For our congregation in the Chicago suburbs, multiethnic ministry seems like it just happened.
For years our community was predominantly Caucasian. But then, about eight years ago, things began to shift. A neighboring Spanish-speaking congregation had to leave their building and asked if they could share ours. We said yes. After two years we joined our ministries and became one church. At the same time we had an influx of diverse people who started coming to the church—African-Americans, Filipinos, Indians, a lot of first-generation immigrants. We did not necessarily go out of our way to reach them; God just brought them to the church, partly through our growing commitment to community involvement and holistic ministry.
I'm biracial, so I understand the joys and tensions of spanning multiple cultures. My dad was Asian, my mom was Caucasian. I'm a blend of cultures and genetics. Growing up, I saw racial reconciliation in the home, as the different ethnic groups in our family came together. So, for me, the DNA to have unity and diversity was there from the beginning, though I didn't realize until much later how important it would be for my ministry.
Right now, about 55 percent of our church is Caucasian. Ten to 15 percent are Filipino (mostly first-generation). Another 10 to 15 percent are African-American. And a remaining 10 percent or so are first-generation Italians, Indians, and Latinos. As different kinds of people joined our congregation, we loved and accepted them. But as they began to get settled and become involved in ministry, we realized that we needed to think about how to do multiethnic ministry well.
Multiethnic ministry can be difficult. It's difficult enough to maintain unity and purpose in a congregation where everyone looks just like me. But in a church where there are African-Americans and Filipinos worshipping and serving next to Caucasians, a lot of issues arise.
Tensions surface over cultural misunderstandings in a small group. Handling conflict (when one culture values directness and another values patience and "saving face") is tough. Worship and fellowship events become tricky as you try to accommodate everyone. Decision-making becomes complicated as you have to determine who calls the shots. Cultures need to be preserved, yet unity needs to be real. And if the leadership is not careful, the focus of the church can become about more about diversity rather than the glory of Christ.
It takes a lot of time and energy. But for all the possible pitfalls, the payoffs are infinitely worth it. We have a Lord and Savior who draws the whole world, and we can be a community that reflects what he desires. As a pastor I'm overjoyed when I see African-Americans worshiping and ministering right next to our Filipino families. Or when I see a Latino brother and a Caucasian enthusiastically partner for evangelism.
It is a powerful testimony to our community to say that we don't have to be divided along racial lines, but can be united in Jesus. As the United States becomes more diverse, Christians have a wonderful opportunity to be at the forefront of racial reconciliation, to tell—and show—the world how unity comes through Christ.
The vision is beautiful, compelling, and well worth working for. But that doesn't diminish the challenge for those of us leading local churches. I understand these challenges because our church lives them. I don't pretend to know everything, but here are three things that I'm learning: