Multicultural Ministry

Multicultural Ministry: Differences and similarities

A story of diverse peoples journeying together

Phillip Leenhouwers is a Seventh-day Adventistpastor in London, England

Since childhood I have been fascinated by different cultures, languages, and countries. Having grown up in New Zealand of a Dutch father and a Kiwi mother of Lebanese descent, I'm no purebred myself!

Geography was one of my favorite subjects, and I always wanted to travel, which I did, having lived for a year or more in five different countries: New Zealand, Australia, the United States of America, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands. I have also visited other countries, such as Papua New Guinea and Switzerland. Thus, it's not surprising that I find myself facing the challenge of pastoring a multicultural church in the heart of cosmopolitan London.

A theological base for multicultural ministry

Whatever its challenges, multicultural ministry has its precedents. Jesus, for example, did not limit Himself to a particular ethnic or language group. His ministry embraced all cultures and peoples. "Jesus withdrew with His disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed. When they heard all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon" (Mark 3:7, 8, NIV). During His ministry, He reached out to Jews, Gentiles, Samaritans, and Romans.

The Great Commission, in Matthew 28:19, commands that we make disciples of "all nations." Christ's apostles were empowered by the Holy Spirit to minister to all peoples (Acts 1:8). At the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2), Jews and Gentiles from various places gathered to hear the gospel. Paul was sent to the Gentiles, and yet he preached in the synagogues to both Jews and Gentiles. "At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed" (Acts 14:1).

Paul's ministry in Athens reaffirms its multicultural nature. "So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there" (Acts 17:17). So, Jesus illustrated multicultural ministry, and it was further endorsed by the apostles' work and Paul's extensive missionary endeavors.

Along with this, the "eternal gospel" is destined to be preached to "every nation and tribe and tongue and people" (Rev. 14:6, NASB).

A philosophical base for multicultural ministry

The world itself is rapidly becoming a melting pot, a cosmopolitan, multi-dimensioned society. This trend is noticeable in large cities, particularly in "inner city" areas. In some of these environments, it may not be feasible, or even desirable, to conduct church any longer only for "our kind of people." Ethnically speaking, the church should, as far as is possible, reflect the makeup of society. Therefore, in a multicultural setting, nationalities and cultures will blend in the church as in society. It has been said: "God wants the different nationalities to mingle together, to be one in judgment, one in purpose." 1 "We are to demonstrate to the world that men of every nationality are one in Christ Jesus. Then let us remove every barrier and come into unity in the service of the master."2

Principles for pastoring in a multicultural setting

In a multicultural setting certain principles should serve as guidelines. The most crucial one, perhaps, is to be able to see things from a different cultural perspective from your own. "Transcending one's culture of origin does not mean turning one's back on it. We live in a world that is irreversibly plural where culture is concerned."3 At our church we celebrate the diversity of cultures. We try to include and build friendships between the various groups. We try to include all peoples in our worship services and in our church officer positions.

"Communication between people in different cultures does not take place in a vacuum, but always occurs within the context of social relationships."4 It is important to build friendships in a multicultural setting. People coming to a new country and a new church feel awkward anyway; thus we must especially extend a friendly hand and show unconditional love. "The call for recognition of the equal value of different cultures is the expression of a basic and profound universal need for unconditional acceptance. A feeling of such acceptance including affirmation of one's ethnic particularity as well as one's universally shared potential is an essential part of a strong sense of identity."5 People want to maintain their identity and still be accepted. It's like British people in Australia or the Irish in America or West Indians in the United Kingdom. Each group becomes an integral part of society and yet manages to maintain much of its ancestral identity. So, people in the church can still be who they are nationally and culturally and yet be part of the larger church community.

Within a multicultural setting there is always a need for interpersonal accommodation. At the same time a fair amount of assimilation must also take place. As cultures establish themselves in a given setting, second- and third-generation children begin to feel more closely linked to their birthplace than to the nation of their parents' or grandparents' origin. It is important to be able to embrace people at whatever point they are in this transition.

"We cannot ignore our racial and ethnic difference, nor should we view everyone in the same way. The wonderful heritages that all cultures bring to the membership and work force are added values that equip and enhance the church." 6 A culturally diverse church has the ability to embrace a wider spectrum of society and use those people to effectively evangelize among their own people groups.

Challenges of multicultural ministry

In a setting of many cultures, the possibility of misunderstanding is always present. What is acceptable in one culture may be offensive in another. Racism, where one culture feels it is superior or better than another, is always a lurking, potential negative factor, even in the church. When felt in the church it can be even more destructive, because people do not expect to experience it there.

