Multicultural ministry

Multicultural ministry: challenges and blessings

Discovering and practicing the principles of Christian harmony

Walter Douglas, Ph.D., is a professor of church history at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary and pastor of the All Nations Church at Berrien Springs, Michigan.


Why are we doing this?" The question startled me. I had just begun my third lecture in a seminary course on contemporary trends and was met by this challenge: Why should we spend so much time on multicultural ministry?

Pastoring the All Nations Church is a wonderful challenge. All Nations is a congregation intentionally established as a multiethnic, multicultural, and multiracial congregation in Berrien Springs, Michigan. All Nations was a church born out of the biblical and theological conviction that God has made of one blood all nations of men and women (Acts 17:26), drawing them "from every tribe, language, nation, and race" (Rev. 5:9,10,TEV).

But the question posed by my student challenged my assumptions. My twelve-year experience at All Nations, nurturing and growing a multicultural congregation, instantly came under re view. Why am I teaching my students to develop skills, attitudes, and a dis position to prepare for multicultural ministry? Is it necessary?

I remembered the beginnings of All Nations the struggles, the pain, conflicts, tears, and fears that we experienced; the tension and suspicion, the misunderstandings, and the heart aches that occurred when people of different racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds wanted to intentionally create a multicultural church.

As I reflected on these, I asked my self: Am I imposing an unnecessary burden on my students by challenging them to think of creating a multicultural ministry when they leave the semi nary? Furthermore, by insisting as I do, that this is a trend in ministry for the twenty-first century, am I expecting too much in pushing them to consciously create a new model for ministry? Is it not easier and more comfortable to continue establishing congregations "the old fashioned way?"

These questions challenge the core value of my ministry as a pastor of a multicultural congregation and as a teacher in the Seminary. Some of the challenges in congregations around the world have their origin in cultural conflicts. The church in the U.S. is no exception. As cities, neighborhoods, and congregations change by the arrival of immigrants from Asia, Europe, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean, the church, and more particularly the local pastor, will have to come up with creative, imaginative, and practical ways to develop and nurture cultural harmony within the congregation.

This is what drives me to spend so much time discussing this trend with my seminary students. They need to know where this movement is going and how it will affect their ministry. They need to take seriously the reality that in almost any town, city, or neighborhood they serve, they will have to minister to people coming from varied cultural, ethnic, and national backgrounds. These Adventist Christians are quite often openly passionate about their faith and their worship. They bring a style of worship and belief, often far more traditional than the indigenous members, a kind of spontaneity, commitment, and zeal for the missionary outreach of the local church that may seem threatening, if not unacceptable, to the established congregation.

Unfortunately, if the local pastor and congregation do not have the skill to accommodate these newcomers, they will eventually leave to form their own congregation. 1 These new immigrants often feel that they are under suspicion and that there seems to be a reluctance on the part of the indigenous leaders to share opportunities and power with them.

A millennial shift

The presence of these different cultural and racial groups in our local congregations is a major, massive, mind-boggling, millennial shift for American Adventism both at corporate and congregational levels. We need to be aware that this shift is not going to change direction anytime soon.2 Immigrants will continue to arrive, and our congregation will be challenged to respond in at least one of two ways: either resist this trend and engage in Christian cultural conflict or extend the hand of fellowship and embrace our brothers and sisters from other cultures.

Both pastors and church members need to know that the second option is the only viable one. Why? Because churches across North America and in many parts of the world will be dealing with this kind of situation and if the church wants to continue to be the church of all nations, tribes, tongues, and peoples, we have to adapt. If we want to avoid cultural conflict and achieve cultural harmony, pastor and congregation alike must openly discuss some issues and come to essential agreement. Without openness to other cultures, our congregations will not even approximate God's ideal for His church. Indeed, we will be spending a disproportionate amount of time dealing with cultural conflicts and racial tensions, and this could easily derail the church from fulfilling its mission and its reason for existence. Cultural conflicts in any congregation cannot build up the body of Christ and produce the fruits of the Spirit.

