Why Bother With Multicultural Ministry?

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It’s no secret that Sunday morning is the most racially segregated hour of the week in North America. Nearly all American churches are racially and linguistically homogenous, which I consider to be at least 90% of one race and language group. Even those churches that report having thriving multicultural ministries almost always operate as two or three churches under the same roof. It is exceedingly rare to attend a weekly worship service that is both racially and linguistically diverse. There are many logical, sensible reasons why this is true. History is an obvious reason. Churches have been segregated for hundreds of years. Now that distinct communities have formed, why would we sacrifice such rich cultural heritage just to change the statistics? Another reason is that we live in a religious marketplace where Christians are able to find a wide range of styles and preferences within a reasonable distance. People typically choose a church that best matches their styles and preferences. Linguistic homogeneity is simply a practical matter: most Americans are monolingual. They have no interest in adapting to a linguistic or cultural diversity. After all (some might say), the children of immigrants learn to speak English. In a generation or two, immigrants will be fully assimilated into mainstream America.

Why, then, should we even bother with multicultural ministry when monocultural ministry functions so easily and naturally? For starters, it doesn’t. There is mounting evidence to suggest that church decline in America is partly due to millennials’ abandonment of congregations carefully carved out along the lines of race and language. This budding generation has grown up in a world full of diversity. Many of them expect this diversity in their religious life, and they are voting with their absence. Churches are the final bastions of homogeneity of a past era. Millennials find this in clear contrast to the message of love and acceptance preached by Jesus Christ. In short, multiculturalism is an important key to keeping the church alive into the 21st century. If church leaders are intentional, the congregations will begin reflecting the growing diversity of our communities.

Another problem for monocultural ministry is that it naturally eschews contrasting viewpoints, which in turn creates spiritually malnourished Christians. Scripture is not intended to be interpreted and dominated by one cultural or linguistic group. Think of what transpires at Pentecost! God desires that all of God’s children would actively read and contribute to the interpretation of Scripture. In the same way that estuaries (the places where the tide meets the stream) foster the richest and most diverse ecosystems, discipleship occurs best in an environment where a host of diverse perspectives come together. When you look out across your congregation, do most of the faces look like your own? Do the voices sound like your own? If so, your church may be missing out on the richness that comes from a diverse congregation. The saying is true: Iron sharpens iron, but the problem is that most of us only have one type of iron in the fire.

Finally, and most importantly, multiculturalism is indigenous to Christianity. It is the guiding principle in Scripture. In the Old Testament, one only needs to study the Book of Ruth to understand how God desires to unite people of opposing tribal backgrounds—Israelite and Moabite. Similarly in the New Testament, Jesus ministers to both Jews and non-Jews. Think about the Samaritan woman at the well in the Book of John, for instance. How would Jesus’ ministry have been different if he only ministered among one people group? Revelation 7 describes God’s eschatological vision for the world. Do you remember the scene? John describes a diverse multitude of God’s children singing in a unified voice. Multicultural ministry is not a model of ministry reserved for special projects or great articles on church growth. It’s the only choice we have if we are serious about living out our faith as told by Scripture. In the end, that is motive enough to begin to ask ourselves not the question of why bother with multicultural ministry, but rather how to begin today.

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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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