Developing Multicultural Churches in the United Statesby Jorge Lockward
Global Ministries has a mandate to develop churches in the United States, a country whose population is rapidly changing, largely through immigration. Thus, traditionally and in the last few decades, we have focused on establishing faith communities among US ethnic minorities. Our “national plan” ministries have reached out to Hispanics, Latinos, Koreans, Native Americans, Asians, and Pacific Islanders.
As of 2010, 36.3 percent of the US population age 18 and older was of a nonwhite or ethnic minority. Even more significant, 46.5 percent of the population age 18 and under was ethnic minority, nonwhite, or both. In 2013, these percentages are approaching or surpassing 50 percent.
Unfortunately, The United Methodist Church is now behind the curve in keeping pace with the changing population in US communities. Traditionally, we have misinterpreted the Great Commission—assuming it to mean “like reaches like”; that is, Caucasians reach Caucasians, Hispanics reach Hispanics, African Americans reach African Americans, and so forth. But the Great Commission says we are to reach all nations. From its birth, the church was conceived to be multilingual, multicultural, and messy. The Book of Acts and all of Paul’s epistles depict a church that is a real mess. So Christ’s church is challenged to develop not only ethnic congregations but also multicultural ones—congregations that look more like the neighborhoods in which we live.
The Rev. Nora Colmenares, Assistant General Secretary,
Networks & Constituencies, Congregational
Development, Racial Ethnic Ministries
The future of the church in the United States—church with both a big “C” and a small “c”—is multicultural. This is the vision in Revelation 7:9, “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.”
The vision of a church made up of people from all nations has been present from the beginning. A foundational text for the church from Joel 2:28-29 says: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”
It is important to understand that multiculturalism is not limited to people whose race or ethnicity differs from that of the majority or the establishment. In reality, some of the greater challenges of multicultural work involve not so much differences of race and ethnicity as differences of social class. We are not crossing great boundaries when we reach out to people who speak our same language and have educational backgrounds and income levels similar to ours.
Mark 11:17 states an ethical imperative for the church. This is the text from Isaiah that Jesus cites while driving the money changers out of the temple: “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations?’” Jesus asks. Then he adds: “But you have made it a den of robbers.”
If our places of worship are not houses of prayer for all nations, then what are we robbing people of when we are not multicultural? What rightfully belongs to people that we, in our monocultural ways, are stealing from the abundant life that God has ordained for all of us?
All Nations Together
I don’t think it’s possible to conceive of a true church in the United States today that will not be multicultural. Our population trends clearly indicate our nation’s growth in ethnic and cultural diversity.
How are we living into this reality? We hear a lot of bad news; for example, we’re told that the Sunday morning worship hour is the most segregated hour in our country. But there is also good news to celebrate. Many urban churches and some rural ones are developing multicultural congregations. For Global Ministries, it is not a question of developing or initiating multicultural work in God’s mission but of becoming aware of what is already happening—and joining in.
Another affirmative action of Global Ministries is to provide training—and not just training about multiethnicity, which has been the trend until now. Global Praise, a program that I have the privilege of directing, has gone through many different understandings of itself. But recently—in addition to introducing hymns that remind our church of the rich spiritual traditions of our brothers and sisters in other lands—Global Praise has embraced a new challenge. We are now advocating and facilitating a new, multicultural understanding for churches in the United States.
The transformation I witnessed last year at the School of Congregational Development in St. Louis, Missouri, is good news indeed. There was a well-developed multicultural training section, but it was the quality of participation within the multicultural workshops that gave me a lot of hope. A great deal of positive change is happening in our church today, and that is really good news.
There are also some challenges. The main challenge for us is to gain clarity about our future. We are still talking about multicultural realities and callings as if they were an option—the multicultural church being one model among many. But if we are to be faithful to God’s ultimate vision and to follow what God is doing in our communities—both within and beyond the church—we will have to work toward becoming a multicultural faith community. To reach this goal, we will need to figure out exactly what we are being called to do.
When talking about the “multicultural” church, we tend to use one of the three most common models of multiculturalism. One model, tokenism, ends up looking more like ethno-tourism. It focuses on people’s ethnicity alone. If our church contains a little bit of this ethnicity and a little bit of that, we congratulate ourselves on being multicultural.
Another model can be seen as juxtaposition, which is prevalent in my own annual conference. The New York Annual Conference understands itself to be a multicultural place, but it is really just a place of juxtapositions. Once a year, when we gather for annual conference, we have delegates from American Indian churches sitting next to delegates and pastors from Ghanaian churches, who are next to Creole-speaking Haitian church delegates. Name an ethnicity or national origin—Latino, Korean,
traditional white European, Chinese, Filipino—and the New York Annual Conference probably has one or more such congregations within its borders. We create amazingly beautiful liturgies for our annual gathering, incorporating many different traditions. Then we all go home to our separate monocultural worshiping communities and work in isolation.
