We all know Paul’s words: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28, NASB). In the fuller context (Gal. 3:26–29), the apostle describes our new primary identity after we experience baptism and become sons and daughters of God. Ethnic and cultural identity1 are now of secondary importance. Our identity as believers in Jesus, as born-again Christians, supersedes cultural differences. This new identity spans cultural and ethnic divides, and serves as the foundation for genuine community. Such community is vital if we are to fulfill our mission and proclaim the soon coming of Jesus to “every nation, tribe, tongue, and people” (Rev. 14:6, NKJV).
Thus, the crucial question for us: Are we creating the kind of authentic community expressed in Galatians 3:26–29?
A supracultural church
Like Peter and the early believers in Jerusalem, we need to learn that God sees all people as His children, and desires their salvation and inclusion in the community of faith. The vision of the unclean animals, and the conversion of Cornelius and his household accompanied by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, compelled early believers to see the church composed of people from all ethnic and cultural groups (Acts 10:28, 44–48; 11:15–17). The new identity in Jesus creates a supracultural community, a higher order community that binds diverse peoples in love and fellowship.
This new identity in Jesus demands that we build relationships across ethnic and cultural lines. And only the agape love of Jesus, implanted in our hearts, can bring about these relationships and this new community. The natural heart loves its own; only the Spirit-filled heart can love those with whom we have no natural connection. As Jürgen Moltmann wrote,
The church of the crucified Christ cannot consist of an assembly of like persons who mutually affirm each other, but must be constituted of unlike persons. . . . For the crucified Christ, the principle of fellowship is fellowship with those who are different, and solidarity with those who have become alien and have been made different. Its power is not friendship, the love for what is similar and beautiful (“philia”), but creative love for what is different, alien and ugly (“agape”).2
The role of leaders
Thus, our role as leaders is to lead out in this task and start by helping members move beyond ethnocentrism. Leaders should be the first to begin experiencing other cultures and developing relationships cross-culturally. Pastors and administrators need to set the example, befriend individuals from different groups, and then work with various leaders to create events and programs that will bring members from a variety of cultures to worship and work together in the Lord’s service. Education, youth ministry, community services, social events, and many other venues can unite us in fellowship, love, and ministry.
Since joining the faculty of Andrews University, I have been able to connect with others from all over the world. I believe that pastors and conference leaders, in particular, need to develop cross-cultural friendships within the church. No committee can mandate or enforce relationship building; each of us must do it ourselves.
Once we have established one-on-one relationships, we need to connect groups across cultural divides. Local churches, schools, institutions, and conferences are examples of some venues. But individual and corporate community among ethnic groups will not happen naturally; we must purposefully set out to create and maintain them.
For starters, on the individual level, read, travel, and perhaps learn another language to become somewhat competent in another culture. Attend cultural events and seminars on cross-cultural relationships. Then befriend a pastor from that ethnic group. Contact him or her, get together, eat, find common interests, invite the other’s family to join yours on an outing; these are some good ways to grow in love for each other. What a powerful way to teach our children to experience genuine community. Pray with each other (prayer is a powerful way to bond). On the corporate level, social, educational, worship, and ministry opportunities between diverse groups of believers can create community where little or none existed.
Before my present position, I was part of the evangelism team in the Georgia-Cumberland Conference. In 2010, the South Atlantic Conference (a traditionally African-American conference) and the Georgia-Cumberland Conference (a traditionally Anglo conference) conducted a joint evangelistic effort that culminated in four powerful days of outreach at the Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC) in Atlanta, Georgia. This event preceded the General Conference Session by a few days. Mark Finley, Alejandro Bullón, and Nathaniel Garcia preached in three languages for four nights at the GWCC. This event was the culmination of years of planning and months of evangelistic work. By God’s grace, more than 1,000 were baptized and joined the church.
As I reflect on this experience, I realize that not only was good evangelistic work done, but the hearts and lives of many of us were bound together in love and friendship across conference, ethnic, and cultural lines. I developed a respect and love for a number of the pastors, conference leaders, and members of the South Atlantic Conference. Our love for Christ, and our common purpose in reaching souls, helped us to see that we are much more alike than we think. Though they were different culturally from me, I learned to trust these men and women, and I felt comfortable interacting and serving together with them.
