“David, there’s a church I think you’d like to know about.” My friend, a member of the mostly-white church where I served as an associate pastor, knew about my longing for cultural diversity and thought I should know about the new, urban, multiethnic congregation just a few miles from our suburban community. Having grown up in Venezuela and Ecuador as a child of missionaries, I generally find myself gravitating toward spaces which exhibit ethnic and cultural diversity; in my early years of pastoral ministry, those communities were teaching me about the connections between my discipleship to Jesus and a commitment to racial justice.
My friend was right about that young, diverse church. I began listening to podcasts of their services and then through a mutual friend, I met the pastor and began learning about his passion for racial reconciliation. On our rare Sundays off, my wife and I would drive into the city to join the church for worship. I was captivated by the diversity of the community, the multicultural expressions of worship, and the biblical mandate for reconciling unity that was regularly proclaimed from the pulpit. I could imagine giving myself to this vision of the church.
Having now served multiethnic churches for the past thirteen years—first at that same church my friend first told me about and then at a new congregation sent by that church—I’m surprised by how much has changed about how these types of churches have been viewed by the wider Christian community. My vantage point is limited, but in my experience, congregations focused on racial reconciliation have gone from being mostly invisible, to being idealized, to being interrogated these past few years. Congregations focused on racial reconciliation have gone from being mostly invisible, to being idealized, to being interrogated these past few years. Click To Tweet
The day my friend told me about the multiethnic church in which I would eventually serve as an associate pastor was the first time I’d heard about an intentionally-multiethnic church. Of course, there have been diverse congregations in this country for a long time, but in the late 90s and early 2000s, churches that were intentionally diverse as a gospel commitment were rare. Once I joined the ministry staff of the church in the city, I began learning about other churches and reading the books written by ministry practitioners who shared this commitment to reconciliation.
But when I think about those first few years, my general recollection is that churches like ours were mostly invisible on the landscape of American Christianity. I’d tell people that I served a multiethnic church and would generally be met with puzzled expressions. “A multi-what church?” We were viewed as a curiosity and an anomaly, something that was kind of neat—if you were into that sort of thing.
At some point I started noticing how pastors of multiethnic churches were being invited to speak at conferences. And, surprisingly to me, people were genuinely interested in their vision for racial reconciliation. They were writing books, and people were actually reading them! I associate this time with the years of the Obama presidency. There was a lot of talk about so-called race relations during that time and much of it assumed a colorblind approach to racial justice. This generally optimistic interpretation about the state of racial justice—one, it should be stated plainly, that wasn’t shared by many people of color—had people giving the multiethnic church a second look.
I began hearing about church planters, generally white men, who included racial reconciliation in their vision for their future churches. For a number of years it was rare if some sort of diversity wasn’t at least mentioned in a new church’s vision statement. Attending conferences and denominational meetings was like watching a diversity flipbook: each year the speakers represented more ethnic and cultural diversity; each year the worship teams became more cross-culturally competent and racially representative.
I noticed, too, how pastors like myself were idealized. Those of us who served congregations like mine were elevated. Within a year or two of planting our church, I was invited to speak on panels to share my wisdom. Driving home from one of those conferences I remember thinking that I had absolutely no business being on that platform. I could barely keep my own church together; what business did I have instructing others? But such was the climate during those days of idealizing the multiethnic church. I could barely keep my own church together; what business did I have instructing others? But such was the climate during those days of idealizing the multiethnic church. Click To Tweet
In recent years, the departure by people of color from many multiethnic churches has been well-documented. Generally, this exodus has been connected to the tumultuous years of the Trump presidency, as people of color realized how divergent their hopes for reconciliation and justice were from those of many white people in their churches. The origins of the exodus began much earlier, however.
During our church plant’s first year, an African American woman who was beginning her Ph.D. studies in sociology and religion met me for coffee. “David, whatever else you’ve read about the multiethnic church, you have to read this book.” She was recommending The Elusive Dream by Korie Edwards, an ethnographic study of intentionally multiethnic congregations. In it, Edwards shows the specific differences between culturally Black and white assumptions about church. She goes on to discuss how in these diverse spaces, it is almost always the Black members who conform to white culture. This is because people of color have the competency to engage cross-culturally in a manner most white congregants have never had to consider. Also (and this was the part that really messed me up), people of color understand that most white people are uncomfortable experiencing cultural difference and conflict, and when white people get uncomfortable in church, we tend to leave. Many people of color understand the sober reality that keeping white people in diverse churches means privileging the cultural comfort of the majority over real reconciliation. Many people of color understand the sober reality that keeping white people in diverse churches means privileging the cultural comfort of the majority over real reconciliation. Click To Tweet
This critical evaluation of the multiethnic church was confirmed during repeated moments of public racial trauma when many churches and their leaders remained mostly quiet for fear of upsetting their white members. It became clear to many people of color that their own visions for racial justice were different from those of the white people who seemed content with relational diversity while leaving the underlying causes of injustice undisturbed. The election of the 45th president with so much white Christian support was, for many, simply the last straw.
These days there is far less idealization of the multiethnic church. In my experience, people want to know if churches like mine actually do justice. They want to know whose experiences are privileged. They want to know if the sin of white supremacy has been clearly and regularly identified from the pulpit. In other words, multiethnic churches are as likely to be viewed as suspiciously today as they were naively a few years ago. In Part 2 of this article which will release on Friday, I’ll address what I believe is ahead for the multiethnic church and what the characteristics of the ministry of reconciliation will look like in the coming phase.