by Sam Owusu
The blessings and challenges of being a multi-cultural church, and eight steps church leaders must keep in min and practice as they move to become a truly authentic multicultural church.
Ride the subway or a bus in New York, Toronto, Vancouver, or any number of cities around the world and you will be impressed by a cacophony of languages, all shades of skin color, and an array of cultural histories. Our world and our communities are rapidly changing.
Immigration has had a profound effect on the complexion of our nation. It has not only guided our past, but has set the course for the future. There are very few communities free from the touch of immigration, either legal or illegal. This is our world. We are not of one kind, we are of many. This multicultural phenomenon has become the norm.
How the Church of Jesus Christ deals with the rapidity and the complexity of this multicultural, post-modern ethos will tell the world whether or not it has reason to listen to the message we proclaim. During the civil rights struggle in the United States, the Church in essence said to the culture, “Do as we say, not as we do.” They said to the culture that it was a moral imperative to integrate our schools, workplaces, and neighbourhoods, while simultaneously preserving the segregation that we practice in services of worship. By refusing to embody the truth claims of the gospel that they preached to their culture, the Church lost its credibility.
If we cannot be trusted on an issue such as with whom we are willing to share the body and blood of Jesus, why should our culture believe anything else we have to say?
When my wife and I first arrived in Canada from Africa, we quickly realized that there were four churches in Canada: the black, the white, the brown, and the yellow. Every Sunday morning, Christians looked at the color of their skin and went to a church to match it. Dr. Martin Luther King observed that the most segregated gatherings in America are at our Sunday worship services. Unfortunately, this is still true today. To some extent, King’s comment is a general indictment against the Christian community as a whole since Christ, the Bible, and good theology, if properly heeded, would move many churches toward becoming more multicultural. My wife and I began to wonder how people could work together but not worship together.
So in June 1992 we set out to birth a church born out of the biblical and theological conviction that God has made of one blood all nations of men and women (Acts 17:26), drawing them “from every tribe, language, nation, and race” (Rev. 5:9-10). Today, our church, Calvary Worship Centre, composes believers from over seventy-five nations worshiping God together in many tongues, but with one heart.
Being a multicultural church comes with its own blessings and challenges. There have been moments of extreme joy and fulfilment, but also times of pain and conflict when people of different racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds have come together as a multicultural church.
Let me list at least three blessings we have experienced. First, being a multicultural church has offered us the opportunity to practice biblical love. It is easier to love people who look and smell like us. But like the parable of the Samaritan (Luke 10), Christ calls to love those different than us. For example, Africans in the congregation naturally find themselves attracted to other Africans. To initially combat this, we set up “multicultural cops” to ensure we were intentionally relating to people different from us.
Second, being a multicultural church has helped us fulfill the Great Commission of reaching all nations with the gospel. Again, our tendency is to reach out to people like us. Acts 11:19 confirms this: “Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews.” We are now reaching nations right in our backyard that are otherwise closed to the gospel. Some are also going back to their native homes with the gospel. Finally, being a multicultural church has enriched our spiritual experiences. Different cultures come with their own distinctiveness such as prayer, worship, giving, having a passion for the lost, etc.
We have had to overcome a number of barriers as well. Let me list four. First, we have had to constantly fight ethnocentrism. Every culture feels its worldview is superior to others. We have taught our members that judging others based upon one’s culture creates an environment of accusation and suspicion. Second, there exists the desire for people to gravitate toward their own kind. This requires the least amount of effort for interaction, thereby enabling people to expend the least amount of cultural capital in order to get along.
Third, we have had to deal with a lack of cultural competence. Many people do not understand human relations, especially across gender, racial, ethnic, and social differences impacting our world. Fourth, we have had to affirm again and again the notion that a multicultural church is a melting pot in which all the unique features, styles, and behaviors of different cultural groups disappear so that we can achieve unity in diversity. This is without a doubt one of the most difficult issues to deal with in building a multicultural church. The tendency is for the dominant indigenous group to feel that the minority cultures should give up their cultural identity once they become part of the congregation. But this is not multicultural ministry. Multiculturalism is a dynamic process that allows many cultures to maintain, embrace, and respect their cultural identities or uniqueness while engaging in constructive communication that builds trust and fosters Christian love.
Practical Steps to Being A Multicultural Church
Let me share eight steps church leaders must keep at the forefront of their minds and practice as they move to become a truly authentic multicultural church.
First, we must be settled in our soul that this is God’s heart for the church. Transitioning into a multicultural church is a daunting challenge. It can only be done if we have the will to do it, inspired and sustained by the Holy Spirit. It is a risky undertaking, but it is also a biblical and theological imperative. We should not pursue it simply because it is politically correct, because it is the latest theological fad, or even because we are losing membership. We should do it because it is the gospel. We are called to welcome the world because it is God’s mandate for evangelism: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (Matt. 28:19).
