Challenges for Multi-Racial Churches

From Brad Wright, a sketch of the challenges when churches are multi-racial:

When churches do seek racial integration, it can bear substantial costs. Among the possible costs that scholars have identified:

  • Churches feel like they are losing their identity
  • Churches have less feeling of group solidarity
  • Worship services are reworked
  • Decision making processes are changed
  • New staff are hired
  • Services and materials are offered in multiple languages
  • Communication, both verbal and non-verbal, is frequently misinterpreted
  • Conflict arises in church about the smallest of issues. (One study told of a race-related row about where to place a statue)
  • Food service at fellowship events are changed
  • Length and style of sermons are changed
  • And on and on and on

One pastor exclaimed that multiracial ministry is simply exhausting, and this seems to be true in terms of time, energy, and material resources.

Two comments:

1. Gal 3:28 — in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female. [Paul would look at these challenges and say, “Yah, that’s what it’s all about.”]

2. Rev 5:9-10 —

“You are worthy to take the scroll

and to open its seals,

because you were slain,

and with your blood you purchased for God

persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.

10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,

and they will reign on the earth.”

Which means this: We are charged to lean into the future kingdom by living in fellowship with all today.

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  • Thanks for bringing this topic up for discussion, Scot. It is an important topic that needs to be talked about further. The future of the church, whether historically or eschatologically, is a diverse community of every tongue, tribe or nation. Are we working toward it or not?

    On the blog you referenced, George Yancey offers some incisive comments about diversity at the economic level. Diversity is more than racial or ethnic, and we must grapple with that as well within our churches.

    Another topic that is important to this is the difference between multi-ethnic churches (churches with many ethnicities but one dominant culture) and multi-cultural churches (churches with many ethnicities and a more integrated ‘third’ culture of their own). It is easier to be multi-ethnic (although that is joyfully hard!) but takes serious effort to become multi-cultural.

    Efrem Smith’s new book, The Post-Black and Post-White Church, is worth a read on this from a practical level.

  • I’ve been serving urban churches for over 20 years and I appreciate the comments about the difficulty of ministering in contexts that are not ethnically homogenous. I believe it is worth it, but the costs are considerable. I happen to be currently serving the church that Efrem Smith founded. I appreciate the previous comment (from Matt Erickson) that “multi-cultural” is an important distinction. Functionally, many churches claiming to be “multi-cultural” are actually “multi-ethnic” (using the above terms), as there is typically a dominant culture that accepts ethnically different people, but expects those people to assimilate or in some way succumb to the dominant culture. The book by Korie Edwards, The Elusive Dream, is very helpful at this point.

  • I realize that most readers of this blog will bypass this re-post of yours, Scot, and that’s too bad.

    Part of the summary that Brad Wright tacitly addresses is otherwise given a pretty thorough “raking over the coals” by most people who comment here: the pervasive penetration of both Enlightenment thinking and conduct, which is preceded by the longsuffering of Christendom models and theology. Both have some remarkable influence upon how we reflect theologically and how we enact our respective missions through our churches: and that includes how we consider and relate to those ethnically and culturally distinct from ourselves.

    So, if this post were about money, or real estate (church property), or education, or gun control, I would suggest that all kinds of readers would jump in here. But, our tendencies to refuse to enter into discussions about multi-ethnic churches, and about ethnicity in general, betray how embedded we are to Enlightenment thinking- of having sharp, Cartesian boundaries with regard to ethnicity, and a “command and control” response to problems in the social realities- such that when we encounter posts like yours, we frequently are stumped, and wonder if it is just intractable or it generates fear of the “other”, and consequently we refuse to engage. Indeed, the ethnic diversity within the NT itself is rarely taken up as theological consideration! There are some really good books that do this, but those aren’t taken up for conversation or perceived as contemporary topics for the church.

    To Brad’s post proper, I would suggest the Enlightenment- Christendom tandem has also contributed to the very challenges he cites. Such a pair generates some of the very problems he lists. Of course, there is a very real and unresolved history of racism in the US and it always hovers close by in these conversations.

    Yet, I would clearly and unambiguously lean into your last statement: This living in fellowship with all is a charge that we’re all summoned into, and it’s not only a future kingdom: it’s a present one as well. After more than 18 years of international student ministry, what most commonly stops students in their tracks is the observation of “enemies” (from back “home”) eating together, praying together, and serving along side one another.

    Thank you for posting Brad’s post!

  • scotmcknight

    Mike, I agree… the “challenges” in Brad’s post emerge out of a culture searching to preserve itself while the gospel is designed to create another culture.

  • John Metz

    It soon will be my 40th year of involvement with multiracial and multi-ethnic congregations. I think your use of the verses above is wonderful. I would add Colossians 3:10-11:

    “And have put on the new man, which is being renewed unto full knowledge according to the image of Him who created him, where there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all and in all.”

    The phrase “where there cannot be” is very strong, implying that we all, regardless of race, culture, education, social status, etc., need to bear the cross and allow Christ to be preeminent in our real daily life. Yes, there are problems, there are challenges. But the reward–as you put it, “lean into the future kingdom by living in fellowship with all today”–is well worth it.

    Thanks for your post.

  • ft

    What is being described sounds less about being multi-racial and more about people dealing with changing the way things are done and changing dynamics of influence about what happens.

