Building Healthy Relationships in a Multicultural Church

Posted September 22nd, 2017 in Featured, Personal Development, Spiritual Development by

This article is Part 1 in a series of two articles.

The United States of America is increasingly becoming more culturally diverse. Data from the U.S 2010 census paints a beautiful picture of diversity in this country (United States Census Bureau, 2011). Around 64% of the U.S. population reported their race as Non-Hispanic white. About 13% of the total population reported their race as black. Around 16% of population identified themselves as Hispanic. Asians represented about 5% of the population, and Natives and Pacific Islanders represented about 2% of the population.

Asian populations grew the fastest between 2000 and 2010. Hispanics had the second fastest growth rates between 2000 and 2010. The country is rapidly becoming more diverse. In less than 30 years, no single racial group in the U.S will have a majority (Cooper, 2012). Due to these rapidly changing demographic trends, the churches that are monocultural will increasingly have to manage diversity within their parishes.

Diversity and inclusion is becoming a larger topic of interest in Industrial/Organizational Psychology, yet there has not been enough scientific research in this area (Church & Rotolo, 2013). Diversity issues are important for all organizations, and insights gained from research inside and outside the church can be useful in understanding and managing diversity.

The core strategies and methods of being an effective pastoral leader in a multicultural church will be outlined in this article. The topic of leadership development and diversity within the Christian church is fascinating and sometimes poorly understood.

This article aims to address this gap by providing evidence-based strategies to promote diversity in the Christian church.

The church has continued to be separated along racial and ethnic lines despite the changing cultural landscape in the U.S. (Newbell, 2013). The movement toward multicultural churches is based on the biblical picture of churches with cultural and economic diversity. Within the context of the multicultural church, leaders will need to understand the complexity of diversity. Furthermore, American Christianity will need to be more multicultural not just due to increased demographic changes, but because the church is pictured in Scripture as being culturally unified.

Five Strategies for Managing Diversity in the Church

Seek God’s will in building racial and cultural diversity

The life of a Christian leader is to be characterized by prayer. Jesus prayed often to the Father while He was on earth and frequently enjoyed solitary prayer (Mark 1:35; Matthew 14:23). Pastors of multi-ethnic churches pray for God’s will to be revealed in intentionally building a diverse church. This involves breaking down barriers of division among cultures and races. Listening and praying can be an effective way of gaining strength from the Lord when the enemy only wants to cause division in the church.

A prayer for increased diversity in the church could sound like this:

“Oh God, You created all people in your image.
We thank you for the astonishing variety of races and
cultures in this world.
Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of friendship,
and show us your presence in those who differ most from us,
until our knowledge of your love is made perfect in
our love for all your children; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

– Lutheran Book of Worship (Hyatt, 2014)

A theological and biblical foundation of diversity is vital in seeking God’s purposes for the multicultural church of today. This theological and biblical foundation needs to be incorporated into sermons, teachings, presentations, small groups, Sunday schools, staff/lay leader trainings, and every other aspect of church ministry.

A theology of diversity includes many biblical concepts. Firstly, that all people regardless of race or culture have access to saving grace through the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 1:8) and during the end times all nations will be present before God (Romans 3:23-24; Revelation 5:9) (Newbell, 2014).

As God directs a pastor, the church must be willing to change things that are not according to His will and cause disunity in Christ among cultural groups. Culture is software and mental programming of the mind (Hofstede, 1991). If how we interpret events depends on the software we have in place, then it can be understandable how culture influences our views of Christ.

In Acts 15, the Jerusalem council decides through convincing arguments from Peter and Paul that non-Jewish believers need not to be held to observe all Jewish religious practices (circumcision, food, etc.) to obtain salvation and be accepted into the Body of Christ. In the same sense, Jewish Christians could live according to Jewish law and these Christians understood that Jewish laws, by themselves, did not lead to salvation. Therefore, Jewish Christians continued to uphold Jewish religious practices (Acts 21:24). This was in no way a contradiction to the decision of the Jerusalem council.

This poignant biblical example shows that culture can be confused with “truth” and that cultural differences in religious practice are still honoring to God. Research shows that cultural inclusiveness programs will not succeed if churches prioritize their overall cultural identities (Cleveland, 2013). Cleveland argues that pre-formed cultural identities will exclude groups not in power in the church and create in-group/out-group distinctions, thus leading to a lack of unity in the church.

Seeking God’s will involves looking beyond cultural convention in the church. God’s will is for unity in the church, as stated in John 17:31, “That they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” A unified church celebrates cultural diversity in all its richness.

