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Multicultural Church (1/2): Three Reasons You Need One

This is the first of a two-part contribution to the topic of multicultural church. See part 2 here.

Would you describe your church as ‘multicultural’? Is being multicultural even a good goal to pursue in a church? In this article and the next, we’re going to think hard about multicultural churches.  My goal in this first article is to persuade you that if your church exists in a culturally diverse context, then for at least three reasons, you need a multicultural church. Our second article then considers five common practical approaches when churches seek to move more towards a multicultural ecclesiology.

What is ‘multicultural’?

The task of assessing whether a community is multicultural is, of course, dependant on how we define the notion of ‘multiculturalism’. Demarcations of race and ethnicity are certainly major categories which constitute a person’s culture, but so are the varied generational age groups, as are differences in income, profession, education, and gender.1 It is advantageous to consider multicultural in ‘the broadest sociological sense’ of the term, however, particular focus in this article will be given to a person’s culture in reference to their ethnicity and race.2

Multiethnic or Multicultural?

In terms of identifying the essence of what it means for a church community to be multicultural (distinct from, say, ‘multiethnic’), I am drawn to Brouwer’s understanding. For Brouwer, a ‘multicultural’ church is one that extends beyond ‘an unexpected mix of nationalities, races, and skin tones’—as one finds in Acts 2:9–10—rather multicultural churches are ones that represent an engagement of people from varied nationalities, who still identify with and engage with those cultures to some degree.3 In other words, a multiethnic church in Australia might have a congregation comprised of people from different nationalities, but their distinctly monocultural expression of worship means that these peoples’ deeper cultural identities are not engaged with to a meaningful level. A multicultural church, by contrast, envisages a church which enables and fosters Chinese Christians worshipping as Chinese, South Sudanese Christians as South Sudanese, Anglo Christians as Anglos. Of course, this raises big questions about the tension between unity and diversity. How this might be done well is a discussion saved for our second article!

Three reasons why you need a multicultural church

Why might it be advantageous for churches situated in culturally diverse contexts to be multicultural in this way? I believe there are at least three arguments for churches to pursue a multicultural approach: (i) Church viability; (ii) Mutual edification; and (iii) Gospel obedience. It is my contention that each of these arguments are persuasive; and so, if your church is in a culturally diverse context, you need a multicultural church!

i. Multicultural for church viability

This reason for churches to pursue multicultural communities is arguably a pragmatic one. Yang claims that multicultural churches in culturally diverse contexts are necessary for the ongoing viability of the church. She holds that Anglo-Australian churches which remain monocultural are at an increasing risk of becoming unsustainable, since the context around them is increasingly becoming culturally diverse. A refusal to culturally transform Anglo-Australian churches will not only alienate themselves from the community they are desiring to reach, but will forgo plentiful opportunities for friendship and mission.4 Yang argues:

There is always a need to be relevant to the surrounding community and that community is bursting with many cultures. The Anglo-Australian church needs to become able to integrate people from other cultures and minister effectively alongside them; otherwise it becomes a monocultural church in a multicultural community. Often the Anglo church has buildings that are used for only a few hours a week, and may struggle financially to maintain the buildings.5

The importance of deliberate change

According to Brouwer, churches will not naturally become more multicultural simply because their context has developed and diversified. For this reason, culturally diverse churches will tend to be either newer establishments that were founded with the goal of being ethnically diverse, or else they will be older churches which have made conscious endeavours to better reflect the cultural diversity of their local context.6

Given the cultural context of Australia is undoubtedly becoming increasingly diverse, I find this pragmatic argument is persuasive for two reasons. First, for a church to choose not to pursue a multicultural vision is to unconsciously pursue a church that ministers to an increasingly declining demographic. For Australian churches already experiencing challenges around attendance and resources, their viability will be further challenged as their local context continues to change.

