George Yancey writes in One Body One Spirit that there are seven characteristics of multi-ethnic churches that are worth noting. Some of these were surprising.
1. Inclusive Worship. Music is so important to people that when they sing to God it needs to take on a form that is culturally meaningful for them. In the Euro-white culture, we have everything from Indie-Rock, to pipe organs, to Coldplay, to acoustic folk in our churches. But others prefer a keyboard and rhythm section driven sound. I suppose in India people would want a Sitar with Ravi Shankar sound. The point is that the musical style of the church must reflect the diversity of the people that come there.
2. Diverse Leadership. Yancey writes, “multiracial leadership is important because members of different racial groups desire to feel represented by the members of the church, especially racial minorities who historically have received a lack of respect for their opinions and perspectives.”
3. An Overarching Goal. Yancey observes that many multi-ethnic churches that he studied did not make racial diversity its highest goal, but rather a necessary component to achieving an even higher goal. He notes that “there is a certain amount of racial fatigue in our society. People are tired of discussing racial issues and trying to solve racial problems. But if members of a church are committed to another and higher goal – such as winning people to Christ or serving the community – then it becomes easier for those members to accept the importance of creating a multiracial environment.” This is right on point.
Another friend of mine who pastors a multi-racial church in Cincinnati recently told me that there is a generational element to this as well. Older people, who have long memories of segregation, bussing, and Jim Crow laws, need to have their racial prejudices more directly addressed. But it is the younger generation who grew up in the “Cosby Show” era and now the “Obama” era that grow fatigued, because they do not have these same experiences that were so difficult for their parents. There should be a sensitivity to where people are. But hopefully the days of addressing race will become less tense and emotionally charged.
In downtown Cincinnati, our goal is to reach the entire area, not just the white population. Thus in my context, we must build a multi-racial church to serve the unique needs of our diverse community.
4. Intentionality. Yancey writes, “it takes work to create and sustain multiracial churches. Their development does not just happen accidentally.” A church needs to know what they are trying to do and work to achieve it. Yancey notes that churches that became multiethnic almost by accident sustained the multiethnic environment by intentionally cultivating it.
5. Personal Skills. Some of this is simply having a well developed social IQ that understands the dynamics of relationships. Pastors especially have to have good personal skills since they are the ones who will be helping people to adjust to a multiethnic environment where conflicts arise from unexpected places. Specifically, Yancey identifies “sensitivity to different needs, patience, the ability to empower others and the ability to relate to those of different races” as key personal skills.
6. Location. You can’t create a multiethnic environment in a neighborhood that is almost completely monolithic. You have to be in a location that already has the diversity in the population. And all white or all black churches in all white or all black neighborhoods shouldn’t be regarded as inferior; they just reflect their neighborhoods.
7. Adaptability. Yancey says that “a monoracial church has only a single culture to adapt to. However, by definition, a multiracial church brings into it individuals from several different cultures. Learning how to blend these cultures together is an important part of adapting to the new social reality caused by the formation of a multiracial church.”
I would say that many of these fall into the biblical category of self-denial (Mk 8:34-35). We have to be willing to die to ourselves and our own cultural preferences and be willing to adopt, to some degree, the values and preferences of other cultures. This is the 1 Corinthians 12:12-15 vision of the church: we don’t merely tolerate one another, we need one another.
To do this not only requires spiritual maturity but it creates it as well.