MULTI-ETHNIC CHURCHES ARE NOT ENOUGH!
As I listen or read about the “white” Evangelical Church and its relationship to and with African Americans, or about how African Americans feel about the white Evangelical Church I am concerned, comforted, and confronted about truly cross-cultural churches and their place in this discussion.
I am concerned because I think the general public and the average white and black Christian doesn’t really understand the difference between truly cross-cultural churches and those with some ethnic diversity within them. Multi-ethnic churches are not the same as cross-cultural churches, and are in some measure set up for ethnic misunderstanding and conflict.
I think much of what we hear about these days is the inevitable frustration and friction that comes within churches seeking diversity without “missional intentionality.” Usually all it takes is something in the news or something in politics to create a dilemma. It’s as if a congregation in the days of the early Church had both Gentiles and Judiazers in it, and everything is fine until the subject of circumcision comes up. The Judiazers ask the Gentiles to assimilate, to give up their “Gentile-ness,” and suddenly the Gentiles realize there is a price to be paid to be among these type of Christians. Trouble happens when the knives come out, in that case literally.
Judiazers assume their culture is normative, and can’t understand why others would be offended. It is not until something radical comes along, like the real Gospel, a Gospel that doesn’t demand uniformity of culture but instead oneness in Christ while we are at the same time diverse in culture. In fact the missional intentionality of the Gospel calls for the sacrificial willingness of the missionary (older brother, majority Christian culture) to become servant to those who are different, in fact seeking to “become” like them in order to reach them (I Corinthians 9:19ff).
When a multi-ethnic church seeks to demand everyone be “a-cultural” they are simply but profoundly demanding that minorities be deracinated. The majority cultural group is asking the minority to assimilate, and not to complain. This might be fine if all we were discussing was intentional migration, but when it comes to white and black in America we are also speaking about becoming a minority in religion as well as being a minority in society. We are speaking of assimilating without any sense of history or justice but instead calling for a denial of a sense of self.
Of course there are always those individual ethnic minorities who have no problem with assimilation. There are those who think the way to peace is to discard conversations about issues of injustice or history. Some of these ethnic representatives in a majority culture church are the strongest champions of silencing racial or cultural talk.
So, this is why I am concerned about the recent discussions and that due to the ignorance of what a truly cross-cultural church is trying to be. A multi-ethnic church is not automatically a cross-cultural church, not even if they have a minority representative as a pastor or minorities in leadership. Some congregations assume that if they hire an African American pastor he is sure to know how to make the church cross-cultural. Why would someone assume that any pastor who hasn’t studied, thought about, or been trained in cross-cultural ministry skills and vision would know what they were doing in that regard? It is a hubris that can create confusion and chaos and it is an unfair burden to be laid on a pastor simply becomes he is an ethnic or minority representative.
I am comforted about cross-cultural ministry in these recent discussions because I know that missional intentionality in a church means congregations will (and must) face the truth and realities of history, injustice, racism, and culture with Biblical truth and hope. Though cross-cultural churches also face the tension and stress of racial and political discussion and difference, through various moments of crisis, they have a commitment to Christ and to each other to see them through the episodes. They are not surprised at the tensions though they sometimes see individuals and families realize, sometimes suddenly, that there is a price to be paid for love across cultural boundaries. Some of those people do leave, but most are tenacious in seeking to live out a community of love that does not skirt truth.
This common commitment to Biblical reconciliation as an accomplishment of Christ, and this common commitment to “being built together to become a holy temple to the Lord” (Ephesians 2:21) is accepted as part of their discipleship. They have rejected church as simply an expression of their preferences.
I feel confronted with the challenge of trying to make the distinction clear. If the distinction between missional intentionality and simply a desire for more color or flavor is not clear then time after time individuals who are the “diversity” within a majority church face the realization that they feel like “strangers in a strange land.” Pastors and leaders who have been hired for “diversity” realize that the commitment and sacrifice is in one direction only. It only takes one more episode of injustice, or even misunderstanding, to break hearts and lead to discouragement.
There is a Biblical model, and it is built on such Biblical values as honesty, love, and sacrifice. It is built on a deep and rich appreciation of the Image of God in each human being. It is built on the Biblical appreciation of the reality of human cultures and the necessity of becoming a “slave” to others in order to reach them. It is built on evangelism, missions, and discipleship and not politics. It is built on solidarity with those we finally recognize as full partners in the Kingdom of God.