Conference report - Every Tribe, Nation and Language: Growing Multi-ethnic Churches

Every Tribe, Nation and Language was a conference jointly organised by Centre for Missionaries from the Majority World (CMMW), Queens Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education and Birmingham Churches Together (BCT). The conveners and facilitators, drawn from the three partner organisations, were Dr Dulcie Dixon (Queens Foundation), Dr Colin Marsh (BCT) and Rev Israel Olofinjana (CMMW). 

The conference addressed the theme of multi-ethnic churches in Britain, and was well attended with about 75 participants drawn from African, Caribbean and white British backgrounds. The conference started with Rev David Ellis, a Baptist minister with senior role within the Baptist family, leading us in a multi-ethnic worship style as we sang a Zulu song alongside classical hymns! 

The conference had four speakers addressing different aspects of the theme; Steve Hollinghurst, an evangelist from Christ Army and researcher into contemporary culture and new expressions of church; Dr Harvey Kwiyani, founding director of Missio Africanus, tutor at Birmingham Christian College and director of CMMW; Dr Tani Omideyi, senior pastor of Liverpool Lighthouse and chair of board of the Evangelical Alliance; and Gale Richards, Baptist minister and tutor at Northern Baptist College.

Steve began by talking about multi-ethnic churches from a Western perspective, including an exploration of how colonialism and immigration have affected mission. “Paul planted local churches with indigenous leaders and gave them independence, while colonial Christianity planted non-indigenous churches with foreign leaders and made them dependent”. He went on to talk about three different ways we can do mission. One is reverse mission, the second is separate mission and the third is shared mission.

Steve highlighted the various shifts that have taken place in British culture, making Britain a very difficult mission field. Part of the challenge is that we have assumed a Christendom backdrop, meaning we assume that people know about Christianity, when in reality for most people it doesn’t mean anything to them. We are now effectively foreign missionaries in our own country, as the vast majority don’t share our faith.  We have to shift our mindset to preaching to gentiles in a creative way. Some will argue that we are now in a post secular, post modernity and post Christendom society. 

Most people in Britain now say that no religion is true, but all have truth, therefore people take bits they like out of every religion and create their own personal belief system. Often these people are within our churches on a Sunday. This makes discipleship different.   

The new tribes of Britain each need the Gospel; as Steve emphasised: “We can’t take the same message to each one we need to find different angels of the Christian message that fit”. In this climate we have to find ways of doing a shared mission, because all are missionaries to everybody. 

Dr Harvey Kwiyani then shared about how we should not waste the gift of God given to us in the cultural diversity of the church. He explored the multi-ethnic origins of the New Testament church, focusing on the church in Antioch. This, he argued, has always been the way God intended his movement to be, that is, multi-ethnic.  Next he surveyed church history in the last century and how the shift in the demography of Christianity over the last 50 years means we’ve seen a change we still haven’t processed yet, with a typical Christian “looking more like me (a black African)”, ahwat some call the ‘brownisation of Christianity’. 

A strong point made by Harvey was that the homogenous church unit principle by McGovern appears to justify racism and classism; to reach rich people you need a rich pastor, poor to the poor, Africans leading Africans and so on. He concluded that it is unwise to sacrifice diversity on the altar of church growth!

Harvey also shared that growing multi-ethic churches means change for everyone: “Growing multi-ethnic churches changes everybody, that’s why it’s difficult and painful. When strangers come in, you can’t stay the same”.

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Dr Tani spoke as a practitioner who has had the privilege of intentionally developing a multi-ethnic church in Anfield, Liverpool, since the 1980s. The church he and his wide planted started with all Africans, but he had a dream in which God said to him “my house will be a house for all people; I’ll break it up and put it together again.”

Soon after the church broke up and God suddenly began to bring people in from different backgrounds. The church had to change their values, behaviour and some of their beliefs in order to welcome the new people that God was bringing. This was a process that took some time, and indeed is never finished, as new people are always coming. They also had to understand the difference between what is culture and what is the Gospel, a question that the Apostles also had to confront in Acts 15 as gentiles were becoming Christians.

Tani explained that a lot of the things we protect dearly in our churches are in fact cultural, rather than gospel.  It is the church cultural traditions that we protect, rather than the Gospel itself, which often results in excluding others; “The Gospel accepts people – it’s what we wrap around it that excludes”. Their church’s leadership structures, vision statement, worship styles and so on had to change and be restructured in order for them to be a truly multi-ethnic church. The UK is now a mission field – we’re all in it together, and whether we are missionaries from outside, or leaders from within, we must come together to reach our nation.

Gale Richards offered a profound reflective response to the three talks as someone who has spent most of her church life in a multi-ethnic church context. While she acknowledged the many advantages of multi-cultural churches, including the great opportunities for people to learn from people of different backgrounds, she asserted that what we do have to acknowledge the power dynamics at play in our churches, and some of the historical roots. We can’t be naive about this; “some voices may be heard and others not – power dynamics are very important to recognise in multi-ethnic settings”.

She also reflected on the legacy of colonialism and articulated that a significant number will have been subconsciously taught to assimilate views of their ethnic heritage and ideas about white culture and ethnicity being superior. There is also the assumption that white British people will be willing to be ministered to by BMEs, but they too may have unspoken notions of ethnic superiority which make this difficult in reality.

The conference included break-out sessions for people to discuss and have conversations around the issues the speakers shared, and there was also a panel at the end with opportunities for questions and answers. A significant conversation which emerged out of the break-out sessions was that there are different approaches in building a multi-ethnic church. It was articulated that while there are churches with different nationalities, cultures and ethnicities in one single congregation, this does not mean every church has to be this way, as long as they are in unity with other churches around them. Another approach is to have for example a Spanish-speaking church and French Congolese-speaking church sharing a building with an Anglican church.  What matters in such context is working together.

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