Some of our churches have a juxtaposed model in miniature—with two, three, or even four separate congregations all worshiping in the same space, only separately. It’s as if God were preparing us a Thanksgiving feast, but our family members wouldn’t come together in the same room at the same time to share the same menu.
This juxtaposed model has its benefits. It can be built upon through different groups’ getting to know one another and being occasionally exposed to another culture. But that is not where the treasure of the gospel lies. In fact, the juxtaposed model often conceals a paternalistic instinct: “We” do multicultural work out of the goodness of our hearts because “they” need “us” to provide them with a place of worship, and “we” need “them” in order to at least appear inclusive.
Global Ministries is beginning to define a third model. We don’t yet have a name for it, but it stems from what I call our “ontological need.” That is, we do the multicultural work not because we have to, but because, if we are really called to be the body of Christ, we have no way to answer that call except by being in partnership with one another.
Each tradition, each nation, and each socioeconomic or cultural grouping has its own richness. Our capacity to enter fully into the experience of being the body of Christ hinges on the ways we can understand and incorporate one another’s spiritual traditions into our understanding of discipleship. Here is one example of what I mean.
While working with a song from a Native American tradition, I was talking about it with a colleague, Chebon Kernell. Chebon comes from Oklahoma and belongs to the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference. He was conveying to me the depth and richness of his Native American experience, which was exactly what I needed to hear. When Chebon spoke about the song, he was communicating from his soul and body—not just from his head. It is through such eloquent sharing that the gospel becomes incarnate.
Native American people are grounded in the earth. They understand that we need to express our gratitude for what is and for what we have. You can read about, study, and even preach about Native American traditions, but they are part of Chebon’s core. Now they are becoming part of my core because of my relationship with him.
We will know that we have reached true multicultural fellowship when we recognize the gospel incarnate in one another—when I know Christ in you, and you know Christ in me. We all need to know what Christ looks like in one another.
Any model of multiculturalism is a single step toward a better existence—even if that destination won’t be reached until the next generation. A multicultural church must be ever-moving and ever-changing if it is to embrace and mirror the community that is changing around it. Our taking comfort in the familiar should not keep us from moving toward what God wants for us.
Diversity in Communities
There is energy across the connection for planting multicultural churches. Some of this is happening within The United Methodist Church. Even more is happening outside. There is something to be learned everywhere and from all traditions. I have visited supposedly Latino Pentecostal churches in the Bronx, and they are really multicultural congregations with a heavy Latino emphasis. You will find a lot of African Americans and other English-speaking people there as well. In fact, the inside of the church looks a lot like the community outside the church doors.
When I travel, I always ask if there is a Latino community at my destination. So when I was invited to Dordt Christian College in Iowa to offer a workshop and lead a worship service, I asked if I should offer a session for Spanish speakers and was told “no.”
But on the second day of my visit, a pastor approached me in a humble way and said: “We heard that you were willing to offer something in Spanish. Would you teach a Spanish-speaking group?” I said, “Yes, of course.” The next day, a group larger than the Dordt college group arrived for the session in Spanish. The pastor had networked, and the next day, there they were. Diversity exists even where we don’t expect to find it.
Living among people of different ethnicities is a gift, as is living among people of different social classes. Within the US church’s racial-ethnic national plans, we have recognized the need not just to address a first generation of immigrants but to help that first generation prepare for the second and third generations to come. Immigrants offer us great opportunities for forming multicultural congregations. There is also an opportunity for Global Ministries, with its national plans, to partner with the General Board of Discipleship, with its Path 1, in taking the next step—creating true multicultural congregations together.
Jorge Lockward serves as the director of Global Praise, part of Mission Theology and Evaluation at the General Board of Global Ministries.
Jorge Lockward, Global Praise program director, presents a workshop on multicultural congregations at the school of Congregational development 2012, held in St Louis, Missouri. Photo: Cassandra Zampini
Dancers and the choir from Church of the Village in New York City perform “We Will Rise.” The Church of the Village is a multiethnic United Methodist congregation in Greenwich Village. Photo: Dr. Larry R. Hygh, Jr./UMNS
The congregation at Rising Hope United Methodist Mission Church forms a prayer circle around a group of young people who were traveling along the East Coast to raise awareness of immigration issues. Photo: Rising Hope United Methodist Mission Church/UMNS.
Read more about the National Plans.