Multicultural ministry

The frontier of mission for the twenty-first century

Caleb Rosado, professor of sociology, Humboldt State University, Arcata, California.

On the eve of the twenty-first century, the frontier of mission for the church is multicultural ministry. Multicultural ministry is proactive model of ministry, not a reactive forced integration. It is an indispensable vision for the church in the multicultural society of the third millennium.

Multicultural ministry (MM) is the development and implementation of varied models of communicating the gospel through beliefs and behaviors that are sensitive to the needs of a culturally diverse population. MM creates a community that celebrates unity in diversity in Christ.

While people should be free to choose where they desire to worship, MM suggests a diversity of worshipers and worship experiences within the united body of Christ. Even in what appears to be a homogeneous congregation there is diversity. Age, gender, class, occupation, values, interests, and status identify only some of the factors that create diversity within the most homogeneous congregations. A multicultural church is sensitive to these differences and others, and shows a respect for people and what they bring to the altar to present before God.

The key dynamic for an effective multicultural ministry is to keep the two dimensions of "unity in diversity" in balanced tension, without erring to either side. This is possible only "in Christ" (Gal. 3:28), for it is "in Christ" that the estranged parties are reconciled into one (Eph. 2:13-19). Erring on the side of unity results in uniformity at the expense of our human uniqueness and distinctiveness. Erring on the side of diversity magnifies differences at the expense of our common, shared humanity. Unity is not synonymous with uniformity; neither is diversity synonymous with separation. The solution to the tension is to respect and value diversity while working for unity.

What makes a church multicultural?

The mere presence of an ethnically and racially diverse membership in the pews, whether resulting from legal, moral, or social obligations, does not in itself make a church multicultural. Such a mixture of people may be simply the result of a kind of affirmative action something similar to what some governments do to encourage favorable treatment to socially disadvantaged minority groups. The church and its various institutions and organizations have to get beyond "affirmative action." Affirmative action was the main accomplishment of the 1960s and 1970s, giving people access to systems. In the 1980s the concern was with "valuing differences." In the 1990s the push is for "managing diversity." But in the twenty-first century the focus of the church's behavior will be on "living diversity."

The process of change

Affirmative action Valuing differences Making diversity Living diversity
1960s-1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s

What, then, makes a church authentically multicultural? The answer depends upon whether a congregation can use its significant resources to achieve the four imperatives listed in the diagram. The resources are what I label as the five P's: perspectives, policies, programs, personnel, and practices. These five P's should be involved to (1) reflect the diversity of the church; (2) be sensitive to the needs of the various groups; (3) incorporate their contributions to facilitate the overall mission of the church; and (4) create a cultural and social climate that is inclusive and empowers all groups.

Thus, at the heart of what makes a church multicultural lies the proper management of diversity for the balanced empowerment of all groups, which includes changing mind-sets as well as the underlying culture of the church, especially if this culture is what is impeding constructive change in a multicultural direction. When that happens, the church begins living diversity so as to accomplish its mission more effectively. How does one go about accomplishing this?

A model of multicultural ministry

Consider the experience of the All Nations church in Berrien Springs, Michigan, where I served as the founding pastor from 1979 to 1987. It was a first of its kind, one that touched more than 65 different ethnic groups comprising the church's membership. Though mistakes were inevitable, much was learned.

The All Nations church started as a new congregation and therefore did not need to undergo the challenge of transforming an already established congregation. Also, it was set in an academic environment, which is generally more open to change. Although its charter members, desiring change, came from other area congregations, much can be learned from their real church-life situation without "reinventing the wheel."

We began MM by focusing on the five P's and the four imperatives. We asked the question How do each of the five P's affect these imperatives?

But first there was an additional "P"---the pastor.

The Pastor

The pastor is key to the effective implementation of MM. Two reasons make this true. First, MM is a recent, innovative method entering uncharted waters. All Nations was the first Seventh-day Adventist church deliberately established to reach out across cultures with an inclusive mode of ministry. There were no known models to follow. Second, such newness cannot be left to chance; strong leadership is needed to give the burgeoning multicultural church direction and focus.

What kind of pastor will give that kind of leadership? First, one who has experienced a paradigm shift---from exclusion to inclusion, from uniformity to diversity, from inequality to equality, from the practice of targeting only certain demographic sectors of the surrounding society to taking the risk of including all kinds of people. MM is "new wine" that requires new wine skins in terms of structure, mind-set, methodology, mission, and message. It must be plainly stated. The pastor can not be racist, classist, sexist (Gal. 3:28), or ageist. He or she needs an inclusive rather than an exclusive approach to ministry that cuts across all levels of human need.

