Now, read that again and let it sink in. There is NO such thing as a multi-cultural church. No. Nope. No such thing!
Sure, there are churches that are multi-ethnic. There are those that are diverse when it comes to age, gender, socio-economic status, and background. But differing cultures? No.
Many think that when people who look differently and have different experiences come together, they’ve created a multi-cultural existence. They haven’t. To understand this better, let’s start with a definition of culture.
Culture: the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group…Dictionary.com
See, when you think of culture you have to consider the overarching beliefs of an established group, system, or environment. When we think of culture as it relates to a place of business, we often think about what motivates that organization as it interacts with the world around it. There are businesses that are laid back and have a relaxed dress code. Also, there are those that are highly competitive and can be described as cut-throat.
Many contemporary corporations can honestly boast that they have employees from various races, backgrounds, religions and genders as they speak about their diverse workforce. While it may be true that individual employees have different ways of being in their respective communities or homes, when they begin work with a Google, a Chase Bank, or an IBM, each individual has agreed to conduct themselves in a manner deemed appropriate by their employer. By doing so, they agree to the standards of the company’s work culture.
Companies often communicate the intended culture in their Employee Code of Conduct Handbook. Things such as timeliness, absences and how to resolve grievances are some of the topics covered at the beginning of employment. Those who habitually fail to conform to the stated expectations are demoted or may be asked to leave. While church members may not be fired out right, there are still beliefs and values that are demonstrated and expected.
For many churches, the culture is one that is welcoming and inviting. These churches make it a point to speak of its desire be a safe place for the hurting and broken. In this type of atmosphere there appear to be principles that focus on love and grace. In other instances, there are churches that highlight the need for sin management. In this type of culture, the messages center on humanity’s frailties more than on God’s transforming power.
Church cultures can vary from one end of the spectrum to the other. On one end, there are the churches who possess a staunch focus on rules and the “Do Not’s.” On the other end are those who seem to lack any clear structure or listed guidelines. There are different church culture types regarding music styles, service length and denominational tenants as well. However, with church membership comes an agreement to comply with the originating body’s expectations.
Just like an employee would agree to what is in an organization’s handbook, once we join a specific church body, we have joined the existing system of beliefs – their culture. Although unspoken, the agreement appears to be that, any belief or experience the new member may have had prior to membership with their new church, is regarded solely as a previous and past cultural experience. Therefore, are no multi-cultural churches.
Now, let’s be clear, just like in any business, there are sub-cultures in each faith community. Whether it is the choir, the ushers, small groups, or the parking lot attendants; each group may govern its role in a given church under specific guidelines. But be clear, each then functions in accordance to the expected mission and vision of that church and that church’s culture.
Historically, it has been the stated goal of many church bodies to fill its pews with people of various ethnicities and backgrounds. This is done to have a church community that’s said to “better represent the kingdom of God.” Having been the member of three different multi-racial churches in my life, I now wonder if their goal to “have on Earth as it is in Heaven” was more in theory than practice.
In a conversation with my daughter about diversity in the church, she mentioned her concern with churches with leadership of primarily one race. She wondered if anyone of a different race coming into that space would be viewed more as a “visitor” than a member. This is especially true if the traditions or past experiences of incoming the members do not match those of the dominant church membership. This point was highlighted in a conversation with a former coworker.
Stephanie*, who is white, and I worked for and attended the same church. She shared once that some of the Black women in her small group didn’t feel free to worship in a manner in which they were accustomed. She complained that she didn’t think the current church leadership would be okay with her friend’s worship preferences. To drive home her point, she added, “Imagine if they came into our church speaking in tongues.” “Came into your church?” I asked, “Aren’t we talking about members of the same church?” She quickly apologized and realized how her statement reeked of white privilege and echoed the very thing at the center of her complaint.
As members of any given church body, we agree to the established “customary beliefs” and “social forms” or that church. Even in Stephanie’s story, those who do not look like the forming group, are often viewed as visitors regardless of how long they have been tithe-paying members. Encouraging relationships with people from diverse populations and experiences isn’t the same as creating multi-culturalism. Furthermore, the church may preach diversity, but what is often practiced is really an expectation of assimilation.
All culture is, is a set of values. When we link up with any organized entity, we are agreeing to their culture. For those of us who desire to live authentic lives, we have to consider the costs involved should we submit to that culture.
For some of us, it has less to do with music selection than it does with representation. To determine if your church body is serious about diversity, ask these questions: “Do I see those who look like me in leadership roles?” “Do I hear voices that echo my concerns when it comes to decision making?” “Am I regarded as a full-fledged member or merely a token visitor?” “Is there diversity in all areas of ministry work; from the pulpit to the pew?”
Rather than convince congregations that the goal is to be multi-cultural, it would be best to offer a more honest assessment and state that they are multi-ethnic. And that is okay! In their quest for diversity, churches can focus on creating cultures that support and nurture people of different ages, people who possess different music preferences, and those who are at different faith levels. This is not only possible, it is supported by Scripture. Let’s do it with an understanding that the redeeming power of Christ changes people, who in turn change communities and influences culture.
*Not her real name
(Originally published 3/2018; Revised 10/2020)