Over the last few years, I have come to love being involved in intercultural congregations. It seems as if I have been given glimpses of the Kingdom and our eschatological hope as I have found ongoing Christian fellowship with people from different backgrounds. As someone who has both worked with church plants and has taught evangelists in church planting, I know that many of the principles in church growth circles have focused on quickly growing churches around like-minded people.
Yet, as I grow in my faith and experiences, I recognize that when I only surround myself with people who think like me, I can develop “blind spots.” I have learned that I need different types of voices speaking into my life, but I also enjoy learning about the creative beauty of our Lord from among people of different cultures, races, and perspectives.
As I worship side-by-side or dig into inductive Bible studies with people who have come to know Jesus in different contexts, I find I am growing to have a broader perspective on the Kingdom of God. I also sense others benefit from my vantage point. Furthermore, I am not philosophically convinced that building churches around homogeneous groups is what Jesus meant when he asked the Father for those who believe in Jesus to “become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23 NRSV). To what extent has the church accepted utilitarian arguments at the expense of what Jesus longs for us to be? Does the end always justify the means?
I am grateful for the congregations in which I have found fellowship in Ghana, the United Kingdom, and now Germany that have reminded me of the centrality of Jesus in all things. When I have conversations with people from multiple continents, I ask myself, “What else could bring such different people together but the love of Jesus?” Therefore, I would like to share what an intercultural congregation actually is and what it is not.
An intercultural church ≠ a church with token representation
Having a few people who are different from everyone else does not make a congregation an intercultural congregation. It is not uncommon for churches to have those anomalous individuals who do not fit the mold. Those individuals may be from a different social class, have a different skin color, carry a different passport, or even speak a different language than the rest of the congregation. Typically, those individuals are spouses, family members, or close friends of others in the church. Occasionally, they may be people who have been blessed by a ministry of the church or individuals who do not feel at home in another homogeneous unit congregation within the community. Having someone or even a few individuals who are different from the bulk of the congregation could represent a welcoming spirit in your congregation, which is a step in the right direction. Would more people like “them” really be welcome? Perhaps a church could ask a few questions to assess the depth of the welcome. What if “they” wanted to add a new element to the worship order? What if “their” numbers changed the balance of power?
An intercultural church ≠ a church that insists on assimilation
Having a few individuals who may either look a little different or speak differently from everyone else, but who act just like everyone else does not make a congregation an intercultural one either. It is so tempting to have the majority group swallow up a smaller one or different individuals. Perhaps these questions may start the conversation to see if the church has just expected assimilation. Have the different people made any contribution from their background to the nature of the congregation? Has the church seen any fundamental change because of their presence? Has the dominant culture continued to “win” out in decision making processes? Worship style? Ways people fellowship? The perception the church has of its own community?
An intercultural church ≠ a multicultural church
So what is the difference between intercultural and multicultural? A multicultural congregation validates different perspectives, but from a point of view that groups coexist in the same space. A multicultural church is not deeply interested in learning from one another, but it is grateful that differences are present. It does not want to ruffle any feathers. The bottom line is that “we have learned to just get along.” Multiculturalism maintains boundaries within the church, but an intercultural church celebrates and seeks to be strengthened by these differences.
So what is an intercultural church?
An intercultural congregation is a community of believers centered on Jesus who intentionally celebrate God’s creativity by empathetically listening to one another. Their oneness in fellowship is a sign of the work of the Holy Spirit, and their love is a witness to the world. People in such churches recognize that by their cultural blinders, they are limited in their perspectives of the Gospel and desire to have people different from them speak into their lives as they humbly seek to speak into the lives of people different from them. As they are more representative of the actual makeup of their communities, intercultural congregations have the capacity to have a grasp of the currents in their communities as well as appreciate the diversity of God’s world.