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What Really Matters if Your Church is Multicultural

If I told you that I had been to a multicultural church, I wonder what you might expect me to have encountered.

At the very least, I guess, a congregation that comprises different races and nationalities, seeking in some way or other to express a common identity as the Body of Christ.

And there are good reasons to celebrate such ideals; the church was born as a multicultural community.

We are told that on the day of Pentecost, people from a variety of nationalities and language groups were miraculously engaged with the message of the risen Christ in words that they could understand.

This is perceived as more than simple pragmatics, but a powerful symbol of a gospel that is intended to engage and unite people from across traditional racial, ethnic and political divides.

More recently, we have particularly recognized that it is not enough for the church of Jesus Christ to simply comprise the diversity of our human race, but that people need to be included, valued and respected equally within it.

This has required some serious self-examination and an intentional commitment to throw off the prejudices and assumptions of our own culture and accept other perspectives and traditions as being of equal worth to our own.

As we reflect on some of the contemporary trends in Western society, we might well argue there has never been a more important time to seek to be a prophetic presence that challenges the narratives of division, prejudice and what is commonly described as “othering.”

The church has some very ¨real opportunities and responsibilities to be a true beacon of hope.

Not only by modelling wholesome community, but by offering itself as a catalyst for community building in wider society.

This is a journey that I cannot engage in without asking some very significant questions about my own cultural prejudices and preferences.

When I attend and participate in the life of ¨my local church, how much of what I do has its roots in my cultural identity rather than who I am as a follower of Jesus?

This is more than simply the language of the services, but the way the chairs are put out; the style and décor of the building; the images we choose to display or not to display; the type of music we use; the themes and nuances of our songs; the way we communicate, engage, dress, sit, stand, pray and so on.

But this is where I have to embrace another cultural reality.

I might be ¨a white, British-born, middle-aged, northern bloke, but in many respects, I am quite different to a lot of the other white, British-born, middle-aged, northern blokes I know.

And the simple reason for this is that I grew up in a church culture. I know when to sing the songs, when to sit, stand, be quiet or join in – and I have, of course, over the years, cultivated that art of appearing utterly absorbed by that hour and a quarter of Sunday morning cultural fix, even when I am bored rigid by it.

Being a multicultural church forces us to strip away the accepted cultural behaviors of local church and ask what really matters.

It is not simply a matter of abandoning one cultural approach and replacing it with another; it is ¨by bringing these different cultures and traditions together that we distill from them the common threads of true discipleship, shared encounter with the living God, gospel living and seeking the Kingdom of God.

As we rediscover these underlying realities of our faith, rather than the traditions they have spawned in previous centuries and contexts, we can begin that exciting journey of exploring how we can express and experience them in the light of our contemporary experience.

This has important implications for me as a disciple of Jesus.

It is all too easy for me to confuse genuine discipleship with routine participation in a raft of rituals and experiences, which provides me with an inevitable sense of comfort and familiarity.

If these things are taken from me, it forces me to ask important questions about what really defines me as a follower of Jesus, and it seems that all this can result in is the local church becoming an ever more authentic expression of true Christlikeness.

This is not only the kind of church we are called to be, it is the kind of church that true seekers find irresistible and faith generating.

But if they are to engage with such churches, they need to see something within them that feels relevant to them.

There are many people in my community whose skin color and ethnicity may well be the same as mine, but who find traditional practices and behaviors of local church no less alien than those of any other culture or people group that is different to their own.

The internal conversations between Christians of different ethnic cultures may well be the key to learning to be a church that becomes meaningful to those that we have traditionally alienated.

In a conversation with local leaders recently, we were drawn on to the issue of what we called “accessible church.”

This was not a matter of looking at wheelchair ramps, stairs, signs and space (important as these things are), but recognizing that many people struggle to “access” what is happening in our churches because it simply makes no sense to them.

Learning to ask one another why we do what we do (whatever ethnic background it comes from) might just be the first step to offering a vision of Christian faith that inspires, attracts and includes an increasingly disaffected generation.

This is another reason to keep these vital conversations alive.

Phil Jump is regional minister team leader of the North Western Baptist Association in the United Kingdom and a member of the Baptists Together editorial board. A version of this article first appeared in the Spring 2018 edition of Baptists Together magazine – a publication of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. It is used with permission.