Develop cultural competence in yourself, teams, and the larger church

A key competence for a leader is learning about differences between national cultures. An excellent tool that helps us understand differences in national cultures is from Dutch researcher Geert Hofstede. Hofstede (1991) outlines five dimensions of culture that differ across nations. The first is power distance that refers to the extent less powerful members of culture are comfortable with the fact that power is distributed unequally.

It is important to be aware that the U.S. has a score of 40 out of 100 on power distance, meaning generally the culture is less comfortable with unequal power differences. A Mexican national or a 1st generation Mexican American may have a power distance score closer to 81, which shows more comfort with unequal power differences.

The second dimension involves the degree a culture or nation is individualistic or collectivistic. Individualism is usually a trait that is strong in Western countries, and collectivism a trait that is strong in the rest of the world. Individualists place the interests of the individual above the group, and collectivists place the interests of the group over the individual. Generally, cultures in the U.S. that are not European American tend to be more collectivistic.

The third dimension is masculinity and femininity. Masculinity is the desirability of assertiveness, and femininity is the desirability of modesty. Scandinavian countries score high in femininity, whereas masculinity is a value that is high in Japan, Austria, and Venezuela.

The fourth dimension is uncertainty avoidance, which is the level of feeling threatened by uncertain or unknown situations. Asian countries, except Japan and Korea, have low uncertainty avoidance, whereas Latin European, Latin American, and Mediterranean countries score high on uncertainty avoidance.

High uncertainty avoidance cultures come across as passionate and wrapped up in work, whereas low uncertainty avoidance cultures are seen as laid back, lazy, and even-tempered.

The fifth dimension is long term orientation (LTO) versus short-term orientation (STO). LTO cultures value ordered relationships, frugality, and having a sense of shame. STO cultures value reciprocation of social contracts, respect for tradition, and personal dependability. LTO countries include China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, whereas STO countries include the USA, Pakistan, and Nigeria.

A leader could rate themselves on these five dimensions and could be assessing these dimensions in their congregation. Understanding how one sees another cultural group is based on one’s own culture. Understanding the relativism of one’s own cultural position helps one take the posture of being a learner when encountering different cultural groups.

Application of learning is vital to living out our faith through the mosaic of different cultural expressions. When a leader learns more about the different cultures in the church, they value those cultures even more. Thus, leadership starts to become less about being relevant to the majority culture and more about reflecting one Body of Christ with diverse members.

Another way to develop cultural competence is to develop a learning orientation in you, leadership teams, and the larger church by having learning conversations. Research on task motivation suggests that having a learning orientation is more effective in accomplishing goals than a performance orientation (Locke & Latham, 2002).

Rah (2010) asserts that expressing unique differences leads toward the path of having learning conversations. This path needs to be based on mutual understanding and communal relationships rather than questions of right and wrong. An attitude of ‘I win’ and ‘you lose’ can prevent learning and loving others. If it is a cultural issue then it is okay to disagree on some issues and then work together from a common starting point.

Honor all cultures by developing a third cultural consciousness

God created human beings in His image, male and female (Genesis 1:27). God’s creation story is a story of diversity. The multitude of animals and plants on earth proclaim this truth. God commands human beings to be “fruitful and multiply over all the earth” (Genesis 1:28).

There is no mention of race or people groups in God’s creation. We all came from Adam and Eve. In Genesis 11, we read about how God confuses the common language of the earth’s peoples because of their desire to make a name for themselves. The creation of many languages is a redemptive act to save human beings from the sin of pride and isolation from God. The diversity of languages is not a curse, but a blessing from a God who loves to be creative.

The Bible speaks about nations, not race. American culture has reduced geographic and cultural ties to physical appearance. Race is very much a man-made construct. A good example of this is a friend of mine who thought he was Irish most of his life. He so believed he was Irish based on a story from his Dad that he attended Celtic festivals religiously and proudly lived his Irish identity. That friend recently did a DNA test and found out that he was mostly English. He was shocked on how he lived his life based on a faulty belief that he was Irish.

A solution to being limited by cultural constraints is to move toward a third cultural consciousness (Rah, 2010). This involves being able to embrace the full kaleidoscope of culture in the church and beyond. Perhaps the synthesis of cultures will create new cultural norms. As Christian leaders, we need to see the beauty of many cultures as God sees it. Cultural diversity is part of God’s plan from the beginning and Christian leaders have the opportunity to build unity in Christ.

The hostility between Jews and Gentiles is overcome in the New Testament and a new kind of Christian emerges from the grace of God (Fong, 1995). This is the beauty of God’s redemptive work in our lives. The barriers of race and ethnicity can be brought down through the model of the multicultural church in our communities.