Second, the pastor should be open to change. As Steve Wilstein says: "It's dangerous to believe you will remain successful simply by doing the same things that once brought success. That will be true only if the world doesn 't change. To be successful over the long haul, you need to change before it stops working."1

Third, the pastor must be willing to share power. A pastor who hoards power or shares it selectively is taking a quick, short step to destroying any kind of effective ministry. MM empowers all members, not just a select few.

Fourth, the pastor must have a positive image of self in terms of ethnic identity. This is a most vital quality, since a pastor who has a poor sense of self-acceptance with regard to his or her racial or ethnic identity may have a difficult time accepting others who might be different or similar to him or her. When such a person is placed in charge of a multicultural church, problems such as ethnocentrism, exclusion, and subtle racism will emerge. The pastor who is still struggling with his or her own identity as a result of racism will not be of much value to the many members who may be struggling with similar concerns.

Fifth, the pastor must understand the sociocultural realities undergirding ministry in today's society. The contemporary pastor needs to be as informed about issues having to do with the psychological and sociological dynamics of his or her congregation as he or she is with the fundamental issues of theology, biblical studies, preaching, and ecclesiology. If this multidimensional outlook is not present, the pastor's knowledge and functional base can be skewed and unbalanced. An understanding of inter-human relations, especially across gender, race, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines, is increasingly imperative in pastoral ministry. It is indispensable if a full-blown multicultural ministry is entered into.

With these qualities in hand, how does a pastor practice MM? The answer is the five P's.

The five P's

Perspective. The first step in developing an effective MM is gaining a perspective---grasping a vision, a clear sense of direction, or destination for the congregation. Vision is the bifocal ability to see what lies ahead while one also perceives the various impediments in the present and how to avoid them in order to arrive at the future. This vision must be bifocal because focus on the future at the expense of the present, or vice versa, will result in loss and in a costly detour in the mission of the church. This kind of vision also entails having an understanding of where society is headed, how our cities are changing, the demographic shifts in the neighborhood, the membership shifts in the Adventist Church, both locally and globally.

In order for the church to operate effectively in a rapidly changing society, it needs to formulate vision, values, and mission statements. A vision statement addresses where an organization is headed---its direction, perspective, and paradigms. A values statement ad dresses what the church is becoming---the end-goal behaviors reflective of the values of the kingdom here and now. A mission statement addresses why an organization exists and clearly identifies the direction to be taken.

Without a commitment to such vision, values, and mission, a multicultural congregation different from the exclusive and exploitative values of society is virtually impossible to maintain over an extended period of time. This is because groups differ in their interests. When the differences result from cultural, racial, and socioeconomic variation, there is always a greater potential for antagonism within a group. This is why the McGavran School of Church Growth has advocated the homogeneous unit principle: "Men like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers."2 Thus it is true that a racially and culturally homogeneous group is a potentially less conflictive group than a heterogeneous one.

Advocates of the homogeneous unit principle are really operating on the basis of a "separate but equal" principle, in which the emphasis is more on the separate than on the equal. They may claim that they are living the gospel while working only for "our kind of people." 3 God's ideal must become the practice of the church. Thus a new modus operandi needs to be reflected in the church: the heterogeneous unit principle. The gospel challenges and empowers people to accept Christ across all social barriers. We cannot accept Christ and still continue in our old selective, exclusive modes of behavior.

A church without vision, values, and mission is like a ship without a rudder, tossed here and there by the sociocultural forces in society. Vision gives the church direction, values give character, and mission keeps the church on course.

Policy. The second factor in effective MM is policies that take into account the four imperatives. The reason is clear: the church must make a conscious and deliberate effort to be inclusive in its approach to ministry. Such efforts can not be left to chance, for the societal influences of unconscious prejudice, discrimination, and subtle-but-persistent racism and sexism are simply too strong. Thus, while some members may not see themselves as prejudiced, others who are sensitive to these issues will surely pick up on such attitudes. It is not that members may discriminate consciously. It's just that such behavior is so much a part of the social fabric of our society and of church life that most people discriminate without even realizing it. Thus, an inclusive church must deliberately be sensitive in all its actions, until such time as the principles of God's kingdom have been internalized within the body of believers so that their actions reflect the practice and attitudes of the kingdom.