During that time, I had the privilege of preaching in one of the South Atlantic Conference churches and to visit several others. What joy I experienced as I worshiped with my brothers and sisters in a cultural context different from my own. I also conducted an evangelistic series in one of the Georgia-Cumberland Hispanic churches.
Again, working together and sharing the gospel and the three angels’ messages bind us together as we see God work through all of us. Intentionally working together in evangelism is one way we can build multicultural community in the church.
Spanning the divides
In 2008, I conducted research3 in two conferences in the Southern Union, one traditionally African- American, the other Anglo. Included in my research was a survey completed by almost 750 members from the two conferences. One item in the survey asked respondents to react to the following question, using a 5-point Likert scale from Strongly Disagree (1) to Strongly Agree (5): “I would visit the worship service of an ethnic group other than my own if invited.” Of 36 items in the survey, this question had the highest mean, 4.54. There was no statistically significant difference between African Americans, Caucasians, and Caribbean Americans (the three statistically significant ethnic groups in the study) on this question.
Thus, many members seem willing to participate occasionally in the worship service of other ethnic groups. This demonstrated a good way to learn about other cultures, make friends in those cultures, and celebrate the rich diversity in the church. As leaders, we can encourage our members to invite people from other ethnic groups to visit on Sabbath morning. We can even plan special Visitors’ Days that focus on those outside our cultural group—a good time would be when other ethnic groups are marking a special occasion or holiday. For example, in the United States, an Anglo congregation could invite African Americans to a special Sabbath worship service to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This could give both groups the chance to learn and experience elements of the other’s culture. In these settings, members will find it much easier to establish and develop friendships across ethnic lines.
As a pastor, I would, at times, enjoy pulpit exchanges. Once a quarter my colleague and I would preach at the other’s church. Or sometimes we would have joint worship services, followed by a fellowship meal. As I reflect on those times, I wish that we had also shared the Communion service. What a powerful way to bind our hearts and confirm our identity as brothers and sisters, superseding our ethnic and cultural differences.
If serious about creating genuine community, a leader might consider pastoring a church whose members are from another group. At a higher organizational level, two ethnically different conferences might plant an intentionally multiethnic church, using pastors and members from both conferences as the core team. This would take careful planning and require the working out of sensitive issues (Where does the tithe go? for example). Multicultural churches face significant challenges to maintain their diversity, but such cooperation between conferences would make a very powerful statement that we are serious about genuine community.
Because of demographic and immigration patterns, a growing number of Adventist churches are already composed of several ethnic groups. These churches have great opportunities for building genuine community, but leaders must become very intentional about maintaining cultural diversity. If not, many of these churches will see one culture dominate others. This can cause friction or the congregation may become monocultural as members from other groups leave.
With persistent work, these congregations can become living models of genuine community. The keys for success here include a leadership team that represents various groups and a worship service and other activities that reflect and meet the needs of all the members of the congregation.4
Though many of our institutions and organizational units have positions or offices that address issues of racial diversity, we need to continue training our leaders about diversity and how to avoid offending other cultures. Yet, for genuine community to develop and thrive, we must move beyond toleration to authentic acceptance and celebration of all groups in the church. The best way to achieve this is through authentic relationships at the individual and corporate levels.
The denomination needs to make this a high priority. We need to move beyond talking, to action, and the commitment of significant resources as we build the genuine community that Paul describes in Galatians 3.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America, parts of Europe, Australia, and elsewhere, finds itself in a broader culture that more and more values multiculturalism and the celebration of diversity. Many of our young people, under this influence, struggle when they see ethnic divides in the church creating doubt and confusion. We must address this situation with a seriousness and commitment that has eluded us in the past. The fruit of such effort will be rich and have a very profound, positive impact on the church and the fulfillment of our mission.
As our world leaders are calling us to revival and reformation, it may be that the intentional focus and effort to build genuine community could serve as a key element in bringing about the revival and reformation that we most certainly need at this time.
1. This two-part article focuses on ethnic and cultural issues, but the principles also apply to gender and socio-economic differences.
2. Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 28.
3. David Penno, An Investigation of the Perceptions of Clergy and Laity Concerning Race-based Organizational Segregation in the Southern Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (Andrews University: PhD Dissertation, 2009), 193, 111.
4. Curtiss Paul DeYoung, Michael O. Emmerson, George Yancy, and Karen Chai Kim, United by Faith: The Multiracial Congregation as an Answer to the Problem of Race (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 175–179.