The New Testament example

Cross-cultural or multiracial ministry is nothing new. We see it in Scripture and Jesus practiced it through His ministry.3 We have the story of Pentecost. "It is no accident," writes Cheryl J. Sanders, "that the Spirit chose an international, multicultural gathering of believers in Jerusalem for the Pentecost outpouring, whose testimony was that in our languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds and power. Pentecost is God's remedy for disunity. Many languages, many colors, many cultures, but one testimony of one God."4

While it is true that in our fallenness we continue to erect walls of race and culture in the congregation, it must be stated that culturally distinct congregations do not and cannot reflect the kingdom Christ so clearly portrayed in His life and teaching. Cultural difference is no legitimate basis for either inclusion or exclusion from the body of believers. The gospel teaches that in Christ we can find the power to be saved from sin, healed from disease, delivered from things that bind us, and set free to know and to do God's will as we commit to serving human need.5

Planting and growing a multicultural congregation is a daunting but truly desirable challenge. It requires us to create rituals and symbols that incorporate, both the indigenous and the foreign-born experience. The pastor, through preaching, prayer, workshops, and seminars, has to challenge the church to encourage and allow different cultural representatives to move into positions where they will have opportunities to participate in decision making. They have to share equally the responsibilities for mission and ministry. This could be accomplished through the creation of structures that will guarantee their involvement in leadership and decision making. At All Nations, during our early years, we pushed our congregation to see Adventism through something besides American eyes. We talked about creating new ways of doing the business of the church so that its life was continually being renewed as we experienced together new life and new ways of worshiping the Lord. As difficult as it is to nurture and maintain a multicultural congregation, doing so holds the greatest promise for vital, vibrant congregational life and witness.

Not a melting pot

One of the fundamental lessons we need to learn is that a multicultural church is not a melting pot in which all the unique features, styles, and behaviors of different cultural groups disappear so that we could achieve unity in diversity in Christ. This is without doubt one of the most difficult issues to deal with in building a multicultural church. The tendency is for the dominant indigenous group in the church to feel that the minority cultures should give up their cultural identity once they become part of the congregation. But that is not multicultural ministry. Multiculturalism is a dynamic process that allows many cultures to maintain, embrace, and respect their cultural identities or uniqueness while engaging in constructive communication that builds trust and fosters Christian love.

This could be reflected in the way we, among other things, assign responsibilities, provide opportunities for ministry, plan programs, and conduct board and elders' meetings. No one group in this dynamic process should be allowed more privileges and opportunities than any other group. Maintaining the balance is important. The congregation needs to genuinely support and respect the different cultural group's needs and desires for sharing and experiencing within the comfort of their own boundaries. The pastor or leader of a multicultural congregation needs to keep his or her antennae tuned to the concerns of the various cultural groups. The gift of discernment is essential.

At All Nations, we work a great deal through committees and teams. The committees report to the board of elders, and the elders recommend to the church in business sessions for final decision or action.

On one occasion, the worship committee decided it was time to make some changes in the worship service. The committee had representatives from all the cultures in the church. But when it presented its report to the church there was stiff opposition, largely from new immigrants. The majority of the congregation was excited with the new liturgy and was deter mined to implement it. But I realized that it was creating hard feelings and had the potential of being divisive. So I ended the meeting. The following Sabbath I brought the different cultural groups together for a long discussion on worship. After discussion and some minor adjustments, the entire church accepted the new liturgy.

This experience taught us, once again, that even when we think we have arrived at being a true multicultural church we are still vulnerable to the possibility of cultural conflict and ethnocentricism. We learned, unlearned, and relearned that multiculturalism is not simply bringing people of different cultures and ethnicities together in one place and occupying the same space. We discovered that the different groups those who were against the new structure and those who defended it, all had deeply held values and beliefs about worship. We also were re minded that simply putting people of diverse cultural orientations in one congregation and expecting them to get along with each other, especially on an issue as sensitive as worship, without facilitating constructive discussion, is wishful thinking. In other words, multiculturalism is a dynamic process that takes more than good will, instinct, open-mindedness, acceptance, and shared doctrinal belief.

