Exploring the joys and challenges of leading multi-ethic churches

More than 50 people gathered on 10 June 2017 for a CMMW conference in St Mark’s Baptist Church, Bristol, to discuss the joys, challenges and opportunities of leading a multi-ethnic church.

The challenges of growing multi-ethnic churches

Rev Kate Coleman, a Baptist minister and founder of Next Leadership, opened with a session on the challenges of growing multi-ethnic churches.

Kate began by stating her definition of a multi-ethnic church – a church whose congregation consists of several ethnicities, races and/or cultures, AND is actively engaged in celebrating, encouraging, accommodating and engaging those cultures. The first part alone is not enough – there must be an active celebration and engagement with the broad range of cultures represented, instead of one culture dominating.

The importance of multi-ethnic churches was strongly stated, with discussion of its biblical mandate, as well as the compelling social reality that diversity is growing in modern day Britain. Estimates from the policy exchange estimate that by 2050, 30% the British population will be from a multi-ethnic background, compared to 13% currently. We are also all interacting with and affected by diversity already – with the majority of churches directly interacting with churches or Christians overseas, and people exposed to global issues and realities every day through newspapers and the internet.

Kate described several key challenges in building multi-ethnic churches, including:

Recognition

Some describe multicultural environments as volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, and we need to recognise that there are challenges in leading lead multiple identities – including gender, ethnicity, class and culture. We also need to recognise that these multiple identities coexist, meaning we cannot assume that all issues we encounter are down to ethnicity – there may be other identities such as class also at play.

Leaders need to be equipped to deal with diversity – because being a missionary is now not just about going ‘over there’, but about engaging with diversity in our own backyards.

Kate drew our attention back to the early church in Acts, which she describes as undergoing an accelerated and magnified version of the process that most of us will face in planting, or transitioning, or growing a multi-ethnic church. In Acts 2, the disciples were huddled together in fear in the upper room, gathering in their place of comfort – the place where they had encountered God powerfully and bonded as a group. But, Kate explained, this special place was also a very dangerous place, because it could be their prison. Only through the Holy Spirit and obedience could they break free from the ‘upper room mentality’, moving from a place of familiarity to the place of mission – going to where the diverse groups are.

The prophecy of Joel, referenced at the start of the Church in Acts 2, offers us a tantalising promise of diversity. But we can’t expect people to come to us – we have to leave the upper room (our place of security) and find ourselves among the crowds.

We were challenged with these questions – where is the diversity in my community? Do we know how to access these people? Do we know where they live and congregate? Are we engaging with new groups coming to our area?

Vision – we need to see what could be

In Revelation 7 we see a snapshot of the great multitude before the throne. They were not homogenised or constrained by their identities, but were united in their diversity, worshiping Jesus together.

Kate challenged us about how we help people belong, without them experiencing a loss of identity. Many churches tend to try to hold diversity together by imposing one cultural framework – with everybody expected to become somewhat ‘British’. But if everyone is assimilated, you don’t really have a multi-ethnic church – you’re not celebrating, accommodating and learning from your differences, you just have different faces in the room.

Vision is a pull factor, reminding us where we want to be and encouraging us out of our safe spaces. We need to be open enough to have the difficult conversations that are needed to push into becoming a truly multi-ethnic church.

Courage – to step forward

We need to be prepared to experiment and learn – there’s not a simple ‘five-step method’ to building a multi-ethnic church.

Overcoming ethnocentrism – building trust

In Acts 6, discriminatory practices within the church came to light, with the Greek widows feeling discriminated against. The church had a decision to make – this was an opportunity to either collapse or to push forward towards that vision of diversity seen from Pentecost (in Acts 2) to Revelation 7. So the church appointed new leaders with Greek names, building trust by entrusting the whole activity into the hands of the disenfranchised group. Multi-ethnic churches need to avoid certain people holding control in certain areas of church life.

False expectations – breaking colonial legacies

One of the main issues facing the Church in Acts was the fact that certain Jewish believers enforced Jewish cultural practices onto converts. In the same way, we today can try to enforce cultural practices on people, such as the issue of time, which we need to recognise is treated differently in different cultures.

The Bible and Culture

Paul Bendor-Samuel, executive director of the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, later shared on the Bible and Culture.

