What does a multi-ethnic church really look like?
I get asked this question a lot at Crossroads, namely because we teach and vision-cast a lot about our desire to be a multi-ethnic church, which I usually follow-up by saying we still have a long way to go. We are three and a half years into a 5-year-plan where becoming a multi-ethnic congregation was one of our goals. Sociologists say that a multi-ethnic congregation can be defined as when the dominant group is not larger than 80% of the total population. On our best day, if you include our kids and teens (where the majority of our people of color* are), we might barely fit the 80/20 rule — so does this mean we’ve met our goal in becoming a true multi-ethnic church?
*People of Color is the contemporary term used in academic conversations about race in America. “Non-white” is not a good term because it forces people of color to identify themselves in relation to the standard of whiteness rather than in relation to themselves. It is not to be confused with the historical racial slur “colored.”
This is where I follow-up by saying we still have a long way to go! It’s relatively easy to become multi-colored, but this is very different than being truly multi-cultural. A true multi-ethnic church is probably beyond the reach of most people, which is why you see so few of them and so few real efforts to become one. So, beyond the 80/20 principle, what does a true multi-ethnic church really look like?
Trust and Safety
I’ll start with this one because if it goes misunderstood, the rest of the identifiers won’t matter (and probably won’t happen). A person of color needs to be able to lament, emote, pray, and petition the Lord and their church community about the challenges of oppression they face on a daily basis. They need to be able to do this without being judged or corrected by the white population.
If the white people in your congregation do not believe that people of color live under oppression in America today, you will never become a multi-ethnic church. If the white people in your congregation are unable to learn from people of color about what it’s like to be black or Hispanic or any form of “other” in America, you will never become a multi-ethnic church. Multi-ethnicity differs from being multi-colored in that it forces you to face systemic racism, historical racism and oppression, racial inequality, racial profiling, white privilege, the reality of police brutality (both modern day and historical heritage), the reality of redlining and black ghettos being built by our government, mass incarceration, and so much more. You can be multi-colored and never deal with these real issues that people of color face. If you do this, it will never truly be Church for people of color and you will simply be forcing them to assimilate to being white, instead of being themselves. More on that later.
To not create a safe and trusting environment for people of color would be like not allowing the Old Testament Hebrews to pray or talk about their slavery to Egypt or to not let the New Testament Jews pray or talk about their Roman occupation. It would be impossible for their walks with God to not be woven together with their lives as oppressed people. The same is true for black Christians.
You will lose lots of white people from your congregation when you start to educate them in these ways. You have to know this going in. You want to educate in a humble, gentle, caring way, but nothing will prevent an exodus. Becoming multi-ethnic has to be a calling from the Lord, a true conviction from Scripture where if you don’t do it, you know you are disobeying the Lord. It is not a niche or a cool trend. This is the only way you can handle it emotionally when people leave (because it hurts–every time) and the only way you will be able to stay true to course when common sense tells you to stop doing things that are shrinking your church and making people upset.
Multi-ethnic Leadership with Authority
If your senior leadership is all white, you are not multi-ethnic, even if your congregation is a 50/50 split of colors. Being multi-ethnic means having the historically oppressed and the historic oppressor at the same leadership table making decisions together. It means that white people sit under the authority of people of color. If you have a leadership team of 10 people and only one of them is of color, you are not multi-ethnic (though one is better than none!). If the interests (and gifts) of persons of color are not represented on your leadership team, you are still a white organization that happens to have people of color in it. It must be understood that the dominant narrative in America, the one that has shaped almost everything about our land, is white people in power over people of color.
An aside: most of my focus on multi-ethnic church is along the black and white lines. The reason for this is because, outside of Native Americans who have almost been completely wiped out, blacks are the primary population that has been oppressed by whites in America. Latinos are a more recent group that has been and is oppressed, in growing numbers, and definitely need to be included in the multi-ethnic conversation as well. The biblical calling for multi-ethnicity is not just so we can look like the colorful church in Revelation 7:9, but so we can be reconciled to one another, one in Christ, reconciling the sin of racism that built (and builds) our country–especially knowing the lead role the white Evangelical church played in this throughout history.