  • Sherman Nobles

    For 10 years or so I was involved with, before moving out of state, a fellowship with one of their primary goals being “transethnicity”. We invisioned a fellowship of believers so full of love and respect for one another that our ethnic differences would be seen as a value instead of as a burden. This was a goal of this fellowship from its planting and it took proactive investment to accomplish it, but today it is a dynamic growing transethnic fellowship where believers are learning to not let a person’s skin color, or cultural heritage hinder them in relating to one another as family.

  • Joe Canner

    While there is no doubt in my mind that churches should not discriminate on the basis of race, culture, ethnicity, etc., the idea that churches *should* be integrated is another story entirely. I am certainly not opposed to it and would welcome it in certain circumstances. I wonder, however, what the objective is. I also look at the list above and wonder if the end product is something that loses some of the cultural distinctives present before the integration.

    These are honest questions; I do not have much experience with this (except for being overseas–where the issues are much different). I welcome thoughts from those who have been through this.

  • Phil Miller

    The church my wife and I attended before moving was a majority African American congregation. I’d say that on any given Sunday, over 85% of the people there were African American. The other parts of the congregation were white, Hispanic, and there were some other international students there as well (this was in a college town). They were a very welcoming congregation, though. Honestly, I never felt out of place there at all, and they treated us like family (we’re white).

    There are some definite differences in how that church functioned compared to other churches I’ve been in, though. The one thing I’ve heard is that white Americans tend to value things like efficiency and order when it comes to public gatherings. They don’t like to feel their time is being wasted. In this church, however, efficiency really wasn’t something they worried about. Sticking to a schedule wasn’t all that important to them (although, I think they were becoming more aware of it). They valued spontaneity and relationships more than a proper order. I had some friends come, and to them sitting through a long service and dealing with the idiosyncrasies in the church was difficult. Personally, though, I guess I just learned to love it because I saw the people as my family.

    I do think there is some worry in that kind of church, though, about losing is cultural distinctiveness. The issue of civil rights, for example, still looms large for many of the people who attend. If someone told them they need to de-emphasize that aspect of the community in some way, I’m sure it would not go over well.

  • Joe (8): I’m swamped with grading, so forgive the apostolic “on the fly” response to your questions. I’m sure you’re asking with the right heart, but my reply will be incomplete.

    You’ve suggested that there’s an “objective” and an “end product” that accompanies an integrated or multi-ethnic church. First, a rear-view mirror observation: both exist in mono-ethnic churches.

    Second, there’s an abundance of biblical data that either directly or indirectly points us/readers to the cultivation and formation of multiethnic communities. The Revelation text Scot cited, as well as the Gal 3:28, and the Col. 3:10-11 texts. I’d add the testimony of the centurion (a Gentile?) in Mark 15:39.

    But, I’d also point to your question: and I hope I’m still giving voice to your question: “How can I know what the result will be if I commit to a messy, relational project such as a multi-ethnic church?” I could recommend the many texts from above as a preliminary reply.

    Along with that, I want to suggest, it is out of Enlightenment-shaped thinking that we often-not always and not automatically- desire to know the outcome in advance. What, if anything, does a multi-ethnic church mean or produce?

    We’re all product and participants of some culture and social relations: amen, and God gives us such gifts. But, we all fallibly receive and partially develop such gifts: including how such culture may hinder us from fulfilling the Gospel’s good intentions for our lives. The Enlightenment-shaped thinking, as good as it has been in so many arenas of life for which we should thank God, can hinder or divert from the important matters of the Gospel, which include the planting and forming of multi-ethnic fellowships.

    Last, ironically, there is an end in the mind and heart of God: that Rev 5 text describes part of it. I would be remiss, however, if I did not tell you that the journey into that end is incredibly ambiguous, sometimes embarrassingly painful, but full of vitality in the Lord Jesus.

    Again, I apologize for the partial reply here, but, you’ve probably asked the question that hundreds of other readers had as well: thanks.

  • ScottW

    It’s important that we understand that this was St. Paul’s mission–to create and sustain Jew-Gentile communities of Christ–in which he was not very successful. Romans is a testament to the brilliant biblical reflection to address the sense of Jewish privilege and Gentile arrogance, and cultural accommodation. Gentile Christians were not second-class citizens of God’s Kingdom nor should they view the rejection of most Jews of Christ and the ingrafting of Gentiles in a supercessionistic manner. The Cross (and Resurrection) looms large in what it takes to create multiethnic/multiethnic congregations.

  • Joe Canner

    MikeK: Thanks, that’s a helpful start. Perhaps Enlightenment thinking was inhabiting my sub-concious in that question, but I think I was asking it for a different reason. I was more getting at motivations. If we are integrating just for the sake of integrating, or just because we think it’s the right thing to do, I wonder if the results will be as beneficial as when we do it out of heartfelt desire to reach our neighbors with the gospel and to love and serve our fellow-believers.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    I must respectfully disagree with much that is written here. This list is of changes, not of costs.
    Randy Gabrielse

  • @Joe Canner: Our motivation ought to be to please God. I think the scriptures cited above make it pretty clear that multiethnic communities please God and fulfill His vision of His bride far better than monoethnic ones do.

    In my experience, different cultures experience the same God in different ways. It’s the old elephant analogy. Some have a better natural understanding of his justice, some of his love, some his compassion and suffering, some his joy and love of celebration, some his power. I think our Enlightenment arrogance is to think that any of us can have a full experience and understanding of who God Almighty is. If we will surround ourselves with people who “get” the aspects of God we tend to devalue, forget, or not fully grasp, our experience of God as a community will be fuller, deeper, and better.

    So many problems of the evangelical church in America could be solved if only we would let non-white, non-male and non-seminary-educated voices come to the table.