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A multiethnic church: an intentional decision

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Archives / 1996 / May

 

 

A multiethnic church: an intentional decision

Lawrence Downing

Lawrence Downing is senior pastor of the White Memorial Seventh-day Adventist Church in Los Angeles, California.

 

 

Ethnic and cultural diversity have revolutionized how churches and pastors fulfill their ministry. We live in a global village. It is no longer necessary to go to foreign lands to find people of other cultures and races. They live next door. These population shifts bring fresh challenges and opportunities for ministry.

My wife and I came to the Gardena, California, Adventist Church in 1969. Gardena has the largest Japanese population of any American city. It is home to Japan Air Lines, Toyota, Datsun, Sony, and other Japanese corporations. The ethnic diversity of the city reflects in the Adventist church. It had 25 Japanese-speaking members meeting in the youth chapel. The Gardena church also served as a satellite campus for a Los Angeles Adventist Japanese language school. The church soon had its own language school, led by a husband-and-wife team invited from Japan.

The school became our most significant community outreach. With an enrollment of more than 350 students, it is one of two schools in America accredited by the Japanese Ministry of Education. Students come from the local community and from families of executives on assignment from Japan.

A further dynamic was added to the congregation when a Samoan group united with us. Two Samoan elders asked if they could join our congregation. I promised to get back with them after talking with church elders. I spoke individually with the elders from the Japanese and English language groups and found a positive response. We invited the Samoans to meet with the board of elders and the church board. Soon the Samoan group became part of the Gardena congregation. We were becoming a mini United Nations.

The addition of the Samoan group to our congregation brought home a significant point: the pastor's attitude, behavior, and skills make a difference. People appreciate positive but realistic attitudes, and nothing substitutes for good communication.

Common problems

A routine problem in multiethnic, multilingual ministry is sharing the common facility. The person who functions best with clockwork precision may easily be frustrated when more than one group uses the same facility. It works well when the rule is followed that who ever is first on the church master calendar has priority. Problems arise when neither group has cleared its plans with the church office and both wish to use the church simultaneously. A well-orchestrated church master calendar is clearly an important part of multicultural church life.

A high-use facility will show wear. When pastors or other leaders observe this and make a habit of telling the board that "these people" do not supervise their children properly, and that "the kids are tearing up the building," those who like to recall the days when the building was theirs alone arise to recall the days when....

Rule: When a problem is presented, talk to leaders from the group tied to the problem and seek solutions there. Keep discussion of negative information on a need-to-know basis. Allow for extra costs when budgeting, and practice containment. I encourage multicultural congregations to adopt a policy that any Adventist groups seeking to share church facilities will become members of the congregation and be governed equally by one board. This policy softens the "them versus us" mentality.

Functioning on a budget

Another policy that will minimize frustration and loss is for the church board to adopt a financial procedure that stipulates all money collected on the church property will be turned over to the church treasurer. The church board can consider requests to solicit funds for special projects.

This kind of voted annual budget avoids disputes over how much money is available for various projects, even if those projects are to be influenced by multicultural concerns. For example, Sabbath school leaders know how much money they have to buy rewards for those who come to Sabbath school on time. Youth leaders know exactly what they can spend on a recreational event. When a budget controls expenditures, each leader knows the amount available. When that amount is spent, the leader cannot expect the treasurer to find extra money without prior board approval. People come to understand and appreciate this policy.

Day-to-day ministry in the multicultural church

Not all groups view election to church office in the same way. With some groups the nominating committee has to beg and negotiate to fill offices. In other groups people politic and maneuver to gain election. They bring up erroneous or hurtful information to block the election of another. Pastors cannot take sides, but they can challenge hearsay and rumor. We can ask people to consider human frailty and the meaning of forgiveness. And there are times to take a stand, either for or against a position. When we do, however, we must make sure that we act justly and on the basis of correct information.