Following Paul’s example

Second—and hopefully more persuasively—Christians have an excellent example of this adaption to a diverse context modelled by the Apostle Paul:7

19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.’ (1 Corinthians 9:19–23)

For their viability—or rather their vitality—churches in diverse contexts should be rejoicing at the ever-increasing opportunities to reach the global mission field outside their doorstep.8 In short, you need a multicultural church.

ii. Multicultural for mutual edification

Another reason you need a multicultural church rests upon the prospect of mutual edification when Christian cultures interact. According to Lewis-Giggetts, when contemplating cultural diversity in the church, Christians tend to intuitively fall into regrettable categories of either scepticism or naïve denial of the issue. One side argues that since people naturally gather in homogeneous ethnic groups, churches ought not be different to this. This leads to the prevalence of monoethnic churches—Asian, black, white, etc—and scepticism towards the notion of a culturally diverse church.9 Conversely, other seemingly open-minded Christians are ‘colour-blind’, tending to deny that racial difference ought to be a factor at all in the church (whilst usually attending monoethnic churches themselves).10 While someone’s claim to not recognise colour could be interpreted as flattery, to not recognise someone’s culture, in essence, is to not see them. It is a denial of a large portion of someone’s identity.11

Fighting ethnocentrism

Additionally, the ethnocentrism of Western Christianity, seems particularly at risk of presuming superiority over other cultures. According to McLaughlin, ‘the West must adjust to the fact that our culture does not own Christianity.’12 How do we navigate this challenge? You need a multicultural church. A sincere pursuit of a multicultural church is mutually edifying for believers, since it ensures that our own cultural biases, blind spots, and bigotry are challenged and corrected. Ortiz argues that it is only through a pursuit of multicultural ministry that ‘Christians [learn to] repent of their ungodly views and feel a fresh desire to learn from each other, declaring their need for their brothers and sisters.’13

Greenman persuasively argues that even in the academic sphere, Western perspectives on theology alone ‘cannot satisfy the global church’s search for truth and faithful service.’14 His solution, then, is for Anglos to humbly turn to their global ‘family’ in Christ, which is increasingly present ‘literally next door’ to us in the community, recognising them sincerely as ‘brothers and sisters as servants, as co-laborers and fellow pilgrims’.15 On this score, Greenman and others mount a persuasive case in favour of churches in culturally diverse settings becoming multicultural. In short, you need a multicultural church.

iii. Multicultural for gospel obedience

A third reason that churches ought to embrace multicultural identities is theological. A multicultural church is a clear outworking of obedience to God’s word and will (Acts 2:5–11; 15:1–21; Romans 15:7–14; 1 Corinthians 9:22; Galatians 3:26–28; Ephesians 2:11–16; Colossians 3:11; Revelation 7:9; plus heaps in the Old Testament: Genesis 12:3; Deuteronomy 10:16–19; Isaiah 56:7, etc).16 McLaughlin rightly affirms that ‘the Christian movement was multicultural and multiethnic from the outset.’17 Indeed, ‘Christianity is the most ethnically, culturally, socioeconomically, and racially diverse belief system in all of history.’ 18 And yet, Brouwer’s critique is not far from the truth:

No church I have served over the years has looked exactly like the neighborhoods and communities in which the churches were located. Instead we always segregated ourselves along racial and ethnic lines.19

Following the Great Commission

It is this multicultural global family of believers, that is commissioned for the task of bearing witness to all nations, by the power of the Spirit (Matthew 28:19; Acts 1:8).20 And so, it is not accurate to suggest that church should be multicultural; rather, the church is multicultural. This is even more so if we approach this issue eschatologically, as Revelation 7:9 envisages a truly multicultural kingdom. As Lewis-Giggetts aptly remarks: ‘Heaven is going to look a whole lot different from your church right now.’21

The burden of proof surely must be upon those who are reluctant in obeying the clear multicultural imperative of the gospel. Effective global witness of the church is contingent upon culturally diverse Christians offering ‘their own distinctive gifts in service of the global body of Christ as it faces decisions concerning how best to “make real” the oneness of God’s people in the Spirit.’22

[W]e must align ourselves fully with the will of God. Christ is returning for a church that is without spot, wrinkle, or blemish (Eph. 5:27), and that church is dynamically multicultural, multiracial, and subsequently, multidimensional. It will take a church that looks this way to accomplish the will of God on the earth.23

Where to from here?

In summary, it is not only advantageous or strategic, but necessary that churches in culturally diverse contexts are multicultural churches. We’ve looked at three reasons that this should be so. The church in this age will always exist in a context with at least some degree of cultural diversity, therefore it is imperative for church leaders and members alike to seriously consider a contextually appropriate praxis for being a multicultural church. In short, you need a multicultural church.

In part two, we will consider five common approaches to achieving this multicultural vision. Read it here.

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