November 12, 2010
Multi-Ethnic Church Conference: Recap & Reflections
Where do we go from here?
It is widely known that by 2048, if not sooner, non-Hispanic whites will no longer make up a majority of the U.S. population. Less clear is what these demographic shifts will mean for us who are living through these days of momentous and visible change. A friend who is a school social worker in the suburbs is watching the school diversify significantly and wonders how best to serve his new students. Another suburban friend is spending time with children of refugees and immigrants, looking for ways to explain how the majority culture actually works to those who learned about America on TV. Friends accustomed to being America’s minorities look on with curiosity—and perhaps apprehension—as certain pundits and politicians decry the changing face of the country.
The participants at the first Multi-ethnic Church Conference were asking questions along these lines. More than one speaker referenced 2048 as a societal tipping point. But while the conference addressed the wider culture, many of the most pressing questions were directed to our churches. Most of these complicated issues cannot be swiftly resolved, but I think they’re worth considering here. After all, the questions being grappled with by multi-ethnic church practitioners are surely not limited to the multi-ethnic church.
Brenda Salter-McNeil, speaker and author of A Credible Witness (IVP, 2008), reflected on her time at the Lausanne Congress in South Africa and focused on the question of credibility. She told a story about American Christians who, while visiting South Africa during the height of apartheid, were scorned for their hypocrisy. Who were they to preach about the evils of apartheid when racism and privilege remained rampant in America? Talking about the reconciling nature of the Gospel is not enough. “The generation around us,” said Salter-McNeil, “is watching not what we say but what we do.”
Credibility in a skeptical society isn’t a new question for our churches to consider, but it takes on added dimensions when considered through the multi-ethnic lens. As the country becomes increasingly diverse, the ongoing segregation of over ninety percent of our churches is becoming an unavoidable embarrassment. As Salter-McNeil pointed out, it isn’t just our credibility that is on trial, it is the very trustworthiness of the Gospel.
Throughout the conference my one-on-one conversations often turned to questions of leadership. While we agreed about the need for many, many more multi-ethnic churches, there is little consensus about who makes a good leader or pastor for these churches. As someone who has spent the past few years in a multi-ethnic church I can vouch for the nuances of the leadership question. Because I am a white man there are some who see my pastoral presence as a liability, a symbol of power and oppression too strong for many to overcome. Others counsel that my “third culture” sensibility as a missionary kid allows me to function as a pastor in a non-white church with the appropriate amount of awareness and cultural sensitivity.
From my vantage point, many of the best multi-ethnic leaders and pastors have the ability to interact with America’s majority culture while intrinsically relating to those from minority cultures. It’s not an accident that many of the multi-ethnic pastors in my denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, are first or second generation immigrants whose life experience prepared them to lead their churches into largely uncharted territory. Also common are minority pastors—Latino, Asian American, African American—who have found ways to attract white folks.
Complicated enough? Here’s one more layer to the leadership question: Can multi-ethnic leaders be trained, or is there a required but innate sensibility and worldview that cannot be taught? Brenda Salter-McNeil believes training is both possible and necessary and her organization offers different approaches to meet this largely unrecognized need. But even if it is possible to teach the best practices of the multi-ethnic church, how can future leaders be identified? Perhaps we should begin with women and men whose lives reveal cross-cultural aptitude and whose existing friendships express the reconciling nature of the Gospel. Are you one of those people? You may want to consider ministry in a multi-ethnic church. Seriously.
Reflecting on his years as a pastor of a diverse church, Efrem Smith, author of The Hip Hop Church (IVP, 2005) and Jump (Cook, 2010), asked perhaps the most profound question of the conference: Are we willing to be crucified daily? Adding to the Christian hope that our old selves have died with Christ, Smith pointed to the need to die daily to the ways our racialized society has shaped us. Unlike much of American society, multi-ethnic church practitioners cannot overlook our own prejudice, ethnocentrism, and ignorance. Accepting God’s call to this type of ministry requires a theology of the cross to be at work on a daily basis. Gospel, according the Smith, is what must sustain the multi-ethnic pastor and congregant who are regularly confronted by the injustice of our nation’s past and our personal sin in the present.
As in my first post about the conference, I’m curious to know whether you think these questions are relevant outside of the multi-ethnic church. To those of you in predominately homogeneous congregations: How do you think about these questions?