Multicultural ministry constitutes building a Christian community that incorporates people of diverse origins. What’s so particular about multicultural ministry? Ministry in the French Antilles, Côte d’Ivoire in West Africa, Toronto, Canada, and for the past seven years, in Saginaw, Michigan, has led me to conclude that the particular challenge of multicultural ministry is to transcend diverse belief systems with the power of the Gospel. In fact, the reason we can and must engage in multicultural ministry is that grace transcends human constructs. Colossians 3:11 tells us that in Christ there “is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.” The Gospel explodes human constructs and re-shapes individuals into a new culture that incorporates and transcends the unique situations in which we live. The conviction that the Holy Spirit actualizes the power of the Gospel is the presupposition for our intentional engagement in multicultural ministry. We make the Gospel credible to those of non-Christian worldviews by our capacity to model transformative grace through friendliness, compassion, and servanthood.
Friendliness is openness to two-way relationships. Yet, we often seek to minister in a one-way paradigm. One-way-ness is the presupposition that we do not need others, but they need us. This sabotages genuine friendships. On the other hand, in two-way relations, we acknowledge our need for others, and we are open to genuine friendships.
In the one-way paradigm, we approach people with tools in hand and a sincere desire to help. However, if we inadvertently indicate that we’re OK, but they’re not OK, we end up with unilateral relations that are the antithesis to true friendliness. We also run the risk of attaching conditions to our overtures of friendship—we are friendly only in so far as we can get people to come to our church. Yet, the friendliness of God suggests a different type of relation.
We model the friendliness of God by seeking two-way relationships. Our primary questions are not, “What do you need?’ or, “How can I get you to church?” Instead, they are, “How can I get to know you?” and, “How can I share myself with you?” These questions help us to avoid the pitfalls of trying to “fix” people or mold them into our conception of what Christians should look like. They help us to understand the unique context of the individual. They open the door to understanding a person’s worldview, dreams, ambitions, values, and beliefs. We must live, work, and learn in the context of diversity, before we can minister.
As we model the friendliness of God, we are able to sustain a spirit of humility and gratitude. We begin to see that unless others are willing to open up to us, we cannot minister to them. Their willingness is in itself a gift of grace, since it is by the Spirit that we find a response to our overtures of friendship.
Personal experience of life is unique to the individual. Pain is a common element of all our experiences, although the causes of and our responses to pain are diverse. As we disclose our own places of anguish, the Spirit enables others to disclose their pain to us. Compassion is the point at which we identify with another’s pain and understand how we can demonstrate God’s healing love.
Ministers are flesh and blood people with histories of hardship and suffering. We often feel that this history must remain hidden, if we are to be effective. It is easy to forget that God uses us, warts and all, to connect with others. When we recognize this, we are free to share our lives with others. We tell our story to demonstrate the workings of grace in our own experience. Sharing our story is one way of saying to another person, “I feel you. I’ve been there.” Thus, we can reach across diversity and touch someone.
Sharing our story paves the way for us to hear the other person’s story. We must listen to what is said in order to hear what is not said. We must listen for the root cause of pain. We must listen in order to identify the personal struggles and dysfunctions always at play in human relationships. We must identify these elements of a story, because this is the woundedness to which we must apply grace. Hearing a person’s story gives us a starting point for sharing the Gospel.
By hearing the story, we avoid erroneous needs analysis. I presently work in a community of under-privileged people. At first glance, it may appear that these individuals need food and clothing. But by listening to their stories, I have discerned the crippling anguish that has driven them to lives of futility. I have come to understand that my people are in a struggle to overcome a history of neglect, abuse, and broken relationships. This does not mean that they do not need food and clothing; it does mean that the more fundamental need is for the inward healing of grace. I can and must, by grace, respond to this need, for I know the pain of my people.
Yes, I know the pain of my people, and they realize that I know. And my knowledge of their pain matters more to them than my hair type, skin color, or accent. Multicultural ministry reaches down to the grass roots level of the commonality of pain. This is the space in which compassion becomes the outflow of divine love, as our response to another’s pain.
Concrete actions are compassionate to the extent that they reflect the Christ model of servanthood. Compassion points us to the deeper needs of our people. Our free response to these needs is the transcultural language of the unconditional, sacrificial love of God. Servanthood speaks counter-culturally and thereby affirms the distinction of the Christian Gospel. It demonstrates that while ethical codes of human origin can only tell us what to do, the Gospel is the power of God that writes the code of love and holiness upon our hearts.
Servanthood is our free response to the needs of others. Free response liberates us from seeking a return on our investment. The particularity of multicultural ministry is that we minister, more often than not, without any visible signs that we’re reaching people for Jesus Christ. Our friendliness, compassion, and service may be long in bearing fruit. The power to persevere arises from our conviction that there will be fruit—sometime.
Servanthood entails a sense of ownership—a decision to bear one another’s burdens. Once this decision is made, we can employ our resources, skills, and learning in serving others at their point of need. Practical theology is essentially the work of determining best practices and best resources for particular contexts. Regardless of the tools we employ and the place of our ministry, our free service speaks the language of love. Through servanthood, we become transcultural symbols of the power of grace. We all want unconditional love, but we are not certain that it exists. Servanthood is the voice that affirms the reality of unconditional love.
The servant model is counter-cultural. It is alien to the non-biblical worldview. Serving those who cannot repay us is way beyond any cultural norm of human civilization, precisely because it is way beyond human capacity. When we keep on knocking on people’s doors, after they tell us to go away, we are confronting them with the essence of the Gospel. Our action challenges the non-biblical worldview and explicates the winning love of God.
Multicultural ministry requires focus on the particularity of amazing grace, incarnationally translated through our commitment to friendliness, compassion, and servanthood. Jesus looked past gender, ethnicity, and social mores in order to befriend the Samaritan woman. He offered friendship by asking for something she could share—water. He showed compassion through his understanding of the woman’s need. He demonstrated His servant spirit by meeting her need. The result of his overture was a meaningful conversation that made all the difference to the Samaritan woman. Multicultural ministry is our quest for meaningful conversations of this kind.