One of the challenges of leading a church that desires to be multicultural is very simple: many of us have never seen one. We’ve graduated from multicultural universities and passed through multicultural airports and stood in multicultural lines at Five Guys. But most of us haven’t been part of multicultural churches. Sure, we can imagine one. But in a city like Memphis, most people haven’t spent their life in a church that is truly multicultural.
In hopes of imagining what this looks like we look to other churches.
- We look to monocultural churches who are something other than white. The church might be Korean or Black and have very little diversity. These churches help us understand the cultural particulars of that group, but don’t help us to become a multicultural church.
- We look to multiracial churches that are not multicultural. Occasionally we see a rich church who has a variety of skin tones and then call that multicultural. Or we see a church who is multiracial, but intolerant of theological diversity. There is certainly something we can learn, but that group is not fully multicultural.
- We look to churches that have a multicultural representation but are led by one dominant group. This can happen when a church leads a huge ministry to those who look different (like a homeless ministry or a food pantry or a “church-within-a-church” that leases space, but has very little overlap with the church who owns the building).
This lack of exposure to multicultural churches can be a barrier to being multicultural in a few ways.
The primary one is that since we have no experience of being in a multicultural church, we aren't sure what it will look like. The outcomes we have come to expect from church over our lifetime have been shaped by monocultural churches. So, we say we want to be multicultural but then we say we want a church that feels like family, exhibits excellence in worship, features professionalism among the staff, prioritizes safety in the children’s ministry and a growing youth ministry, offers engaging sermons and deep teaching, and is guided by clear mission, vision, and values. But who gets to define these words? In many cases, they get defined by the monocultural church of our past.
The second barrier relates to the expectations for the relationships we will have. We don’t know the benefits and blessings can come through multicultural engagement. It can be a bit like a healthy marriage, which with time becomes something good, yet often is quite different from what we signed up for years earlier. The same is true for multicultural ministry. It rarely meets our expectations; it transforms them. It teaches us what is possible and what we should really be desiring. We form friendships with people in different age groups; we form deep respect for people who live on much less; and we see that our spiritual Hall of Fame looks different than it would if we attended a curated, economically-homogeneous, age-specific, life stage-sensitive church.
True faith is not only when we trust God with the process, but also with the outcomes. We not only say “I’m trusting you with what I need to put into this.” We are also saying, “I’m content to let you decide what I get out of it.” This is where real faith is required.
God’s ultimate vision for the church is a multicultural body: “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9). If we take Jesus’s prayer seriously and pray that God’s will in heaven will be done on earth, then our churches should be multicultural as well (Mt. 6:10). Churches should embrace this challenge and greet any obstacles as part of the journey on which God has called us. Paul reminds a multicultural church in Ephesus that unity is rarely easy, but always worth it.
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)