What does multicultural mean for our church?
Berachah Church has technically moved from the small church category to the lower edges of midsize church category in the past few years. By national standards it’s no great feat yet for us it's a sign that we are growing – slowly but consistently. The most obvious change in our church is the level of diversity we enjoy on Sunday morning. This means that we are also emerging as a multicultural church and we have to reflect on what this means.
We could start by asking what is a multicultural church? I’ve seen that title reflect predominant Caucasian churches that have African Americans or other ethnicities attending their service. I’ve even seen African American churches that have other races and ethnicities in their service. So is diversity of color in the audience a sufficient enough criterion to consider a church multicultural?
I would contend that diversity in color of audience in itself is not sufficient to consider owning the multicultural label. This makes it challenging and forces us to consider more intentional efforts that have to be made if we are striving to truly represent a multicultural experience.
We know that for generations we have had many churches that are predominantly representing and celebrating a particular “cultural expression of faith” while yet attracting a diverse crowd that enjoys joining in on the celebration. I recall in college often accompanying my African American friends to enjoy a Gospel service. Occasionally I noticed other people of diverse racial or ethnic background also present in the audience. The fact that we enjoyed a diverse audience did not make the event a multi-cultural experience but it did make it a cross-cultural experience. We were stepping outside of our cultural paradigm and entering into an African American experience with the intent of learning and experiencing their “experience”. While wonderful, vibrant and revealing it was not multi-cultural.
So this leads us back to what makes church a multicultural experience? The first thing we have to establish is a foundational principle rooted in Galatians 3:27-28,
“For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.“
Paul is calling for us to predominantly identify first with our relationship to Jesus Christ. This is what ties us together as a church; it is what connects us with God, it is what connects us to one another and provides for us a link to the promise of eternity. Now does this mean that we all disown our ethnicity or racial proclivities and make believe they are not there? Do we attempt to create a new experience that promotes a new, all inclusive, non-defining culture? By no means!
If we believe that God created each of us with purpose and intent then we believe that in God’s intentionality our ethnicity was part of the plan. Thus our makeup as an individual is ordained by God and in itself a sacred part of who we are. I like to think that our diversity when brought together brings forth a sense of fullness that represents the full intent of God.
Ethnic makeup, cultural conceptions, racial histories are all part of who we are – good and bad. Thus if we allow the redemption of Christ to renew us completely through and through we will see the righteousness of God move us towards fellowship, completeness and reconciliation. This is not achievable due to the desires and efforts of humanity but only through the redemptive understanding in Christ Jesus.
So this means that as we achieve to move towards a real multicultural experience in church we are seeking for God to use different people to move us towards real fellowship and relationship with one another. It means that we have to subdue the temptation of having a dominant culture accommodate other expressions but instead we have to move towards an equal accommodation and expression of different cultures as we move towards true ekklesia– or the movement of fellowship.
This obviously means that church is not only defined by hymns tethered to a white Anglo-Saxon reality of the 1960s or to Gospel tunes we all know. But, it also doesn't mean that we eliminate all of them either. We also have to remember that diversity extends beyond the black and white spectrum. Even whites have diversity within. In our church we enjoy families who come from Caucasian, African American, Haitian, Latino, Russian, Italian, Korean, Vietnamese, and Burmese cultures, to name a few but not all.
Very often we seem to interpret multiculturalism through the eyes of worship and song. It is perhaps the most visible reflection of multicultural expression but there is more to it. The real challenge for a minority entering into a place predominantly occupied by someone else is learning to feel like you belong. It is the challenge of being invited to equally partner and given the right to belong.
My father came to the U.S. from Puerto Rico in the late 1950s and when I was a teen in the 1970s he was still talking about “those Americans” and not seeing himself as one. As a man born in Puerto Rico he was a U.S. citizen, he worked in an American factory, he voted and in my lifetime he had lived for decades in New York City, yet he felt like an outsider looking in.
This is the greatest challenge to the multicultural church. To help new believers understand that they belong. Many cultures are very shy about naturally integrating, especially if they are first generation arrivals to this country. We need to consider ways that help people take ownership of the ministry and thus actively partner with everyone else in the church as opposed to feeling like they are a “guest” in your home.
We are not simply saying you can occasionally make your presence known, we have to seek to partner in the ownership of membership. It means we are all equals, we are all worthy of approaching God in a way that is meaningful to us. Crucial to this is working in a spirit of love and fundamentally agreeing that what we are aiming to accomplish is the universal worship of God and proclamation of the word.
In our church we encourage praise dancing, we blend hymns with contemporary songs, we teach Gospel songs, we want everyone represented in leadership and we want to be a conservative, biblical church rooted in the word of God in a way that is genuine to everyone in the congregation. This means that we are patient, not obsessed with having things our way, we are willing to explore new ways, and we are welcoming. Are we there yet? By no means!
Multiculturalism by definition is messy, not linear, and not subjected to formulas of egalitarianism. To be multicultural in church is foremost about understanding that the Gospel is for everyone and the celebration of such salvation in Jesus can be expressed in many ways while not detracting or minimizing the message of Christ. To be multicultural means to be willing to open our doors and say welcome to those who come seeking the Gospel.
If we can come to grasp this and live it, perhaps the world will finally come to know us by our love.