One practical way to honor all cultures is requiring and implementing a diverse pastoral leadership team that represents the diversity you want to see in your church. This pastoral leadership team is equal in status and no one personality determines “church.”

Recently this author interviewed Small Groups Pastor Aaron Cho of Quest Church in the Interbay neighborhood of Seattle. Quest Church is a multicultural church that merged with a European American church (Interbay Covenant Church) that was in decline due to an aging population. The two churches merged in 2007 and took on the name Quest.

Quest has an intentional purpose in including a culturally diverse leadership team (A. Cho, personal communication, December 1, 2014). The interviewee suggests that different racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. will not usually attend a church that does not have any persons of leadership from their racial or ethnic group. To build a multicultural congregation, the leadership of the church needs to be culturally diverse.

The interviewee also states that this cultural diversity is encouraged in small group leadership as well. The interviewee reports that the church does not have just one pastor preach all the time but pastors rotate preaching assignments regularly. The Senior Pastor of Quest, Eugene Cho, states that Pastor Aaron’s views on the topic of diversity and inclusion reflect the views of everyone on the leadership team at Quest Church (E. Cho, personal communication, November 9, 2014).

Another way is to reinforce equality of all members in the church by demonstrating and modeling traits of sacrifice, service, and bold leadership for the kingdom of the God. Lastly, incorporate worship styles, language, and spiritual traditions of all cultures represented in the church.

References 

Cleveland, C. (2013). Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the hidden forces that keep us apart. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Cooper, M. (2012, December 12). Census Officials, Citing Increasing Diversity, Say U.S. Will Be a ‘Plurality Nation’. Retrieved June 2, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/13/us/us-will-have-no-ethnic-majority-census-finds.html?_r=0

Cho, A. (2014, December 1). Quest Church Interview [Personal interview].

Cho, E. (2014, November 9). Eugene Cho [Personal interview].

Church, A. H., & Rotolo, C. T. (2013). Leading diversity and inclusion efforts in organizations: Should we be standing behind our data or our values (or both)? Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, 6, 245-248.

Edwards, K. L. (2008). Bring race to the center: The importance of race in racially diverse religious organizations. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 47, 5-9. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2008.00387.x

Garces-Foley, K. (2007). New opportunities and new values: The emergence of the multicultural church. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 612(1), 209-224. doi:10.1177/0002716207301068

Garces-Foley, K. (2008). Comparing catholic and evangelical integration efforts. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 47, 17-22. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2008.00389.x

Fong, B. (1995). Addressing the issue of racial reconciliation according to the principles of Ephesians 2:11-22. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 38, 565-580.

Hofstede, G. (1991). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind. London: McGraw-Hill.

Hyatt, J. (2014, September 14). PRAYER FOR DIVERSITY. Retrieved June 2, 2015, from http://staedans.org/prayer-diversity/

Liden, R. C., Wayne, S. J., Liao, C., & Meuser, J. D. (2014). Servant leadership and serving culture: Influence on individual and unit performance. Academy of Management Journal, 57, 1434-1452. doi:10.5465/amj.2013.0034

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American Psychologist, 705-717.

Marti, G. (2009). Affinity, identity, and transcendence: The experience of religious racial integration in diverse congregations. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 48, 53-68. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2009.01429.x

Newbell, T. (2013, June 6). The Pursuit of Diversity and the Local Church. Retrieved June 2, 2015, from http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2013/june/pursuit-of-diversitty-and-local-church.html?paging=off

Newbell, T. (2014). United: Captured by God’s vision for diversity. Chicago, IL: Moody.

Puffer, S. M., McCarthy, D. J., & Peng, M. W. (2013). Managing favors in a global economy. Asia Pacific Journal of Management, 30, 321-326. doi:10.1007/s10490-012-9340-6

Rah, S. (2010). Many colors: Cultural intelligence for a changing church. Chicago, IL: Moody.

Smith, J. E. (2002). Stewardship and discipleship. Quarterly Review, 22, 347-357.

United States Census Bureau. (2011, March 24). Retrieved June 2, 2015.

Vazakas, A. A. (1918). Is Acts I-XV.35 a literal translation from an Aramaic original? Journal of Biblical Literature, 37, 105-110.

Wilcox, C., & Goldberg, R. (2002). Public opinion on church-state issues in a changing environment. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 41, 369-376. doi:10.1111/1468-5906.00123

Yancey, G., & Kim, Y. J. (2008). Racial diversity, gender equality, and SES diversity in Christian congregations: Exploring the connections of racism, sexism, and classism in multiracial and nonmultiracial churches. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 47, 103-111. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2008.00394.x
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