A universal definition of a multicultural congregation could be an elusive task, even for those whose sense of hopeful idealism would have them “see things as if they were.”
As the United States and Canada enter into radically new demographic challenges, brought about by increased immigration from non-European countries, an increasing percentage of congregations are faced with changing hues in the pews. Particularly for congregations in urban areas (but not exclusively so), ministry among non-white people groups is no longer an option, it has become an imperative.
The Mission Strategy US/Canada Office at our headquarters in Kansas City has developed resources to pursue effective ministry among the various people groups. Twenty Strategic Readiness Teams have been appointed to help foster celebration, nurture, leadership, and unity in culturally contextual environments. In recent years, however, an ever growing category has been labeled “multicultural.” Consequently, our office is often asked for guidelines in the determination of such a designation. Hopefully, this brief overview is instructive in moving us toward a working definition of a multicultural congregation.
What is Not a Multicultural Congregation?
• A congregation that has a dominant single group with small pockets of diverse ethnic groups is not a multicultural congregation.
• Congregations whose programs lack a mutual respect of the talents and gifts those different groups bring to the congregation.
• A congregation whose collective identity is best described by the character, customs, and mores, of one dominant people group.
• A congregation in which a single group represents 80% or more of the participants.
• A congregation in which the decision-making structures are overwhelmingly in the hands of one ethnic group, rather than being inclusive of its active participants.
• A congregation that presents a worship platform that lacks representation of its membership and is exclusively ambient.
• A congregation whose self-description is at variance with the infrastructure that should be calculated to encourage diversity.
What is a Multicultural Congregation?
• A congregation that incorporates diversity in its worship, music, liturgy, leadership, and evangelism strategies.
• A congregation that gives permission to its leadership to transform its present shape and form to reflect a representative hybrid of gender, race, and ethnicity.
• A congregation whose policies, mission, and vision are framed by the culture of the present people groups, as well as those who represent the target population.
• A congregation whose annual budget is set with intentional prioritization of the needs of the inclusive community of faith.
• A congregation whose programs include the appreciation and recognition of the significant holidays and events of the myriad ethnic and people groups that form the worshiping congregation.
• A congregation where the preaching and interpretation of the Bible is mindful and respectful of the inherent hermeneutical currencies that various people groups embrace.
• A congregation whose room décor, signage, bulletin boards, symbols, etc., reflect the diversity of its membership or accountability list.
• A congregation where one encounters all-inclusive music, languages, arts, theological expressions, traditions, and a healthy respect for each other’s history.
• A congregation in which no group is larger than 80% of the composite membership or attendance.
This treatment of the theme is not intended to be a corporate denominational litmus test by which congregations are relegated to the ash heaps of futility, or elevated to a missional model to be mandatorily emulated. Rather, it is hoped that for some, it would be an affirmation of a missional objective achieved, and for others, it would be a benchmark toward which the leadership could aspire. The former should be cause for celebration and praise; the latter should require the deployment of a new currency, if the collective desire is to become a multicultural congregation.
And yet, most of our congregations would remain mono-cultural or ethnic-specific. Parenthetically, it must be kept in mind that all formats of worship are legitimate and acceptable. None is the subordinate of the other, or forerunner of the same. None is the penultimate expression of true worship.
I would suggest that any congregation that embarks on a path to multiculturalism should begin with a “theology of embrace.” This posture would force the implementation of intentional actions to facilitate the shared process.
Finally, for congregations that would be self-described as mono-cultural or ethnic-specific, there should never be the perception of exclusivity. The Word mandates that we embrace the “stranger” and “neighbor” in our midst. This does not take place in the abstract; it is the burden of every mono-cultural congregation to create an atmosphere where all who choose to worship with them may feel welcome!
by Oliver R. Phillips
director, Mission Strategy USA/Canada