To bring this about requires certain policy actions. First, it involves guide lines that govern the selection of committees. When the first committee to select the nominating committee was chosen at All Nations church, I told the members that the nominating committee should reflect the church in terms of age, ethnicity, gender, and social class. If committees are to represent the thinking of the church, they should be a microcosm of the church. A board of elders all male and White, for example, is not a reflection of any church except a monastic order. Thus, the nominating committee of the church should not only be multicultural, but also should see to it that people from different age, ethnic, and gender groups are placed in the various offices and departments of the church.

Second, a structure needs to be inaugurated involving no stratified divisions between clergy and laity that result in status positions. Rather, distinct role functions based on an egalitarian unity in diversity need to be implemented. What this means is that titles, such as doctor or elder, etc., should be discarded in much the way Jesus advocated (Matt. 23:8-12). In the Seventh-day Adventist Church, status is often achieved through education and position. And around academic communities, people like to brandish their degrees and titles. At All Nations the people were told to leave their egos and degrees in the parking lot, for inside the church we were one family.

Programs. The third factor in MM is programs that implement all four imperatives. The worship service should be sensitive to different cultural expressions and styles in music, in people praying in their own languages, and in preaching. An inclusive ministry will reflect in the morning worship service the heterogeneity of the body across boundaries of sex, class, gender, race, and age. At All Nations we had a Sabbath evening vespers service each month when we celebrated the cultures of all nations, a different one each month.

The Sabbath morning sermon in a multicultural church is a special occasion to instruct the church in the basic principles of the gospel. A series of sermons on the themes of tearing down the dividing walls of hostility between disparate peoples, thereby giving the gospel a new dimension, is crucial in any MM, as it was in the first-century Christian church. The result will be a new understanding of the mission and ministry of Jesus.

Because of the strength of the social forces of prejudice, racism, and sexism in the larger society, the clear mission of what a multicultural church needs to be like should constantly be kept before the people. Otherwise, the old biases will take over.

Because of this potential for intercultural conflict in a multicultural congregation, a church ought to set up a human relations council, which will deal with problems as needed. Work shops on nonracist and intercultural approaches involving early childhood, youth, and adult education should be designed to educate departmental leaders and church officers for a better understanding of one another.

Personnel. The fourth factor in MM is personnel. An inclusive ministry will have leaders who cut across class, gender, race, age, and socioeconomic levels in the various departments and positions. In MM one cannot be selective. The All Nations church first ordained women elders in 1979. We began using inclusive language. Children, youth, the disabled, and the elderly were all given a part to play in the various committees, leading out in worship, and contributing to the overall success of the church.

Practice. The fifth factor in MM is practice, the most crucial of the five P's, for it is here where everything comes together or falls apart. One way of doing this, in addition to the above, is to incorporate into the very structure of church life and worship the experience of fellowship. Worship in a multicultural congregation should be structured around the concept of "one family."

When one belongs to a congregation that is racially, culturally, socially, and educationally diverse, worship must be sensitive to the needs of the worshipers. All Nations made fellowship an integral part of the worship experience by:

1. Emphasizing the concept of "family."

2. Placing before the people a writ ten program that gives a "we" emphasis to the service we gather, we praise, we proclaim, we respond, we fellowship, we believe.

3. Treating all visitors as friends about to be initiated into the family.

4. Giving, at the beginning of the worship service, the entire congregation the opportunity to greet each other as family.

5. Spontaneous singing during offering collection and prior to the children's story.

6. Encouraging members to fellow ship with each other at the close of the service.

7. Addressing each other on a first-name basis.

Such a deliberate structuring of fellowship into the worship experience creates the basis for Christian service in the community.

When MM permeates a congregation, people move out through the doors of the church to serve the community in a "natural" way. This is so because the members have just experienced a worship service where real needs were met in a multicultural setting, in harmony with the Gospel message. The opportunity to model this message through multicultural ministry comprises the new vision of mission for the twenty-first century. May the church have the courage to enter this new frontier.

1. Steve Wilstein, "Getting What It Takes to Win," Hemispheres, June 1994.

2. Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1970), p. 198.

3. See C. Peter Wagner, Our Kind of People (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1979).


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Caleb Rosado, professor of sociology, Humboldt State University, Arcata, California.

May 1996

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