Our cultural assumptions

While culture is visible in rituals, behaviours and material objects, it is also shown in our deep-seated values, beliefs and assumptions – the way we imagine life to be. But many of us are unaware of the assumptions of our own ‘tribe’ – these things are unspoken and often only come to light when we’re exposed to someone different from us. And often then our assumption is that we are right and they are wrong!

The issue of identity is also crucial – for if we’re confident in who we are, we can allow space for the other or minority voice to be heard, without being defensive.

Culture in the Bible

When interpreting the Bible, we need to understand the culture it was written in. And we also need to be aware of our own cultural lens which we bring when interpreting the Bible.

Some argue that the single greatest driver behind the epistles in the New Testament is the need to integrate people from all kinds of different cultures into this new Christian movement, which was born out of a monocultural Jewish understanding.

But Paul argues that unity is seen throughout the Old Testament too, with Genesis chapters 1-11 including the naming of 70 nations from one family.  For Paul, the tower of Babel represents communal sin – wanting to stick together rather than going forth and spreading out. But God’s intention is for oneness in diversity, and in Acts 2, at Pentecost, we see linguistic confusion being taken away – with everyone hearing the word of God in their own language.

Reconciled through Christ

Through Christ we are reconciled to God but also to each other, with Ephesians 2 explaining how in Christ God has done something irreversible – He’s taken separation and the curse of Babel and rolled it back – destroying the dividing wall of hostility between us. The wall in the temple separated the Jews from the ‘dirty’ gentiles, but in Christ, God has broken down that barrier, presenting us all to God through the cross. There are no longer two categories of people – no more citizens and foreigners, outsiders and insiders.

So as multi-ethnic churches we need to grow in that identity together – being ‘in Christ’ (one of the Biblical writer Paul’s favourite terms).

The power of unity

Billy Graham was asked the worst sin he’d seen, and he replied “prejudice” – adding that it’s always destructive. Healthy discipleship requires that we deal with prejudice – and being with people who are different from us exposes our prejudice more than anything.

The Bible constantly encourages us to find ways to love each other practically, and that is the most profound witness. With our nation so deeply divided at this time, when the people of God intentionally come together in unity and love, celebrating our differences, it is such a powerful witness to the power of Christ to truly transform us through His love.

So let’s not give up – we are flawed human beings, but we know that God is in the business of reshaping, remoulding and remaking under power of his Spirit, and renewing his Church so that we can be different.


Stories from the ground

Two leaders from the Bristol area then shared their experiences relating to multi-ethnic churches.

Racism in the Church

Bishop Raymond Veira from Church of God of Prophecy shared about the realities of racism he’s experienced inside the church – which has been more intense than what he’s experienced outside. Dividing walls of separation can be very real within the church, including between the rich and poor sides of the same city.

His experience in a Bible College made evident to him the vast differences between black and western theology, with his understanding of concepts such as the kingdom of God being painfully disparaged. We need to bridge the divides between us and build trust.

Raymond asserted that, contrary to popular belief, black leaders do have a theology, and it is extremely good! The message they preach is real, and it’s having an impact and reaching young people’s lives on a major scale. 

Intentionality

Rev Richard Skinner from St Mark’s Baptist Church  shared about his experience of intentionally growing a multi-ethnic church, with more than 11 nations represented including Indian, Nigerian, Burundian, Rwandan, Finish, British, Ugandan, Chilian, Somalian and Jamaican.

They’ve led worship in Nepali on one occasion, with everyone sitting on the floor to experience how worship is done in that culture. On another occasion, an Indian family in their church was encouraged to invite 20-30 of their Christian friends, and most of service was in Marathi, including testimonies and worship. It was great fun, and recognised the importance of other cultures, while also expanding people’s understanding of how people do church in different parts of the world.

Pastoral care

Richard also spoke about pastoral care in a multi-ethnic setting, emphasising the importance of listening and not assuming what people’s expectations will be. There’s also often the need to support people through issues such as immigration and painful separation from family members.

In their church they encourage people to love people who are not like them, and to show love in practical ways. He also encourages everyone that their contribution is important, seeking to particularly encourage those who feel their contribution is not valued (such as many older people), or those who feel they don’t fit in. However it’s also important to recognise that some people don’t want to be involved heavily, and to respect that.

Richard ended by describing how fun it is to be part of a multi-ethnic church, and how above all it is a foretaste of heaven, as seen in Revelation chapters 5 and 7. One day we will all be worshipping together around the throne of Christ, and we have the opportunity to have a foretaste of that now through building multi-ethnic churches – how exciting!