With this said, you can’t play a bunch of white CCM music and expect people of color to happily join in. It’s not that white culture is bad, but it can’t be the only culture. To present white culture as the only culture is to communicate to people of color that it is the best culture and they need to conform to it. This tells them who they are as people of color isn’t good enough or valuable. It also communicates that Jesus is white, or at the very least that the picture of a person who follows Jesus is a white-cultured person.
Multi-ethnic music does not assimilate or cancel out different cultures, nor is it just a blend that meets in the middle–it is a celebration of the beautiful differences in cultures. Real black gospel music needs to be played in a multi-ethnic church, not exclusively, but definitely in healthy portions. The roots of black gospel music go back to the Negro spirituals sung by slaves. Now that is some historical and culture value! You can’t just dismiss that, it must be celebrated. And if you do dismiss it, you are dismissing who a black person is. It’s not that electric guitar CCM music is bad, but when compared to the value and substance of the history of Negro spirituals and black gospel music, we need to be honest that it doesn’t hold the same historical or cultural substance. We also have to be honest that white people don’t associate who they are as people with CCM music, so the two can’t be treated as if they hold the same gravity or priority. One is a stylistic preference while the other goes to the core of a person’s being.
Honest Conversations about Theology
You might feel like what I’ve wrote thus far is a little one-sided. To be a true multi-ethnic church, a white person has to understand that as the dominant culture numerically as well as in the power-structure, it is on us to be the ones who are hospitable to minority cultures. America is always one-sided toward white people, so a multi-ethnic church isn’t going to simply meet in the middle, it’s going to go further toward the side of the oppressed and minority culture. White culture is the tidal wave that comes automatically and non-stop, to do anything different will take the type of intentionality I’ve written about thus far.
With that said, we will need the type of relationship between ethnic groups where we collectively put biblical theology ahead of valuable cultural artifacts. If a church decides its praise and worship time should point toward God (songs about God) rather than pointing toward us (songs about me), as the definition of worship, then songs on both sides of the ethnic spectrum need to be filtered through this lens. If a song is biblically inaccurate, it needs to be filtered through this lens. There are plenty of popular CCM songs that should not be sung in churches for this reason, and there are also treasured black gospel songs that would be guilty of this. These can be challenging conversations, but this is something that can’t be compromised in any church, and will likely rear its head in a multi-ethnic effort where cultures run deep. The same concept will be true of preaching. Now hear me out, I’m not referring to preaching style, I’m referring to biblical content. A black preacher needs to preach like a black preacher, otherwise it’s another assimilation tactic. But a cultural value seen in some black and Latino traditions of the preacher just talking with flair but not preaching from the Bible needs to be honestly challenged and changed. No matter the ethnicity or cultural values, we must always tell the congregation what the Bible says in a text (and by all means, use flair!), not tell them what we want to say (even if it is good or helpful) and use Bible verses to try to support or supplement that.
Are people from all ethnic groups going to be offended during these efforts? You better believe it! That’s what makes it so challenging and so rare to actually pull off in the fullest sense.
If you were offended by this blog post, you are in good company! My heart for writing this is to cast a vision to my church of how far we collectively have to go, but by God’s grace, I know he will honor our faith and our risks and eventually take us to where we are praying. But it will only happen through the faith, the prayer and the risks. What is prayer without risks after all? I know he will take us there because he promises he will answer prayers that are according to his will (1 John 5:14; John 14:13-14), and his will is that the Church be one the way Jesus and the Father are one (John 17:20-23), that his kingdom come to earth the way it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10), and that Jews and Gentiles, blacks, whites, and Latinos are reconciled together in one body (Ephesians 2:14-16, 1 Corinthians 12:12-14).
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