I meant to post this a couple of weeks ago. It is a long post, so I am separating it into two posts.
Building a Multiethnic Congregation (Part 1)
CBFNC Annual Gathering – First Baptist Church, Hickory, NC
March 31, 2017
Part 1 – The Issue
Last week, I went to the local high school my 14-year-old son will attend next year. His 8th choir was performing with the various high school choirs. One of the groups to perform was an ensemble made up of 18 male and female high schoolers. They were wonderful musicians. I sat and thought about how much I’d love for that group to sing worship music at our church.
I look more closely at the group and my mind began to race. Each one of these kids comes from a family. There are parents, maybe grandparents, and siblings. Each young person represents something more than just himself or herself. Would these teens and their families feels comfortable at our church?
One of the kids of the 18 in this ensemble was white, Caucasian. One was black, African American. The rest were various hues each distinct from eachother. Asian; Arabic; Hispanic; there were kids from many ethnic backgrounds. I sat and wondered, would each of these kids and their families feel welcome at the church where I am the pastor?
Every one of us here wants to say “Yes” to that. It’s why we come to a seminar on building a multiethnic church. We’re at least pondering the idea. So, would the kids in this choir, representing America in all its resplendent diversity, be welcome in our churches? We want to say yes.
And yes might actually be the answer. The teen from an African American family or a Chinese family would likely be warmly welcomed into a predominantly Caucasian church. The white church would, say, smiling, “Come in. We’re glad you’re here.” The white church would say it and genuinely mean it.
The actions of the people in the white church in many cases communicate something else. We’re glad you’re here. If you want to stay, you need to adapt to the way we do community, the way we are comfortable relating to one another, the style and pace at which we worship, and the particular approach we take to being a family. None of this is usually spoken outright, but it is unmistakably known. And the way the predominantly white church does community, and the style and pace of worship in the white church, and the particular approach to being a family in the white church is loaded with Euro-centric cultural heritage.
For nine years, I led a church in an extremely diverse community – Arlington, Virginia. It’s right across the river from DC. The Pentagon was a couple of miles away from our church building.
The people in that church were generous with their willingness to welcome everyone. In a congregation that usually had less than 80 people would include families or individuals from 10 ethnic backgrounds on any given Sunday. However, even with this diversity in the pews, the church functioned the way it had in its heyday in the early 70s when it was an almost exclusively Caucasian Southern Baptist body of believers. I arrived in the late 90’s when the church was a decade or more into decline. When nonwhites stepped into leadership the church family, they adapted to the culturally Eurocentric way of doing things. The church did not adapt to the way the new wave of believers lived and related to one another. As the community around the church changed the older members tried to function the way they always had. And the failure to adapt led to significant decline in membership and in relevance to the community.
Now, I have been in North Carolina for almost 11 years. I and the church I now lead am exploring a specific question. Can what is a traditionally European-American church be transformed to the point that someone who is not white can be at home within that congregation? Can this transformation be so complete that so many non-white people come that the church can no longer be described as a traditionally Euro-centric church? The congregation becomes one in which there are Asian-background believers, Hispanic-background people, African-background individuals, folks with a European heritage, Native Americans, those with Arabic backgrounds, and mixed-race persons.
There’s such glorious diversity in the church that I envision, that you look at the group the way I looked at that ensemble of high school singers. No majority can be seen. There a lot of people and they come from all over. But, when I look at this church I am imagining, here is what I can see. I can see God in this place and I see more of God in the diverse church than I would if it was just one culture that populated the church family. The testimony of the goodness of God and the depths of the salvation in Jesus Christ is fuller and richer because more people and different people add their own stories to the church’s witness.
A. The Problem
This dream comes at a time in our history as a people when we facing a real problem. One of America’s great prophets of the 20th century named this problem.
April 17, 1960, Martin Luther King Jr. said on the tv program “Meet the Press,” “I think it is one of the tragedies, one of the shameful tragedies that 11:00 on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hours in Christian America.” Was Dr. King correct? Is Sunday morning segregation a shameful tragedy?
He went on to say that he definitely thought the church should be integrated and any church that stands against integration and has a segregated body is standing against the teachings of Jesus Christ. However, in the same statement, he acknowledges that his own church, Ebenezer did not have any white members. They would be welcome, he said, if they came. Maybe.
I believe Martin Luther King Jr. would have welcomed the white guest who visited Ebenezer. Maybe, many members would join him in that welcome. But, at that time, if a white person or several white individuals tried making Ebenezer their church, I believe many core members of the Ebenezer family would feel challenged and uncomfortable because the ‘other’ has invaded their sacred ground.
And we whites couldn’t blame them for such guarded attitudes. February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin is killed by George Zimmerman. He was 17, walking in his own neighborhood. August 9 2014, Michael Brown was shot dead by a police officer. He was unarmed. He was 18. These events touched off a slew of high profile deaths of African American young men. The perception over the last five years has been that there is a public, violent, growing conflict between law enforcement and people of color in America.[i]
In addition to this growing racial tension, another reality that divides people in America is the tension between the American populace and Americans of Arabic descent. If someone is perceived to be Arabic or Muslim, many Americans are suspicious of that individual. We had a high profile shooting of three Muslims, dental school students, in Chapel Hill, February, 2015.[ii] Not all Muslims are Arabs, and not all Arabs are Muslims, but the tension conflates the identities.
Besides the racial tension and the uneasy relationship between Muslim and non-Muslim Americans, a third reality to be noted is the massive growth of the population of persons who would be described as Hispanic. Hispanics may well be the largest people group in the United States by the end of the century.