Various groups have differing approaches to evangelism and mission. To some, public evangelism is important. Others emphasize personal and "web" evangelism. And there are those who work on the conversion of the leader of a family or clan with the hope that other family members will follow.

Each language or ethnic group with in a congregation has its own particular needs and accepts certain traditions and customs as standard operating procedure. It is possible to circumvent these factors, but at a cost. For example, it might not be customary in a given ethnic group to permit non-Adventists to preach the Sabbath morning sermon. I may not agree with the custom, but it is so important to this group that it is not worth the emotional trauma to counter it. I might privately speak to the elders. If there is a change of opinion I will go ahead and arrange for the Sabbath sermon. Until then, however, no one but Adventists preach in that church.

Spending time with the elders and leaders of various groups is invaluable. They know the nuances that are part of each group's culture. They know what's going on with their group. The church elders belonging to non-American-born groups usually keep closer to their members than do leaders from among traditional American circles. When problems arise, talk first to the leaders and trust their advice.

It did not take me long to learn that people do not fit stereotypes. It takes time before the barriers that divide cultures and ethnic groups are lowered, but when we know and trust one another we begin to share life together.

Ethnic dynamics at work

It is important for the pastor to know the dynamics involved when cultures and ethnic groups meet. What at first appears on the surface may be appearance only. The significant realities lie deeper. A pastor needs to find that deeper level. For example, even though all speak the same language, they may not all think alike. Far from it! A Peruvian is not a Chilean; a Mexican is not an Argentinean; and yet they may all speak the same language. A language or script will be one factor uniting a people, but many other factors may separate them. Understand each group from within its own ethos and relate to each one accordingly.

In a congregation that works well, each person perceives the other as an equal before the Lord. One way our church affirms equality is that we do not include any title in the printed bulletin. An illiterate person may share the platform with a person with doctoral degrees, and the bulletin does not reflect that fact.

The Anaheim story

The Anaheim congregation I've pastored is a diverse community---ethnically, culturally, racially, and linguistically. On any given Sabbath the platform may be shared by a gardener and a physician, a woman from Colombia and a man from Oklahoma. At a recent fellowship meal 10 of us sat around a table. We represented eight countries.

In 1988 the congregation, upon a church board recommendation, approved the formation of a Spanish-language section within our parish. This, of course, did not happen over night.

A year earlier two Spanish-speaking persons began attending the worship service. Each arrived late and left immediately after the closing hymn. One Sabbath I left the platform early to intercept one of them as he made his way to the parking lot. I introduced myself and asked his name. I said I would like to meet him for lunch the next week. He invited me to his office instead.

He told me he had been visiting area churches, ascertaining their various reactions to Spanish-speaking people. He had asked two pastors how they felt about starting a Spanish Sabbath school class. Neither approved the idea. He asked my opinion, and I asked him when he wanted to start. He laughed. He told me that he and his family had attended a Spanish church for many years, but now that his children were starting academy, they wanted to go to an English Sabbath school. None were available in the Spanish churches. He further explained that he believed there was a need in the area for a church in which people had both English and Spanish services available. The older people and those new to North America like Spanish, but the young people in the same family may prefer English. If there were a congregation that offered both, such families could attend the same church together each week.

I told him I thought our church board would welcome an opportunity to fill this need. I told him I would meet with the Sabbath school leaders to confirm my invitation to begin a Spanish class as soon as possible; the children could attend the children's and youth divisions because they spoke English anyway.

The Sabbath school superintendent thought this was an excellent idea, and the Spanish class began. The class grew, and in a few weeks we started a full Spanish Sabbath school. Within a year the church business session appointed officers to be in charge of a Spanish worship service.

Not all the church members agreed that inviting another language group was beneficial or practical. A few expressed concerns about being taken over by the Spanish people. They worried that the English-speaking members would begin to leave, something that had happened at a nearby church a short time earlier. Others asked why we should start another Spanish congregation. Weren't there enough already? Pastors of Spanish congregations privately told me that the people who came to our group would likely be those who did not fit into the regular Spanish churches in the area. "Expect troublemakers," they warned.

