culture ˈkəl-chər — the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, defined by everything from language, religion and cuisine to social habits, music and arts.
Anyone who knows my story has heard that I grew up in a white Southern California family, but my schooling, friendships, and first spiritual experiences were quite ethnically diverse (and as a GenXer, “diversity” is a core value). When my wife and I came to Journey of Faith over 15 years ago from a small African American church plant in Carson, our awkward first words to each other were, “Man, this church is really white!” I’m kind of excited to say that things have changed! For a church located in a very affluent Southern California city, I love looking out at our congregation and seeing people of all different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
Sunday morning is possibly the most racially segregated hour in our country. Why? Racism? Yes, sometimes. I recently spoke with a church leader from a large and prominent megachurch in the South. He was excited about his church’s growth, the hundreds accepting Christ and being baptized, and their heart for serving others in powerful ways, but lamented the silent discrimination against black attendees. During my seminary training I heard stories about Asian churches discriminating against other Asians. And on a mission trip to Central America, I learned about the racial hierarchy among Latin American and Hispanic Christians. Racism is alive and well in the world, and it plays a complex role when we look at ethnic separation on Sunday mornings. Ethnicity is not just about skin color; it involves language, social cues, musical and artistic expressions, historical and ancestral identification, and even very specific forms of preaching and religious worship. Many social and stylistic preferences in church are based on the culture and ethnicity of the majority of its members—or leaders. So we have to ask ourselves: are we furthering our own culture, or helping create a culture that truly represents the Kingdom of God?
We all have a lot to learn from each other about our own biases, stereotypes, and assumptions. We are all part of “particular groups.” Sometimes preferences are just preferences. Other times, we carry unconscious bias based on what is familiar or ethnic groups we are exposed to on a regular basis. In a car ride recently, I realized that the only popular Christian music my children knew was whatever happened to be on the playlist on a radio station called The Fish. It’s a great radio station, but you don’t hear a lot of Contemporary Urban Gospel music. It’s natural to view one’s preferences as the norm. Think about your spiritual life and church experience. How much of what you do and like is really your personal preferences or the cultural norm (preaching style, musical taste, authors you like)? Can you think of some aspects of your Christian experience or church life that are actually your preferences and cultural norms of your particular group?
The Bible challenges us to look beyond our preferences and cultural norms. Paul’s “task theology” was often targeting the ethnocentrism hindering the spread of the Gospel. In fact, many of the letters of the New Testament were written to address racial, ethnic, economic, and cultural discrimination happening in churches. The “Jew vs. Greek” issue comes up repeatedly, with Paul reminding his readers that Christ “has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14). Christ has done His work, now we have to do ours. This election season and high racial tensions across the country encourage us to continue to dialogue. Saying things like “all lives matter” and “I don’t see color” don’t help. God doesn’t call us to be color blind or morph into some kind of ethnically ambiguous Christian homogeneity. God’s plan and our future is “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9).
What does this mean for how we (and others) do church? If God’s kingdom is multicultural, then churches should be multicultural. It means we need to welcome all people and appreciate different styles and traditions. It doesn’t mean that every service should be a spiritual “sampler platter” with each element representing some international flavor. Churches should represent the communities they serve and the people who attend. But we may have to broaden our minds and open our hearts to expressions that are different from what we are used to. If God’s kingdom and church is multicultural, it also means we need to re-examine how we think and talk about diversity. Sometimes it means changing how we speak about ethnicity (Asia is a continent made up of specific countries like Vietnam, Korea or Laos, each with their own ethnic and cultural traditions; Asians are not “Orientals,” that’s offensive). Sometimes it means not speaking about ethnic or national origin at all, but focusing on the person in front of us as a brother or sister in Christ—not someone from a different ethnic background.
Despite what our post-Christian culture may lead us to believe, a quick survey of history reveals that Christians have often led the way in multiculturalism and racial reconciliation, starting with Jesus, who was often villainized by His contemporaries for crossing ethnic, racial, and gender lines in order to fulfill His mission of welcoming, transforming, and serving (some examples include Matthew 8:5–13, Mark 7:26, Mark 11:17, Luke 10:33, Luke 17:16). As Jesus-followers, we are called to continue His mission and are empowered by the Spirit to see people and the world with new eyes (2 Corinthians 5:16).
“This hardly means that the kingdom of heaven has arrived. Far from it. We have a lot to learn about the texture of the racism embedded in our culture and our churches. To say that we have coalesced doesn’t mean that every single evangelical church is fully on board or knows the next steps to take in their context. That said, we thank God for pulling the scales from our eyes and prodding us to more fully love him and our neighbors—all of them—as ourselves.” Mark Galli, editor of Christianity Today