Ministry in a diverse society

In order to be relevant to postmoderns, must the church listen to the voice of postmodernism?

Kenley Hall, DMin, is associate professor of Christian Ministry, Andrews University Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

Donald McGavran, the “father” of the church growth movement, in his foundational work, Understanding Church Growth, concluded that evidence indicates that homogeneous unit churches grow faster than multiethnic churches.1 His conclusion, though, did not address any ethical dimensions inherent in a homogeneous principle of church growth. When C. Peter Wagner assumed the mantle of leadership for the church growth movement, he embraced the homogeneous principle of his colleague. However, realizing the ethical implications of the principle, he sought to make a distinction between the evangelistic mandate and the cultural mandate. He acknowledged that the cultural mandate of the Bible called for a commitment to multiethnic/multicultural ministry. At the same time, however, he argued that the evangelistic mandate to win people to Jesus Christ made the homogeneous principle ethically permissible.2 Whether such a distinction can be made is debatable because one thing is certain in the twenty-first century—the coming demographics are going to change everything.

Ethnic changes

By the year 2050, demographers predict that in the United States there will be no single majority ethnic group. By that time, ethnic minorities will make up almost 50 percent of the population.3 Experts calculate that the Hispanic-American population will have grown by approximately 21 percent, to a little more than 80 million; the Asian American/Pacific Islander population by nearly 22 percent, to approximately 35 million; and the African-American population by about 12 percent, to around 52 million. In contrast, in the same period, the Anglo-American population is estimated to grow by only 2 percent, to roughly 200 million.4

Additionally, the postmodern world has brought in its wake a new worldview regarding ethnic and cultural distinctions. For most postmoderns, racial diversity is both the norm and celebrated, echoing the biblical worldview: “There is neither Jew nor Greek [no ethnic divisions], there is neither slave nor free [no social class divisions], there is neither male nor female [no gender divisions]; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28, NKJV).

The changing demographics and voice of postmodernity make some social scientists predict that “the twenty-first century holds the potential to be the century of the multiracial congregation. . . . [Thus] a movement toward more multiracial congregations must be the cutting edge for ministry and growth in this century.”5 The church will no longer be able to artificially divide the evangelistic mandate and the cultural mandate. Instead, it will need to live out its evangelistic mandate in the light of the cultural mandate.

This poses a challenge for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in many parts of the world because often Adventists have developed ethnic-specific churches. For postmoderns, racial inclusivity in the postmodern world and racial exclusivity in the church suggest that something is amiss.6 In order to minister effectively to postmoderns, racial diversity needs to become the norm in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Until then, the church will risk losing those in emerging generations who are turned off by any appearance of exclusivity. In order to be relevant to postmoderns, the church must listen to the voice of postmodernism, which is calling it to the principles of the gospel within the boundaries of multiethnic/ multicultural ministries.

The response

What are the keys to reversing this trend? Acts describes a revelation that the apostle Peter received following the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the entire household of Cornelius, a Gentile and centurion in the service of Rome. “Then Peter began to speak: ‘I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right’ ” (Acts 10:34, 35, NIV). Peter was embracing the concept of multiethnic/multicultural ministry. In Antioch, Peter’s newly held doctrine was tested. While there, some Jewish Christians pressured him to stop eating with the Gentile converts. Under their influence he separated himself from the Gentile believers (Gal. 2:11–13). Faced with a crisis, he quickly abandoned his belief in multiethnic/multicultural ministry. The implication of this incident is that for Peter, oneness was a doctrinal belief but not yet a core belief. This had not moved from a mere philosophical acceptance into the depths of his soul as a nonnegotiable stance.7

Paul’s actions were in sharp contrast. As soon as he arrived in Antioch, he confronted Peter about his behavior (Gal. 2:14). For him, multiethnic/multicultural ministry was a core belief that drove all his thoughts and actions. He reacted strongly because Peter had violated not just a doctrine, but a fundamental core belief that, for Paul, was inseparable from the gospel.8

If multiethnic/multicultural ministry will become a reality, it necessitates pastors/preachers who embrace oneness in Christ, not as a mere doctrine, but as a core, nonnegotiable belief. Ultimately, for the long-term success of multiethnic/ multicultural churches, the entire congregation must embrace this core belief as well.

A key starting point in a movement towards multiethnic/ multicultural ministry is racial reconciliation. Pastors must be able to discern that all too often racism exists in society, in the hearts of some of those under their care, and perhaps in their own hearts. Until racism is seen as a real issue, reconciliation cannot take place. Dealing effectively with racism means examining the four levels on which racism exists: personal, interpersonal, institutional or systemic, and cultural.

1. Personal racism refers to personal ideas, feelings, and behaviors of an individual. This can manifest itself in feelings of superiority over another race, stereotyping other ethnic groups or cultures, being fearful of others because of their skin hue, and/or outright hatred of another ethnic/cultural group.