I made a personal decision not to argue or debate with those who opposed establishing a new presence in the congregation. No one wins this kind of debate. I listened to what people said and expressed concern for their opinions. I recognized their frustration and anger and acknowledged how they felt when they looked around and saw so many they did not know and heard a language they did not understand. Some people said they felt like strangers in their own home. They wondered if there were a place for them anymore. Some felt these things so strongly that they did, in fact, leave.

The feelings these people expressed are valid. One can predict that they will be present. But if a pastor wants a given multicultural project to fly, he or she must not agree or side with those who oppose the venture. If people see the pastor siding with those who want to keep things as they are, or if you as pastor are not sold on the concept, pull the plug and save everyone the wasted energy! If you wish the project to succeed, it will.

Starting a multiethnic ministry

If your congregation does not have a multiethnic/multicultural ministry, do not conclude it is because people of diverse backgrounds are not there. To find out what groups live in your community, observe the children who come to the neighborhood schools. Go to city hall and examine recent demo graphic studies. Drive around your town and look at the church signs. Even small-town churches have foreign-language services. If you see signs in Korean, Japanese, Spanish, Romanian, or other languages, you know there is a potential group available for inclusion into your congregation. After you do a brief community survey, you can move to the next step.

Talk to the members in your church who are interested in opening the doors to other people. Share what you have found. Remember the choice to welcome other people is an intentional decision. "An House of Prayer for All People" should be more than a slogan. Share your dream and listen to the response. If it is positive, move ahead to work through several main areas of concentration.

Language is one factor. If there is a member of your church who speaks the language of the target group, you already have a head start. However, a person does not have to understand a language before being accepted by other people, nor does one need to speak another's language to influence them. Interest in what others think or do opens many doors. Go where the people are. Attend their cultural celebrations. Find out their needs and seek ways to fill those needs. Expect a positive response. People new to a community welcome those who take an interest in their lives.

Establishing an English as a Second Language class is one way to meet a need. If you decide to begin classes, keep expectations realistic. Attendance will likely be small and spasmodic. People often work long and varied hours. Transportation and child care are problems, and there is little money available for class tuition.

It is important that the pastor or church leader spend time learning about people, their history and traditions, their religion and culture. People love to share this information with anyone who shows interest. Treat people and their backgrounds with respect.

Immigrant populations usually view pastors as authority figures. It is important to them that the pastor be seen at official functions and that he or she visit their worship services as often as possible. Church plays an important role in their lives. Sabbath is a full day. After church there will frequently be a shared meal, a youth meeting, and an evening service. Food, talk, and fun are part of church life.

Learn as much of the language as possible. People appreciate the interest shown in an attempt to speak their language. It also gives a good laugh when we butcher words and phrases.

No formula will assure success when diverse people are brought together in one location for a common purpose. Expect and prepare for resistance from those who once were the ethnic majority. Some members will leave or, perhaps worse, remain to oppose the changes taking place. There will come times when you wonder whether it is worth the emotional energy expended to bring together people who do not naturally fit together.

We who work with people will make mistakes and errors in judgment that we have to live with. This is part of life and an occupational hazard. Through our mistakes we learn about hope, forgiveness, mercy, and love. We learn to have faith that God will open a way through those situations that take us beyond our own abilities. The person who pastors in a multiethnic/multicultural congregation will understand what I mean.

I encourage my colleagues to be open to the possibilities available in a multicultural/multiethnic ministry. Trial, error, and common sense are good teaching tools. For those of us who have this experience, I put out a call to communicate with one another. We can share on the Internet what we learn or what we would like to learn (my CompuServe number is 74617,1313). I would like to see us come together for a three- or four-day conference to explore the theme "Ministry Within the Multiethnic/Multicultural Congregation." This could be an exciting and worthwhile venture!

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