Where to Begin in Multicultural Ministry

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In my last article, I highlighted the importance and urgency of multicultural ministry in the American church. To be sure, Scripture testifies to a church that includes people of all peoples, tongues and tribes, and in our diverse communities it is important that we come together, despite our differences, to forge new churches that reflect that diversity among our congregants. But multicultural ministry is challenging, if for no other reason than the fact that there are so few truly diverse churches which can serve as a model for us. The purpose of this article is to guide those who would be interested in exploring multicultural ministry to ask the looming question: “But where do we start?!”

The first, most important, and least commonly practiced step towards a multicultural ministry is working within the existing monocultural church to expand multicultural competency. In a nutshell, the single most significant barrier to including people of other backgrounds tends to be the existing congregation itself. It matters not if the existing congregation is white, black, Hispanic, etc.; nor does it matter what the common language of the existing church may be, or where it is located. Churches are communities that organically form by bringing together people with some commonality of tradition, expectation, ideology, theology, and other forms of makeup. However, we are organically sinful, choosing our own desires and preferences over God’s, which is why our existing congregational structures are nearly impenetrable to those who are unlike us, to those who express their faith in ways different from our own. The existing church congregation almost always expects outsiders to conform to their mannerisms, styles and polity, because they were here first, they paid for the building, they want to worship a certain way, and they are more comfortable.

Perhaps you can already see how the barrier to multicultural ministry appears to be very much the same as the barrier to any kind of church growth efforts, where the existing congregation eschews change in favor of stability. It is!  But imagine the difference between making changes to accept outsiders who are culturally homogenous with the existing congregation, and making changes to accept outsiders who are very different in their background, language, makeup or worldviews!! Not only does a church need to be willing to give up their “sacred cows” and prioritize the gospel, but it must also be willing to alter, change, postpone or give up practices and traditions that are perfectly valid and functional. Music is an excellent example. There is absolutely nothing wrong, sinful or hurtful in playing songs from contemporary Christian rock culture in English. But a church that desires to reach out to a nearby refugee community will need to give up a significant portion of its current playlist in favor of music that truly allows that community to worship. And the church will need to do so with great joy and willingness to see and hear the Gospel message be retold in Swahili, Arabic, or Quechua, whatever that language may be, despite the fact that they don’t understand it at all.

Where do we start with multicultural ministry? We start with ourselves, inwardly examining our churches, and allowing the Holy Spirit to open new doors and possibilities with which we will almost certainly be uncomfortable. We will lose the comfort of playing all of our favorite hymns as frequently as we used to sing them; we will not have one language or race represented at our church councils making pivotal decisions; and we will no longer be able to look upon the potluck buffet and instantly know the ingredients and seasonings in all of the dishes presented. If we wish to begin including others into our churches who are unlike us, we will have to sacrifice our own identities, and lay them at the feet of our Savior Jesus Christ, and allow him to re-create us in his beautiful—and multicultural—image. 

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Rev. Eric Little is a provisional elder in the Tennessee Conference currently serving Bell Buckle United Methodist Church. He speaks three modern languages and serves in a biracial church environment, serving as a bridge to foster communication and cultural competency between the Anglo and Hispanic congregants within. Eric has an M. Div. from Duke Divinity School (2015) and has lived in places as diverse as Maine, Brazil and Portugal. He also serves as an Adjunct Instructor of Spanish at Martin Methodist College in Pulaski, TN. His interests include preaching the Old Testament, Hispanic/Anglo congregational affairs, and practical application of stewardship theology.

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