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Book review: How to Become a Multicultural Church

Dave Gemmell

 

Our world is awash in nationalism, xenophobia, populism, and nativism. Political movements respond with Brexit, wall building, and tribalism. There is decreased tolerance for things that are different, exacerbated by the echo chambers of social media, where the most strident shouts are amplified and moderate voices are attenuated; where privileged people groups are losing their power, feeling overwhelmed by the hordes who do not look, talk, or act like them.

These trends are the pushback that comes from decades of mass migration, globalism, and population mixing. For example, in the United States (US), those with European ancestry are projected to be a minority within a couple of decades.

Politicians and dictators nimbly surf these waves of angst, but what about the kingdom of God—specifically, the congregation? How does a congregation navigate these swirling waters? What does an authentically Christian congregation look like in these xenophobic times?

Pastor Doug Brouwer is finding some answers as he reflects on his first 18 months of leading the International Protestant Church of Zurich. Brouwer, a Presbyterian who grew up in a homogeneous culture and then pastored homogeneous congregations, suddenly finds himself in another country leading a thriving multicultural nondenominational congregation. He writes as an American pastor with little experience in the heterogeneous, about the constant epiphanies of ministry revealed in this rich cultural milieu. Even though the author is steeped as a Presbyterian, readers from other faith backgrounds will find it easy to apply his insights to their own faith contexts.

There are some foundational questions lurking underneath Brouwer’s experience. Why is Sunday morning the most segregated time of the week? Has Christianity become resistant to the power of the gospel to break down racial, ethnic, and social walls that was the hall-mark of this new religion that appeared in the first century? For example, currently in the US, only about 14 percent of congregations are multicultural (and that 14 percent is a very generous definition of multicultural, counting as multicultural a congregation with as little as 20 percent from different racial groups than the dominant majority).

Brouwer suggests that despite the apparent retreat into cultural narcissism that many are taking, some consciously or unconsciously need to, or want to, surround themselves with people of different cultures. For example, kids growing up in multicultural countries, going to multicultural schools, may question the efficacy of a faith that divides into cultural or racial factions on the weekend.

This book is a must-read for someone from a homogeneous setting wanting to put their toes in the water of heterogeny, or someone who intends to plant a multicultural congregation or increase the multicultural element or take a pulpit in an existing multi-cultural congregation. However, this is not a how-to book on transitioning to the multicultural; it is not a research project studying many congregations and settings; it is not in the genre of “9 tips to become multicultural,” nor is it a church-planting guide. Rather it is a personal story of insights discovered as a pastor changes his context from homogeneous congregational life to his new pulpit in an existing multicultural congregation.

He discovers that multicultural is hard. Struggles emerge in worship style, dress code, theology, and, most of all, communication. He finds that business meetings take three times as long, the role of the pastor is culturally understood and diverse, relationships take time and are complex, and doc-trine is viewed through cultural lenses.

Yet through the struggles, the author shares insights such as: (a) a congregation is at its best when it fights hard for consensus; (b) there should be no privileged culture; (c) the pas-tor must learn leadership styles from other cultures; and (d) all must move beyond cultural stereotypes. He adds tips, such as humility going a long way, avoiding patriotism, being deliberate and intentional about multicultural, and eating together often.

Brouwer, amid the crucible of the multicultural, begins to see a gospel rising above the slag of a cultural gospel. This pure gospel is not confused by or equated to cultural norms because these norms are challenged daily by the diversity of his congregation. The church becomes more than a congregation; it becomes a home. The church now becomes a foretaste of Revelation 7:9, “There was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (NRSV).

— Reviewed by Dave Gemmell, DMin, associate Ministerial director of the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists.

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