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Interview: Bryan Loritts and Oneya Okuwobi on Multiethnic Ministry

Bryan Loritts and Oneya Okuwobi talk separately about challenges and suggestions when it comes to multiethnic ministry.

(Loritts and Okuwobi each go on to say that church leadership needs to challenge their flock).

Oneya Okuwobi Catalyst Faithfully Magazine
Oneya Okuwobi speaks into a microphone at Catalyst Cincinnati.

Loritts: To turn the corner you’ve got to have relationships. I’m a firm believer that sanctuaries reflect dinner tables. So the whole church has to see themselves as shareholders in the vision.

One thing we did in Memphis, we called it Black Mondays. We encouraged our body on Mondays to patronize Black businesses. If you do your grocery shopping, go to the African American side of town to do it. If you’ve got a lunch appointment, go to a Black restaurant. That does a couple of things: number one it’s putting money, economics back into those communities. And number two you’re going to get to know some people.

If there’s one thing I want to encourage my White brothers and sisters. I think you all do phenomenal at helping minorities for the most part. Adopting across ethnically. That’s great. I’ve seen many move into impoverished neighborhoods which is great. But we’ve got to be careful. If your only relationships with minorities are in a top-down, helping perspective, that’ll almost undermine the very thing you want to do. What you need also is peer relationships with people who don’t need you. I tell White people all the time, “You need a relationship with people like me. I’ve got good credit. I can actually buy your lunch! I don’t need you for anything.” You know what I’m saying? We’re sitting at the table as equals and peers. So that’s a layer that I would like to see added to it as well.

Okuwobi: Then there was a need to shift hearts. We had people in the church together but not really doing life together, not really understanding each other. So we had to start conversations with each other. Our leadership assigned people to groups the first time around because you have to get past your comfort zone. What better way than to say, “OK, they assigned me to this group.”

We actually started off a 20-week-long small group experience in diverse small groups. Yes, it’s long by today’s standards. But out of our adults in the church, 80 percent finished the entire 20 weeks. It created an entire language change in our church. Now everyone knew somebody that didn’t look like them. Everybody had somebody they could call. And that has helped us progress along the way.

(Finally, each commented on the increase in multiethnic churches and what that means for the future.)

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Loritts: It’s just 14 years ago when we planted our church in Memphis. I looked around the country and I hardly saw any models. I was hardly hearing any conversations about this. Now 14 years later, the ball has significantly moved in this area. In 2003, only 2.5 percent of all churches were multiethnic. As of two years ago, the latest LifeWay study says now 14 percent are multiethnic. That’s a significant jump. Conferences like Catalyst are asking me to come in and talk about it. That didn’t exist in the early 2000s. The new generation of church planters is think-ing about these things. That wasn’t normal when I was coming up. That deeply encourages me.

Do we have a long way to go? Absolutely. But the very fact that this is coming on people’s radars is huge.

Okuwobi: The number of multiethnic churches, with at least 20 percent diversity, is expanding exponentially. We are up to 14 percent—which is not enough, but I am hoping when the next numbers come out in 2018 that we are at or above 20 per-cent. That is a phenomenal shift because it enables a change where you actually know somebody who looks different from (you). They become not an issue; they’re a friend.

But the other thing that goes along with that—it’s not enough for a church to just have diversity in it. They need to be talking about issues of systemic racial inequality, talking about issues of poverty, immigration—the things that we’re seeing in our lives. About half of the churches that have become diverse are actually talking about these things from the pulpit, and that’s what gives me the most hope. Because if people are hearing these messages reinforced in the context of an environment where people don’t look like them, and they’re building friendships, then they’re going to be motivated to make change. And I see that as the future of the church.


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    Written by Kelly Carr

    Kelly Carr, former editor of The Lookout, is a writing & editing consultant in Cincinnati (editoroflife.com).