Personal racism can also include individual behaviors that mistreat someone of another ethnic/cultural group.9

2. Interpersonal racism refers to behaviors rooted in conscious or unconscious assumptions about us or other people.10 These assumptions often spring from people living out false identities. Any one of these false identities limits the ability to relate interpersonally across ethnic and cultural boundaries. These false identities include, but are not limited to: (a) the Self-Hatred Identity, as characterized by the desire to belong to another ethnic/cultural group; (b) the Rage-Filled Identity, as typified by hatred toward the group seen as the cause of suffering; (c) the Victim Identity, as understood in the belief that you are not responsible for any of your problems and that only others can fix them;11 (d) the Model Minority Identity, as taken on by some minorities who experience success; the primary symptom is sense of shame when around family and friends who act too ethnic; (e) the Hip White Person Identity, as exemplified by whites who, in an effort to prove their sensitivity to other ethnic/cultural groups, become very critical of their own culture and identity (see self-hatred identity) and immerse themselves into the cultural identity of another group; (f) the White Superiority Identity, as characterized by making judgments about people of color without any personal knowledge of the person and the assumption that your culture is superior and every other one is inferior; and (g) The Color-Blind Identity, as typified by Anglo-Americans who do not think of themselves in ethnic terms.12

3. Institutional or systemic racism refers to manipulating societal institutions to give preferences and advantages to one group while simultaneously restricting the choices, rights, mobility, and access of other groups.13 In America, since Anglo-Americans make up the dominant ethnic group, this is reflected in any manipulation of societal institutions that gives preference to Anglo-Americans over minorities. Tragically, American history is replete with examples of institutional racism toward minority groups. However, institutional racism is not just a relic of the past; it remains a current reality in America. Studies continue to suggest a large disparity between the occurrence of a certain phenomenon (poverty, imprisonment) in the African-American community and the frequency of the same phenomenon in the general population. This sizable disparity suggests that the social force of institutionalized racism is still at work.14

4. Cultural racism refers to the subconscious or even conscious sense of ethnic or cultural superiority.15 This means that the members of a particular ethnic/cultural group perceive that their way of doing things is the best approach. The actions, thoughts, and expressions of other groups are seen as inferior. It is important to acknowledge the fact that all groups have a tendency towards ethnocentrism.

The path to racial healing

Racial healing begins by acknowledging the core reality of racism. Racism is not a problem of skin; it is a problem of sin.16 Because people of all ethnic/cultural groups share the same sinful nature, they all engage in the sin of racism. Until the problem is recognized as an issue rooted in sinful human nature, the answers offered will always be partial.17 Once duly recognized as such, then it must be addressed as other issues of sin are—confessed, repented of, and renounced on any and all of its four levels. In addition, there is a need for new hearts and minds, which makes it clear that racism can be eliminated only through the power and work of the Holy Spirit in human hearts.18

The dominant Anglo culture, of which I am a part, struggles with this last issue. Of what are Anglos to repent? It does not seem fair to hold us accountable for slavery, murder, and oppression of minorities. We cannot be held accountable for the sins of our ancestors. Is it not better to just forget the past and move on?

This view is problematic on two fronts. First, this view fails to recognize the pain and resultant anger that exist in minority communities. Thus, it is highly insensitive to suggest that the past is irrelevant.19 Second, this view is based on an individualistic view of sin that ignores its corporate nature (Neh. 1:6, 7; Dan. 9:5, 6). Corporate repentance comes from a sorrow for the historic and contemporary mistreatment of minorities and grief at the recognition that some have benefited from racism, although they themselves may not be racist.20

The record indicates that positive steps were made towards racial reconciliation through the resolutions passed by the Southern Baptists (1995) and the Presbyterian Church Overture 20 (2002). These major denominations confessed, repented, and renounced their corporate sin of supporting slavery, establishing segregated churches, and creating denominational policies that discriminated against members based on race.21 It should be noted that the Seventh-day Adventist Church has passed no official resolution. However, at a summit on race relations convened in October of 1999, the late A. C. McClure, who was then president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church for North America, made the following statement:

To our African-American brothers and sisters with whom I and all my Anglo colleagues have assumed a special relationship because of that abominable scourge of slavery, I want to say to you, I apologize, I’m sorry. (Long applause). I’m sorry for the way you’ve been treated by our church—almost from the time of our birth. For example, here in Washington [DC], as was recounted yesterday, where we had a unique opportunity to exercise leadership in race relations, to take a lead in desegregation—we ran away from it. I don’t know all the circumstances. I did not participate there, I wasn’t old enough. But I want to say on behalf of your church, “I’m sorry.” I don’t know if any other president has said that publicly, it doesn’t matter. But I do want to say it today. Now, I’ve done my best to launch this conversation and I pledge to do all that I can to see that we do not lose the momentum of this event, the momentum that we’ve gained. I want to see the ship sail so far out to sea [that] it cannot reverse course.22

McClure’s statement was a courageous one that pushed us in the right direction, towards corporate repentance. Unfortunately, more than a decade later, it appears that the ship McClure envisioned sailing out to sea remains moored at the dock. In order to unmoor the ship, we need to follow the example of others and issue a denominational resolution renouncing the denominational policies and practices that have discriminated against members based on ethnicity. Some, in the dominant culture, would like to forget about these abuses of the past. However, failing adequately to address the injustices of the past makes it easier to overlook the inequities of the present.