"Living today in a world which has become a global village we come in con tact with people representing a variety of different cultures. To communicate the Gospel in cross-cultural settings it is necessary to develop a bicultural perspective. The capacity to understand and accept the cultural ways of other groups of people, while at the same time recognizing the validity of one's own cultural heritage, maybe called a bicultural perspective."7

If we can accept cultural differences that we don't understand or even agree with, then we will be able to coexist in harmony. Our church has about forty nationalities. I must be very careful not to appear to favor one group. When selecting church officers or board members, we try, as much as possible, to reflect the ethnic makeup of the church.

Around two hundred people attend the Central London Church. The biggest groupings are Whites and Blacks. There are more or less equal numbers of these two races. The Whites are mainly British, Europeans, Aussies, and Kiwis. The Blacks, largely from the West Indies and Africa, are about equal in number. There are 30 Filipinos and a growing number of Romanians and French-speaking people. Yet in this diversity we have been able to fellowship in unity. Partly because there is such a variety of nationalities, it is possible for most anyone to feel at home here.

Though operating from a British base and having adopted a contemporary approach to our worship, we endeavor to be all-inclusive and sensitive to every culture present. We hope to encourage a person's individual identity and discourage any form of racial superiority. We are all on an equal footing and treated similarly regardless of race or language. "To challenge race and racism, educators must move away from an infatuation with fixed racial identities and toward a thoughtful reconsideration of racism as a 'total social phenomenon' that obscures the ideological foundations of identity." 8 In God's eyes we are all unique individuals with special gifts and abilities, while we are at the same time one in Him.

We need to go out of our way to try to understand one another and see things from a different angle. Accepting that we are all a product of our family background and the society in which we grew up, we can accommodate differences in cultural behavior. For almost half the people in our church, English is a second language. We must speak slowly and clearly, using simple language. Language-designated classes for the study of the Sabbath School lesson are also helpful.

Another challenge is to accept customs and practices that seem strange. We need to exercise tolerance and sensitivity. No challenge is too big when there is a willingness to learn and adapt.

Dealing with the challenges

In multicultural churches we need to ask, "If a local church is situated in a multiracial community, does it pattern its evangelistic outreach, bearing in mind the various ethnic groups that comprise the local community?" And, "If a local congregation is multiracial, in what ways can and should its worship reflect a multicultural influence?"9

No doubt the answer to the first question will depend upon how willing ethnic members of your church are in reaching out to those of their own community. This can make a big difference in successful soul winning. They feel a sense of worth in doing this, and the church is benefited by these skills.

Further, when it comes to the matter of worship, there is the potential for a variety of styles and cultural expressions. We use all kinds of people in our worship services. These services include everything from public prayer to singing in different languages. Having such a variety of cultures adds flavor to the worship service. Many of our people enjoy a worship service full of diversity in culture and worship style.

Though pastoring in a multicultural setting isn't for everyone, it does give one the opportunity to experience firsthand all kinds of approaches to evangelism and worship activity. It also provides a better appreciation of other people's lifestyles and worldview. It in spires a bigger picture of God's family; as a rich blend of peoples, colors, and customs demonstrates to the world how the gospel can unite many peoples into one people.

"The mission of the Seventh-day Adventist church contains the three elements of proclaiming, nurturing, and serving; all essentials of a relational church. Undergirding these three elements is love, a love of the Triune God and our brothers and sisters in Christ regardless of their ethnicity." 10 As God's love motivates us, we are enabled to meet and deal with the challenges of a multicultural ministry.

Unless otherwise noted, Scripture texts
are from the New International Version.


1 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the
Church
(Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub.
Assn., 1948), 9:180, 181.

2 Ibid., 106.

3 David Theo Goldberg, Multiculturalism
(Oxford, U. K.: Basil Blackwell,
1994).

4 Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological
Insights for Missionarie
s (Grand Rapids,
Mich.: Baker Book House, 1985), 227.

5 Steven C. Rockefeller, "Comments"
in Multiculturalism and the "Politics of
Recognition" 97.

6 Benjamin Reaves, "What Unity
Means to Me." Adventist Review (4 Dec.
1996), 18.

7 Lyman E. Reed, Preparing Missionaries
 for Intercultural Communication

(Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library,
1985), 143.

8 Maria P. P. Root, The Multiracial
Experience
(Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage
Publications, Inc., 1996), 353.

9 Roy Joslin, Urban Harvest (Welwyn,
Herts, England: Evangelical Press, 1982),
256.

10 Reaves, 18.


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Phillip Leenhouwers is a Seventh-day Adventistpastor in London, England

July 1999

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