customers whose business they are vying for have more and more ethnic minorities in decision-making roles, thus also making it crucial that they reflect the diversity of their customer base. These forces drive tech companies to focus on diversity. In my opinion, motives don’t have to be purely altruistic if actions result in the greater good.
  • Create an open culture. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is a famous quote attributed to the late management guru Peter Drucker. As tech matures as an industry, its culture has also matured to be less focused on the founders’ cultures to one that is more open to different cultures and different ways of doing things. Though this openness is slow to penetrate certain areas, there is nevertheless an opening, and in many places, the hole keeps getting bigger and bigger. This cultural change is more crucial than any strategy or tactic. It also creates a safer place for those who didn’t previously have a seat on the bus.
  • “Get the right people on the bus” is a key concept in Jim Collins’ classic book, Good to Great. One way to change culture is to get the right people in role that have the desired values. Make your speaker panel more ethnically diverse when they represent the company at conferences. Promote more people of color to visible and influential roles. Just having one person as a token won’t do much good. Using another saying: “it takes a village.”
  • Be prepared for some “losses” in the short-term.  As tech companies invest time and resources on their various diversity initiatives, “losses” come in the form of money, talent, and opportunity costs. People who have different values will choose not to work for, or do business with, these companies. Employees may question why certain groups are getting “preferential” treatment over others. And yet because collectively their peer tech companies (or competition) are doing the same thing, the short-term “losses” seem worth their potential future benefits. Time will tell but so far, the general perception seems to be that the long-term rewards will be worth the current costs paid.

Tech still has a very long way to go, but even as a cynic, I am encouraged to see a focus and a drive I haven’t seen before. I would love to see the evangelical church accelerate its focus on diversity and learn from some unlikely teachers.

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