The path to racial healing begins when the dominant culture embraces the concept of corporate repentance and has the courage to seek forgiveness. The responsibility then rests on racial minorities to have the grace to offer corporate forgiveness. Without repentance and grace, racial alienation will be no better a decade from now than it is today.23

I believe that corporate repentance and corporate forgiveness would make a huge impact on race relations in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. However, this is only a first step. It must be followed by an ongoing educational process that seeks to bridge differences, heal wounds, and develop a vision for the new culture that Christ desires to establish.


The combined forces of postmodernity and the changing demography in the United States reveal that multiethnic/multicultural ministry will be at the cutting edge of ministry. Heterogeneity will be the new homogeneity of the twenty-first century. The churches that will make the biggest impact will be those who live out an evangelistic mandate within the parameters of the cultural mandate.

A movement towards multiethnic/ multicultural ministry must begin with a clear commitment to racial reconciliation. For this to occur, pastors must be proactive leaders in rooting out racism in any of its forms. In doing so, they must embrace the fact that at its core, racism is a sin problem. As such, this sin must be dealt with like any sin—through confession, repentance, and renunciation. The successful leaders in a multiethnic/ multicultural movement will be those who embrace the need for racial reconciliation as a core commitment and strive to make it a reality on both the local and national levels.

I agree with Pastor McClure: I want to see the ship sail so far out to sea that it cannot reverse course. As a church, are we willing to see what God can do through corporate repentance and corporate forgiveness? As individuals, are we willing to step out in faith into uncharted waters and allow God to bridge differences, heal wounds, and give us a vision for the church that Christ desires where “[t]here is neither Jew nor Greek [no ethnic divisions], there is neither slave nor free [no social class divisions], there is neither male nor female [no gender divisions]; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28, NKJV)?


1 Donald A. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970).

2 C. Peter Wagner, Church Growth and the Whole Gospel (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981), 110.

3 Neil J. Smelser, William Julius Wilson, and Faith Mitchell, American Becoming: Racial Trends and the Consequences, vol. 1 (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2001), 1.

4 U.S. Bureau of the Census, “U.S. Ethnic Groups: Population Projections, 1992-2050” (Washington, DC: Census Bureau, 1991). While these figures reflect the projected changes in the United States, other countries will also experience major population shifts.

5 Curtiss Paul DeYoung et al., United by Faith: The Multiracial Congregation as the Answer to the Problem of Race (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 74.

6 Leonard Sweet, Soul Tsunami: Sink or Swim in the New Millennium Culture (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 394.

7 DeYoung et al., 158.

8 Ibid.

9 “Helpful Perspectives on Race and Racism,” %20Perspectives%201.html (11 December 2009).

10 Tony Campolo and Michael Battle, The Church Enslaved: A Spirituality of Racial Reconciliation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 128, 129.

11 This is not meant to deny the fact that we live in a society where people are systematically victimized. The tragedy is when groups begin competing for victimization status to gain political or other types of advantages. See Brenda Salter McNeil and Rick Richardson, The Heart of Racial Justice: How Soul Change Leads to Social Change (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 80–81.

12 Ibid., 77–88.

13 Jerry V. Diller, Cultural Diversity: A Primer for the Human Services (Boston: Brooks/Cole, 1999), 28.

14 Ibid., 34.

15 Arthur F. Glasser et al., Announcing the Kingdom: The Story of God’s Mission in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 37.

16 Clarence Schuler, Winning the Race to Unity: Is Racial Reconciliation Really Working? (Chicago: Moody, 2003), 170.

17 George Yancey, Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006), 70.

18 Campolo and Battle, 121; Yancey, 26, 77–81; Scott Roley with James Isaac Elliot, God’s Neighborhood: A Hopeful Journey in Racial Reconciliation and Community Renewal (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), 164; and James Earl Massey, “Reconciliation; Two Biblical Studies” in A Mighty Journey: Reflections on Racial Reconciliation, ed. Timothy George and Robert Smith Jr. (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2000), 211–222.

19 Norman Anthony Peart, Separate No More: Understanding and Developing Racial Reconciliation in Your Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 167–168.

20 McNeil and Richardson, 109, 110; Yancey, 95.

21 Peart, 82–84.

22 “Church in North America Holds Summit on Race,” The Atlantic Union Gleaner, December 1999, 4, 5.

23 Yancey, 87.


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Kenley Hall, DMin, is associate professor of Christian Ministry, Andrews University Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

November 2010

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