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How Multicultural Churches Can Succeed

“A congregation does not become multicultural through a recipe that says, ‘add diversity and stir.'”

Multicultural Diversity
(Photo: Unsplash/@timmossholder)

Click here to read part one of this series, which critiques how multiracial churches often fail to be truly multicultural.

Fostering a truly multicultural congregation is much harder to achieve than just getting different people in the same space to worship together. Indeed, when I explain what multiculturalism in churches should look like, I usually get the question, “How do we do this?” That, however, is the wrong question.

“A congregation does not become multicultural through a recipe that says, ‘add diversity and stir.'”

Developing multicultural congregations is not as much about what we do as it is about who we becomeA congregation does not become multicultural through a recipe that says, “add diversity and stir.” It becomes multicultural as its leaders undergo a process of transformation through which they examine and become clearer about their own cultural assumptions and limitations, develop an unending passion for learning about and from people of different cultures, and are willing to face and work through their biases.

First, every member of the core leadership team must believe that diversity is God’s desire for the Church universal and the guiding principle for the local congregation. Every aspect of the church’s ministry must be conceived and planned with this in mind, including hiring and leadership development, outreach and missions, discipleship and spiritual formation, preaching, teaching, worship, and fellowship. Leaders must understand this and have a passionate and proven interest in learning about and working across cultures. Intentions matter less than history here. If a person expresses a passion for building a multicultural church but has no significant history of working in multicultural settings, they are not ready to be a leader. A learner perhaps, but not a leader. It is better to leave a position unfilled than to fill it with someone who does not have this basic level of experience.

“It is striking to me how many White church leaders set out to start multicultural churches with very little first-hand experience in non-White worship settings themselves!”

Second, the members of the core leadership team must continuously learn from people of color and other marginalized cultural groups, both within and outside the congregation. At a very basic level, this involves immersing yourself in worship spaces led by and catering to marginalized groups until you feel at home within them. This is especially crucial for White leaders. It is striking to me how many White church leaders set out to start multicultural churches with very little first-hand experience in non-White worship settings themselves! Further, White leaders need to learn to submit to the leadership of people of color and to be accountable to them. It is vitally important that these be “high identity” people of color whose racial/ethnic identities are central to their self-concept and who are themselves well-educated about race and racism. Leaders also need to study the works of theologians of color, especially Black and Latino liberation, womanist, and Indigenous theologies.

Third, concepts connected to race, culture, privilege, and oppression must be part of the core leadership team’s everyday vocabulary. They should be always asking  the question: “How does culture play into this?” Every core leader needs to have an intersectional understanding of issues such as racism, classism, xenophobia, heterosexism, and ableism. They must have an awareness of their own cultural identities and an ongoing commitment to examining their implicit and explicit biases, privilege, and complicity with oppression. They must also be willing to be called on their bias, to repent of it, and to work through it. Those with privilege must shoulder the responsibility for doing this work without expecting the members of marginalized groups to do the heavy lifting for them. Sometimes doing this work requires the assistance of a therapist with expertise in cultural diversity who can help you to process your cultural baggage and to develop our racial, cultural, and emotional self-awareness.

Multicultural Church
(Photo: Unsplash/@healing_photographer)

“Conflict avoidance is a sure death knell for multicultural leadership and congregations.”

Fourth, the team must attend to its unity and health on a regular basis. This includes developing healthy attitudes and coping mechanisms for addressing conflict. Conflict avoidance is a sure death knell for multicultural leadership and congregations, because it means that the team is unable to accept and address difference. This includes recognizing and addressing cultural differences in conflict, hierarchy, power, and risk, as well as finding ways to amplify the voice and power of those who are from cultures that may be conflict avoidant. Team members must be committed to forgiveness but also to repentance.

A helpful guide is to extend Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness in Matthew 18 to repentance. When we are accused of cultural bias or offense, we should be prepared to confess and repent not seven times, but seventy times. Conflict is a necessary and unavoidable part of building multicultural congregations. Attending to the relational, spiritual, physical, and emotional health of the team makes it more likely that repentance and forgiveness will occur in the aftermath of offense. It is easier, after all, to forgive people for misdeeds when we know and care about them. Prioritize relationship building over task completion. Make sure that each leader has a Rule of Life (an intentional pattern of disciplines meant to deepen spirituality and holistic vitality) and hold one another accountable to them. Pray together, play together, and honor Sabbath.

Finally, prepare to fail anyway. The numerical growth of the ministry may plateau as people recognize the deep level of discipleship required for this journey. Invariably, some conflict will arise that threatens to tear everything apart, or the team will discover that one of its minority group members is deeply critical of the ministry. Embrace this as a learning opportunity, rather than responding to it as a sign of disloyalty or personal failure. Accept and own the mistakes as part of the normal process of learning to worship and grow together with people who are different from you.

Talk through it. Pray through it. Even fight through it. It is your burning bush; only by approaching it will you be blessed.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared on Bearings Online. This is part two of a two part series. To read part one, please click here.


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    Written by Chanequa Walker-Barnes

    Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes is a clinical psychologist, public theologian, and minister whose work integrates healing, justice, and reconciliation. Walker-Barnes serves as associate professor of Practical Theology at the Mercer University McAfee School of Theology.