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Why Multicultural Churches Fail

‘A truly multicultural congregation recognizes that no one cultural group has a complete understanding of God’s kingdom and that everyone benefits when they embrace and learn from different groups’ views of the Divine.’

Multicultural Church
(Photo: Unsplash/@adrienolichon)

Multiracial and Multicultural are Not Necessarily the Same

“What kind of ‘multicultural congregation’ are you talking about?” I asked.

I was meeting with a pastor who was telling me about his dream of planting a multicultural congregation. Over the years, my experiences as well as my conversations with friends had revealed that “multiracial” and “multicultural” are not necessarily the same.

Sociologist Michael Emerson makes a similar – and unfortunately often overlooked – distinction in his book, People of the Dream: Multiracial Congregations in the United States. Emerson defines a multiracial congregation as one where no single racial or ethnic group accounts for 80 percent or more of the membership. When you think about it, that’s a rather low bar. A congregation could be 79 percent White and have all White leadership, but still count as multiracial. In the U.S., though, achieving 20 percent of racial diversity is a difficult feat for most congregations. As we recently commemorated the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we find that King’s oft-stated observation is as true as ever: 11 o’clock on Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour in America.

Most Multiracial Congregations Are Far From Multicultural

“In my experience, most multiracial congregations are far from multicultural.”

If becoming multiracial is difficult for churches, becoming truly multicultural has seemed to be an impossible task. In my experience, most multiracial congregations are far from multicultural. A particular church may be diverse in its membership, but still lack true diversity in its leadership, its liturgy and worship, its theology and doctrine, and its approaches to mission and discipleship. In some cases, a church can be multiracial yet culturally homogeneous because all power and influence in the congregation is held by members of the same cultural group.

Church Congregation
A photo of a church congregation. (Photo: Unsplash/@annaelizaearl)

When I was in middle school, my family attended several churches like this in Atlanta and in Nashville. The congregations were filled with people from a diverse array of races and socioeconomic classes. There were Whites, Blacks, and a few Latinx and Asian Americans from across the economic spectrum. Working class single mothers sat alongside wealthy two-parent couples in worship and in Bible study. That diversity did not, however, extend to other areas of the church. The core leadership – meaning those people who shaped the congregation’s worship, theology, and programming – were all White. At most, they had a Black choir director or minister of music whose job was to infuse a little rhythm into the praise and worship.

In other cases, a church may have members who, while ethnically diverse, share the same culture. Race and ethnicity, after all, are only one component of culture, which is also shaped by factors such as education, occupation, economic class, nationality, geographic region, age, generation, and language. Processes of assimilation, enculturation, and amalgamation help to shift culture over time. Thus, people with different ancestries may share a common culture. With rare exception, that common culture tends to be middle-class whiteness, or what many people refer to as “dominant American culture” or even “just American.”

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Whiteness Is Often the Cultural Standard in Multiracial Churches

From elementary classrooms to corporate boardrooms, all of us are judged by how well we demonstrate the cultural hallmarks of middle-class whiteness in how we eat, dress, talk, and wear our hair; the type of music, movies, and books we like; how we define family and choose our friends; what sports teams we root for; even in what kind of preaching and worship we like. These behaviors and the judgments that others make about them can open or close doors of opportunity to educational, occupational, and socioeconomic advancement. Consequently, many non-White individuals attempt to assimilate into or appropriate whiteness to at least some degree. At an extreme end, this may mean rejecting some or all of their ancestral culture, refusing to learn or speak the language, avoiding friendships and relationships within the culture, and perhaps shunning the culture itself. More commonly, though, people of color “code-switch” between their own culture and that of whiteness, intentionally moving between one or the other depending upon the context.

Many multiracial congregations put inordinate pressure upon people of color to code-switch constantly. Sometimes the pressure is explicit. At a highly diverse megachurch near my home, for example, the White senior pastor publicly announced that in hiring a music minister, he was looking for an African American who would “play White.” Another pastor told me that he was advised to do the opposite: to hire a White music minister because it was the only way that White Christians would join a church pastored by a Latino male. In both cases, the expectation was that the worship style would be catered toward White middle-class congregants. The people of color who joined, then, would be those who preferred White middle-class culture or who were highly motivated to code-switch. In these contexts, failure or refusal to code-switch – perhaps by clapping on the upbeat, saying “amen” too loud, questioning the lack of diversity in music, or talking about racism – is usually met with displeasure, conveyed through looks of disdain, exclusion from activities and leadership, and even open ridicule.

“A truly multicultural congregation recognizes that no one cultural group has a complete understanding of God’s kingdom and that everyone benefits when they embrace and learn from different groups’ views of the Divine.”

A truly multicultural congregation is one in which the membership and leadership are comprised of two or more culturally distinct groups that share power and influence over the church’s governance, worship, theology and doctrine, and programming. The leadership is especially intentional in ensuring that multiple cultural traditions shape its preaching, teaching, and worship on a daily basis. These traditions are not limited to the groups already present in the church or its surrounding community, but also exposes its members to theological views and worship traditions of Christians from backgrounds not represented in the congregation. A truly multicultural congregation recognizes that no one cultural group has a complete understanding of God’s kingdom and that everyone benefits when they embrace and learn from different groups’ views of the Divine. In a truly multicultural congregation, everyone learns to code-switch, not just the people of color.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared on Bearings Online. This is part one of a two part series.


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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.