Given our insecurity, our instinct to survive, and our win-win mentality, we desperately need to focus on God's reconciling grace and power and the all-inclusiveness of His love to maintain a growing, witnessing community. The challenge is to move past a culture of distrust, a climate of insecurity and alienation, to see in the dynamic of human interaction a new vision of human relatedness and community-building, inspired and sanctified by the Spirit of God.6Some fundamentals

To build a truly multicultural church requires the acceptance of some fundamental principles. We can mention only a few:

1. Develop, encourage, and embrace a climate of trust.

2. Be intentional.

3. Seek the authority of Scripture for the direction and counsel regarding the nature of a multicultural congregation (Acts 17:24-26; Acts 10:34, 35; Mark 7:24-29; John 4:1-42; Heb. 1:1-3; Rev. 5:7-10).

4. Respect, embrace, and celebrate differences.

5. Have a deep, consistent commitment to work through the challenges and problems of different cultural groups within the congregation, with out making judgments about any culture and without expecting any minority culture to be subject to any majority culture.

6. Provide equal opportunity for each cultural group to be represented and to participate fully in the life and ministry of the church.

7. Have a willingness to be vulnerable.

8. Have a commitment to learn, unlearn, and relearn as more and more cultural and racial issues surface in the congregation.

9. Depend totally on the Holy Spirit to lead in the transformation of lives and structures that will enable the congregation to mature, recognize, and affirm the presence of God.

10. Evaluate the process from time to time.

Barriers to overcome

A multicultural church must also overcome barriers, such as:

1. Avoidance. It appears easier and less painful to avoid, rather than deal with challenges and problems in the congregation.

2. Ethnocentricism. Multicultural churches constantly have to deal with the feeling that the worldview of one culture is superior to the others.

3. Fear of sharing power and responsibility creates enormous problems for the multicultural church.

4. The instinct to survive, to win, to be at the top is an attitude that makes it difficult to trust and affirm all members of the congregation.

5. Being judgmental on the basis of color, culture, and ability creates an environment of accusation and suspicion.

6. Lack of compassion.

7. Lack of discernment.

8. The inability to listen to other accents with respect and appreciation.

9. The desire or need to categorize on the basis of culture, color, or ability.

10. Resistance to change personally and as a group.

The purpose of our effort to over come these barriers is the acknowledgment that God made us all and loves us all as bearers of His image.

The challenge

To be sure, planting and pastoring a multicultural congregation is a daunting challenge. It can only be done if we have the will to do it, inspired and sustained by the Holy Spirit. It is a risky undertaking, but it is also a biblical and theological imperative.

Multiculturalism is not a buzz word. Preparing for a multicultural ministry is not easy. The multicultural impetus should not be understood as merely an effort to bring diverse cultures together or simply to include minorities and women in the life and ministry of the church. But rather it is what the church should strive to accomplish on this earth because this is what the church will be in the new heaven and the new earth.

If the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, and if we are indeed saved, then it should be possible for us to celebrate differences in skin color and culture as evidence of the divine artistry of creation and redemption and not as grounds for continued separation, exploitation, and prejudice.

1Such congregations are found across North
America. Ghanian, Filipino, Korean, Indian, Haitian,
West Indian, and Chinese churches exist in the same
locations as Caucasian and African-American churches.
Many of them feel that separate congregations preserve
their cultural identity and they are no longer made to
feel that they are "foreigners."

2 Census Bureau projections suggest that the proportion
of all children who are members of racial and
ethnic minority groups will reach 50 percent by 2030, a
doubling from 26 percent in 1980. See The New York
, June 6, 1996.

3 See John 4:1-42. Jesus leaves us a classic example
of how we must break down cultural barriers without
destroying a person's identity or culture. See also His
dealing with the Syrophoenician woman who was a
Gentile in Mark 7:24-29. We see another example in
Peter's dealing with Cornelius and his household in Acts
10:1-48. Acts 2 relates the story of Pentecost and the
multicultural nature of the audience who received the
gospel. We cannot underestimate the impact of this
message on the early church as an emergent
multicultural community.

4 Cheryl J. Sanders, Ministry at the Margins: The
Prophetic Mission of Women, Youth and the Poor

(Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 98.

5 Ibid., 99.

6 Fumitaka Matsuoka, The Color of Faith: Building
Community in a Multicultural Society
United Church Press, 1998), 4.

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Walter Douglas, Ph.D., is a professor of church history at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary and pastor of the All Nations Church at Berrien Springs, Michigan.


July 1999

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