In this changing context where black people have trouble believing white people have good intentions, where white people are unaware of their own privilege or unwilling to acknowledge it, where American citizens are suspicious of their fellow citizens if they happen to be Muslim, and where we are near the time when whites will no longer have a numeric majority in the population, what is the witness of the church?
· What does the Gospel have to say to America as it is today?
· How do we draw the people around us into the Kingdom of God through faith in Jesus?
· How do we show what the Kingdom of God is like?
B. The Opportunity
These tensions are real and some of our friends who are white feel threatened. Now all but some; there is a sense that we’re losing our country. And if pastors like me drag multiculturalism into the church, then we’re losing our church. However, it is not all bad. We have before us a great opportunity.
This can be a time when we open the Bible and allow ourselves to hear the word and hear God’s remind us of two things. First, our loyalty and our calling is not to our country. It is to the Kingdom of God. We belong to the Kingdom. Our eternity is not the United States. Our eternity is the Kingdom of God. We can reminded of that and how closely we are united to believers from different backgrounds. And second, we can be reminded the church is not our church. It is God’s. If God is calling to make changes so that His church can grow and be accessible to more people, we should rejoice as we change because we’ll be closer as we do the work He sets before us.
The world is at our doorstep. A couple of years ago, I was with my kids on a camping trip and we stopped at a service station. This was way out in the boondocks. The man running the station was Pakistani. I am sure he had a family. This was in the middle of nowhere. We’re in a time when you could meet someone from just about anywhere and it doesn’t matter where in America you are. When you meet that person, ask yourself the question I asked myself as I sat at the high school chorus concert. Would this individual be at home in my church?
The reason this question is important is the Biblical mandate we have from Jesus. It comes in Acts chapter 1. The risen Christ appears to the disciples and says to them, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In carrying out this mandate, the disciples did not attempt to create different, ethnic congregations.
In Acts chapter 6, a conflict arose in the church, an ethnic church. Acts 6:1 – “the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.” The Hellenists were Greek-speaking Jews in the Jerusalem church, and the Hebrews were Aramaic-speaking Jews. What was the young church’s solution to this ethnic division? Appoint the very first deacon board, leaders of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom (6:3). The first job of the first deacons was to attend to the task of equality in the church, keeping Hellenists and Hebrews together, even with their differences.
In Acts 10, Peter is given a Heavenly vision in which God tells him that in Christ there is no place for distinctions between Jews and gentiles. Those who previously were kept apart are now united. Peter then goes and baptizes the Roman Cornelius and his entire household. The Romans were despised invaders who kept the Jewish people as exiles in their own land. No one was hated more. God showed Peter that Romans and Jews were united when they joined to one another in Christ. Peter did not plant a “Roman congregation” that would share space in the Jewish church. They were all together.
Much of the content of Paul’s letters was devoted to drawing together people who had been very much divided – Jewish and non-Jewish followers of Jesus. Romans 9-11, Ephesians 2, and the entire letter of Galatians are some examples of Paul’s unifying efforts.
Paul changed his presentation of the Gospel based on his audience. He always preached salvation in Jesus, but he adapted his method based on the cultural experiences of his listeners. He was a rabbi to the Jews, and in Athens, Greece, he took the approach of a philosopher as he shared the Gospel with philosophers. This story is in Acts 17:16-34. , Paul presents Jesus to pantheistic philosophers. He adapts his message so that it is intelligible for his hearers.
One of the issues that arose in many of the early congregations was the fellowship meal, where the main dish, the meat, was meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Paul writes in Romans 14:15, “If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love.” He neither recommends eating that meat, nor does he prohibit it. His concern is doing what’s necessary to welcome all people and doing it with a loving, gentle spirit.
The church I mentioned in Arlington sometimes failed to have that gentle spirit. The Wednesday night dinner cooks, white women who for years ran the kitchen like drill sergeants, had gotten tired. They were well into their 70’s, and while some people in their 70’s are full of vibrancy, these particular septuagenarians wanted me, their young pastor, to find a new Wednesday cook. And I found one!
She was a woman in her early 40’s, one of the women in our Spanish congregation. She is Costa Rica. The older white women complained about her to no end, often in her presence as if she wasn’t there. They leered over her shoulder as she cooked. One woman came to me and barked, “Well I don’t know what they eat, but my husband has a sensitive stomach.”
After a few months of this, the Costa Rican sister came to me in tears and said, “Pastor Rob, I just can’t do this. These women treat me like I am a child. All I want to do is serve the church and I love cooking the Wednesday meal, but I can’t do it anymore.” And we didn’t have Wednesday meals any more.
That type of tension came up again and again in that church. The people of the church welcomed everyone, but they did not trust everyone. They felt genuine love toward their nonwhite brothers and sisters, the lack of trust negated their love.
The witness of the New Testament is clear. Throughout Acts and in the writings of Paul, we see numerous ethnicities together in the church: Jewish, Cornthian, Roman, North African, Ethiopian. They were all together. Not only that, but the destination to which history is moving, shows a united humanity under God.
A key verse for my understanding of the church is Revelation 7:9-10. John of Patmos has been guided through a vision of Heaven. He has seen the throne room of God, the 24 elders representing the 12 tribes and the 12 disciples, he has seen spectacular heavenly creatures that defy description, the horsemen of the apocalypse, and the redeemed of Israel. Then he writes, “After this I looked and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and languages, standing before the throne and before the lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” And people of every shade, from every background worshiped God together. If we can successfully build multiethnic churches, we can show the hurting world around us a real life picture of this heavenly future.