November 4, 2010
Multi-Ethnic Church Conference: Day One
Only 1 in 7 congregations is multi-ethnic, and churches are 10 times more segregated than their neighborhoods. Is this a problem?
I spent Tuesday in a room in San Diego with 400 pastors, academics and ministry practitioners. There’s no shortage of Christian conferences these days, but there seems to be something exceptional represented by these folks. You might get a sense of what I mean should you look closely at the diversity of the participants of the first Multi-ethnic Church Conference. But beyond the racial and ethnic makeup of the participants, it is the shared theological and practical interest in the non-homogeneous church that makes this conference unique.
Why did 400 people from around the country come to learn about a topic that is barely on the radar for much of American Christianity? I think the conference’s first three speakers each answered this question in their own way. I wonder, do any of these resonate with you?
Mark DeYmaz, pastor of Mosaic Church of Central Arkansas and author Ethnic Blends, gave a brief theological overview of the multi-ethnic church from Ephesians. In 2:11 Paul points out the massive and accepted separation between Gentiles and Jews. He goes on in chapter three to describe “the mystery made known to me by revelation.” And what is that mystery? That “through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body.” In other words, the most significant racial, ethnic and cultural divides have been bridged through the Gospel. My hunch is that many of this conference’s participants believe the emphasis on the Gospel’s reconciling power has been overlooked by too many of our churches.
Michael Emerson, professor of sociology at Rice University and co-author of Divided by Faith, began by reminding the attendees of the legacy of racism in America. For example, a poor, white person is much less likely to living in proximity with other poor people than are Hispanic and African American people. Our racialized society impacts things like health, employment and even life expectancy and this prejudiced reach extends even to our churches. Only seven percent of congregations can be defined as racially mixed. According to Dr Emerson, the primary reason pastors say their congregations aren’t more diverse is that their towns and neighborhoods aren’t very diverse. Yet statistics show the average church is ten times more segregated than their neighborhood.
With these sociological realities in mind, Dr Emerson went on to describe some significant benefits experienced by churches that pursue multi-ethnic ministry. For instance, these churches provide a safe home for the increasing percentage of multiracial individuals and families. Rather significantly, multi-ethnic congregations also alter racial attitudes, especially the privileged perspectives of white people.
Dave Gibbons, pastor of Newsong Community Church and author of The Monkey and the Fish, wrapped up the morning session and tapped into the frustration many at this conference seem to feel about Evangelicalism’s focus on “bigger is better” ministry. The general consensus here is that multi-ethnic ministry is hard work and often doesn’t result in quick numerical growth. Gibbons made the case that “the other” is marginalized by most large churches and yet it is these folks- the entrepreneurs and creatives on one side and the marginalized and outsider on the other- who God most often uses to advance his mission.
Dave ended by calling for a “mustard seed” revolution, one that rejects the focus on numerical growth for discipleship that leads people to do life with those whose culture and race is different than their own. Undoubtedly many at this conference are coming from environments where they have felt the strain of church growth and programmatic discipleship.
The conference wraps up later this week and I’ll share some final reflections afterwards. I’m curious though, how important do you think a conference like this is to the broader church? Is a conference about multi-ethnic churches yet another way to divide the already niche-obsessed American church or, more optimistically, a sign of things to come?