Second, we must prepare the church. We must be intentional in teaching the biblical foundation for a multicultural church. The teaching must reflect upon the direction we plan to take in the future. Some knowledge about the struggle of the people of God in regards to embracing the nations in the Bible will be a great benefit. We must also provide the church information outlining the pros and cons to being a multicultural church, and we must be diligent to share the whole picture, especially what we must give up. This is important because even the most well intentioned among us takes for granted that as our relationship with other ethnic people develops, it will do so on our terms. We must avoid this. Those of other cultures do not need to become like us, learn English, learn the rules of baseball, and learn how to drive a car and eat hamburgers. We must teach our people how to be culturally sensitive. True multicultural ministry must begin with the admission that each of us is prejudiced. Hidden cultural assumptions and biases, even latent racism, are present within each of us.
Third, study your community. The Apostle Paul was a careful observer. When he finally got up to preach in Athens, he could authentically say, “I observe that you are very religious in all aspects” (Acts 17:22). We need to be observant as well. Look around you. What kind of people do you see? Are they Hispanics, Asians, Indians, Africans, or other ethnic groups? Find out from your census office or local Chamber of Commerce how many are living in your community. Find out what needs exist among them, whether or not they are growing in number, and what trends are contemplated for the future.
Fourth, reach out. Even while attitudes are being molded to conform to biblical principles, the church can be building bridges of love and concern to their ethnic neighbors. This includes, for example, programs such English as a Second Language (ESL) classes or hosting a food bank. Love will always find a way to build, even if cultural mistakes are made.
Fifth, be inclusive. This is reflected in the way we assign responsibilities, provide opportunities for ministry, plan programs, and conduct board and elders’ meetings. No one group in this dynamic process should be allowed more privileges and opportunities than any other group. Maintaining the balance is important. The congregation needs to genuinely support and respect the different cultural group’s needs and desires for sharing and experiencing within the comfort of their own boundaries. The leadership of the church needs to keep their antennae tuned to the concerns of the various cultural groups. The gift of discernment is essential.
Sixth, leadership must be shared. Our leaders should reflect the racial diversity of the congregation (see Acts 13:1-2). Members of different racial groups desire to feel represented by the members of the church, especially racial minorities who historically have received a lack of respect. Any spiritually-qualified person who is willing to serve should be given the opportunity to lead. The Body of Christ should never concentrate power to one ethnic group since it can easily create dissention and mistrust.
Seven, the worship service should be sensitive to the different cultural expressions and styles of worship and provide an outlet for these (e.g., in the music, through people praying in their own language with translation, and in the preaching of scripture). For example, one ethnic group’s music can sound like noise to another. But God likes variety and enjoys it all. The music style of one ethnic or cultural group must not be allowed to dominate; elements of other cultures must be factored into the worship. An inclusive worship service communicates to visitors of different races that they and their culture are respected.
Finally, keep at it. Don’t give up. There were a few times during the early stages of our church that I simply gave up. Trust is built on time and a good track record. We need to accept the challenge of mission, rather than seeking to withdraw or escape. The gospel is our comfort and our strength; it is radical, and will demonstrate that it is the power of God to salvation to all who believe (Rom.1:16).
Immigrants will continue to arrive, and our congregations will be challenged to respond in at least one of two ways: resist the trend and engage in Christian cultural conflict, or extend the hand of fellowship and embrace our brothers and sisters from other cultures. We have chosen the latter, so on a typical Sunday in our local church in Vancouver, people of different ethnic backgrounds enjoy a wonderful and exciting experience.
This experience reminds the church that our God is a multicultural God who understands the languages of the multitudes all over the world. We may have thought of God as siding with our cultural group and with our concerns alone. But the diverse group in the sanctuary reminds us that our God is also active in other lands. People from different locales are gathered here for one reason—to express their adoration to God. When the service is finished and the people begin to exit the sanctuary, profound spiritual fellowship takes place as people who have the same God engage each other. We are amazed at how wide and long and deep and high is the love of Christ that makes us members together of one body.
Every Christian looks forward to the day when “every nation, tribe, people, and language” (Rev.7:9) will stand before the throne of God. In fact, it is not until the gospel has gone out to “the whole world as a testimony to all nations” (Matt. 24:14) that the end will come and the multicultural feast will begin. The Church is incomplete until it reflects all the cultures and peoples Christ came to save. The Father delights to see his Church become “a church of prayer of all nations” (Mark 11:17).
Dr. Sam Owusu is founder and senior pastor of Calvary Worship Center, an international church comprised of seventy-five nations. Sam is a national and international speaker on culture and change, and an adjunct professor at Trinity Western University. He is married to Rosemond; they have three children, Rosa, Martin, and Madelyn.
EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 4, pp. 484-489. Copyright © 2013 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.