A multi-cultural church is a sign of the kingdom

My latest book, Fifty Lessons in Ministry: Reflections after Fifty Years in Ministry has recently been published by Darton, Longman and Todd. To whet the appetite of readers of Church Matters to buy copies (£12.99 paperback; £6.50 electronic) two of my blogs this month consist of excerpts. This week, is Lesson 4: ‘A multi-cultural church is a sign of the kingdom’.

As a young minister I longed to see my church grow and develop and felt that the American church growth movement of the 1970s had something to offer British churches. However, although I learnt much from them, I came to realise that their promotion of what they termed ‘the homogeneous principle’ was a denial of the Gospel.

Let me explain. A homogeneous unit is ‘a section of society whose common characteristic is a culture or a language’. To put it more simply, ‘birds of a feather flock together’. Like attracts like. Donald McGavran, the father of the church growth movement, observed that “people like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers”. Up to that point I am with McGavran. There is no reason why we cannot use the homogeneous unit principle in evangelism. Indeed, to a degree that happens in every church: young people reach out to young people, older people to older people, women to women, and men to men. By extension we could justify black Africans reaching out to black Africans, Arabs to Arabs, Asians to Asians. Perhaps more controversially, we could justify people of different socio-economic classes reaching out to their peers. But a major theological difficulty arises when McGavran goes the next step and argues for the creation of ‘one-people’ churches.

Peter Wagner, another American proponent of church growth, used the homogeneous principle as one of his seven ‘vital signs’ of a healthy growing church. He stated: “The membership of a healthy growing church is composed basically of one kind of people”. This surely is segregation! The tragedy of the American church is that still the most segregated day and time within a week is Sunday morning at 11 o’clock. Inevitably some churches are homogeneous, for the simple reason that they are ministering in an area where everybody comes from the same background. However, to promote the homogeneous church as an ideal cannot be right, even if the principle may appear to ‘work’. Churches should be places where everybody is welcome. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3.28). The glory of the church is our unity in diversity. It is this unity which is a sign of the in-breaking of the Kingdom. In Britain’s multi-cultural cities and towns, a church which deliberately sets out to be made up of one group of people runs counter to the very essence of the Kingdom. We are called to live the Kingdom in our life together.

When I arrived in Chelmsford the town was also almost exclusively mono-cultural. However, around 2000 the town’s make-up began to change, and we went all out to welcome Africans– and people of other ethnic groups too. Eventually over one hundred people associated with our church came from other cultures. However, the real challenge we faced was not just to welcome, but to integrate our new friends. In April 2008 Wale Hudson-Roberts, the Racial Justice Coordinator of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, met with some of us, and asked:

Are you a multi-ethnic church (i.e. a church made up of people from different cultures, but who do not relate to one another) or are you a genuinely multi-cultural church (i.e. a church made up of people from different cultures who do relate to one another)?

In my notes I wrote:

We agreed we were on the way to becoming a multi-cultural church, but acknowledged we had a long way to go. We reflected on the insecurity that people from minority cultures experience and asked ourselves how people from minority cultures could really be themselves in our church.

The fact is that difference and diversity in the church are not always easy to handle. It is easy to misunderstand one another. It is easy too to ignore one another. Yet we need to reach out to one another more. It is not enough to be fellow-worshippers – we need to get to know one another, understand one another, and become friends of one another. Indeed, Paul says that we should honour (1 Cor 12.24) those who “seem to be weaker” (1 Cor 12.22): i.e. we need to affirm those who feel of less value than others. In a multi-cultural church where whites are in the majority, it is not easy belonging to the minority. How do we affirm those who belong to a different culture? Paul seems to suggest that there is a place for positive discrimination. Goodness, what would that look like?

This challenge to engage with a diversity of culture was something the early church had to face. The question, for instance, which the Council of Jerusalem had to consider was, did Gentile Christians have effectively to adopt a Jewish culture in order to become full members of the church of God? I note with interest that in Antioch the leadership of the church was surprisingly diverse and multi-ethnic (see Acts 13.1). Barnabas was from Cyprus; Simon called Niger was almost certainly an African, for Niger is a Latinism meaning ‘black’; Lucius of Cyrene came from North Africa; Manaen was a man of some considerable social standing for he was ‘a member of the court of Herod’; and Paul, of course, was a former Pharisee from Tarsus.

The church is called to be a sign of the kingdom, drawing people into the kingdom, where men and women “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” will stand before the throne of God and the Lamb (Rev 7.9). In a divided world the glory of a multicultural church is that already in the here and now it offers a window into the Kingdom of God that is to come.

3 comments

  1. An insightful blog, Paul. A reminder that we still have more to do to be truly multi-cultural, particularly in the way we relate with each other. Thanks.

  2. While Gandhi was a practicing Hindu, Christianity intrigued him. In his reading of the Gospels, Gandhi was impressed by Jesus whom Christians worshipped and followed. He wanted to know more about this Jesus that Christians referred to as “the Christ, the Messiah.”
    The Rev. Pattison tells the following story: One Sunday morning Gandhi decided that he would visit one of the Christian churches in Calcutta. Upon seeking entrance to the church sanctuary, he was stopped at the door by the ushers.
    He was told he was not welcome, nor would he be permitted to attend this particular church as it was for high-caste Indians and whites only. He was neither high caste, nor was he white. Because of the rejection, the Mahatma turned his back on Christianity.
    With this act, Gandhi rejected the Christian faith, never again to consider the claims of Christ. He was turned off by the sin of segregation that was practiced by the church. It was due to this experience that Gandhi later declared, “I’d be a Christian if it were not for the Christians.’”
    What effect would there have been on history if Gandhi had been invited into that church on that day?

  3. Hello Paul,
    I’m delighted to read that you are still as fired-up on this subject (“a denial of the gospel”, “this surely is segregation”) as you were a few decades back at one of our New Zealand Baptist Assemblies! You certainly took at bit of flack for going against perceived wisdom back then.
    The last church I pastored was situated in NZ’s most multi-ethnic suburb and one Sunday we counted 56 different nationalities within the morning congregation. The diversity meant there was potential for division (particularly between those of a more conservative culture and those coming from a more progressive viewpoint) however when handled carefully and pastorally these differences (e.g. divorce and remarriage, LGBT issues, women in ministry) only led to growth among all. We may not have reached concensus, but because of our interactions together, listening, debating etc., we grew very fond of one another and avoiding the dreadful temptation of “othering”.
    Blessings, Fred

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