Multi-Ethnic Church Conference: Day One
Only 1 in 7 congregations is multi-ethnic, and churches are 10 times more segregated than their neighborhoods. Is this a problem?

I spent Tuesday in a room in San Diego with 400 pastors, academics and ministry practitioners. There's no shortage of Christian conferences these days, but there seems to be something exceptional represented by these folks. You might get a sense of what I mean should you look closely at the diversity of the participants of the first Multi-ethnic Church Conference. But beyond the racial and ethnic makeup of the participants, it is the shared theological and practical interest in the non-homogeneous church that makes this conference unique.

Why did 400 people from around the country come to learn about a topic that is barely on the radar for much of American Christianity? I think the conference's first three speakers each answered this question in their own way. I wonder, do any of these resonate with you?

Mark DeYmaz, pastor of Mosaic Church of Central Arkansas and author Ethnic Blends, gave a brief theological overview of the multi-ethnic church from Ephesians. In 2:11 Paul points out the massive and accepted separation between Gentiles and Jews. He goes on in chapter three to describe "the mystery made known to me by revelation." And what is that mystery? That "through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body." In other words, the most significant racial, ethnic and cultural divides have been bridged through the Gospel. My hunch is that many of this conference's participants believe the emphasis on the Gospel's reconciling power has been overlooked by too many of our churches.

Michael Emerson, professor of sociology at Rice University and co-author of Divided by Faith, began by reminding the attendees of the legacy of racism in America. For example, a poor, white person is much less likely to living in proximity with other poor people than are Hispanic and African American people. Our racialized society impacts things like health, employment and even life expectancy and this prejudiced reach extends even to our churches. Only seven percent of congregations can be defined as racially mixed. According to Dr Emerson, the primary reason pastors say their congregations aren't more diverse is that their towns and neighborhoods aren't very diverse. Yet statistics show the average church is ten times more segregated than their neighborhood.

With these sociological realities in mind, Dr Emerson went on to describe some significant benefits experienced by churches that pursue multi-ethnic ministry. For instance, these churches provide a safe home for the increasing percentage of multiracial individuals and families. Rather significantly, multi-ethnic congregations also alter racial attitudes, especially the privileged perspectives of white people.

November 04, 2010

Displaying 1–8 of 8 comments

Jeremy

November 10, 2010  11:08am

Churches seem to be built on relationships, and if someone can't relate to you they tend feel like an outsider. Or another way to say it, if someone can't relate to your life stage, your socio-economic status, or your family heritage for example, what your saying, preaching/teaching probably doesn't seem relative to their current situation. You may be very friendly, nice, gracious, and willing to help, and you may speak truth, but they still might feel a little distant and longing for someone who understands them better. Now if you were to talk about Christ and what he's done in your life, you may have a lot in common. So your sins, struggles, journeys are different, but your Hope is the same. It's great a conference is talking about how we bridge the gap between our obvious differences (language even) and our obvious similartiy.

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Kevin

November 08, 2010  2:02pm

@steve All of what you are saying boils down to the question posed to Christ by a "certain lawyer" in Luke chapter 10... "who is my neighbor". The text says he asked it in an effort to justify himself... and while I cannot speak to your reasons, the things you have said I have heard on myriad occasions as justification for making a delineation and saying that some undesireable "other" is not your neighbor and therefore you don't have to love him as yourself. A further examination of the text showed that, in asking that question, he utterly missed the point...as you seem to be doing here. Even if you view those you enumerate as your enemy... we who are followers of Christ are called to love our enemies. While you attack immigrants as "uninvited", the initial inhabitants from every european nation (the 'we white folk' of which you speak') came to these shores uninvited. While you cast about you for angst against minorities and violence from them to you... have you even looked at how violent the history of "white folk" has been towards minorities? Google 'Lynching Postcards' and 'Red Summer 1919' when you get a second... The saddest part is, even if you were to achieve a lily-white america, history has shown that nothing would change; the accepted pool of 'whiteness' would just get smaller and those who think like you would continue to ask "who is my neighbor" in order to justify their perceptions, assumptions and treatment of who you think is not... or do not want to be.

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Christine Sine

November 05, 2010  10:21am

I am so glad to see a conference that addresses this issue. As the geographic centre of the church shifts to the global south and as more and more non white theologians confidently speak their views we need more opportunities to grapple with these issues without fear, hate or intolerance which unfortunately so often surface when these issues are addressed. Learning to listen to the voices of others and see through their eyes doesn't come easily for any of us. We need more opportunities to engage in this way

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David Swanson

November 05, 2010  9:37am

@Bill Williams- really good question. The church I pastor does not currently deal with language issues but I know this is a common challenge in many multi-ethnic churches. Mark DeYmaz has written about the approach their church has taken in his book Building a Healthy Multi-ethnic Church. I'd also be curious to hear from others with experience in this area.

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steve

November 05, 2010  4:24am

Perhaps it is difficult to bridge the gaps because we white folks feel threatened and marginalized by codewords such as 'white privilege' and 'racism' used by adversarial and out-of-touch professorial types who seem to overlook the fact that poor whites suffer the same as poor non-whites. Maybe we are distrustful of well-paid professors who claim only whites can be racist, and that whites are wrong to feel threatened when they see their friends and neighbors victimized by minorities. And maybe when we see our neighborhoods colonized by 'migrants' who no one invited, and have to compete with them for the increasingly scarce low-wage jobs we find it difficult to welcome and join with them. Just a few real concerns - and reminders.

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Bill Williams

November 04, 2010  7:37pm

Great topic, and I hope we can have a fruitful discussion on it. I'm one of those who has come to believe that the implications of the Gospel for racial reconciliation has not been explored enough lately. One of the biggest challenges I see in multi-ethnic churches is the language barriers that separates us. I pastor a Spanish-speaking church, and I wonder how do we include Anglo-Americans, and Asians, and etc., into our community? English might be a common language for most of us, especially second- and third-generation immigrants, just like Greek was the common language in the first-century Roman empire. But where would that leave first-generation immigrants? Anyone have any thoughts?

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Tim

November 04, 2010  4:00pm

Conferences about applying transformative truth issues are great, but they will fail in transformative reality around the nation unless the church grows beyond it's institutionalized "niche-obsession". This is what forces programmatic discipleship and many other bad substitutes. Any man, no matter who sincere will not be able to do relational discipleship when he is trying to get a crowd of people or maintain a crowd of people to pay his livelihood and then add more hired men. Is a multi-ethnic group of people in gathered in the same room for almost zero mutual expression of truth a multi-ethnic church? I say no. A corrupt system-dynamic cannot produce good fruit. We have to first "throw off the things that hinder and the sin..." before we can "run the race marked out for us".

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sheerahkahn

November 04, 2010  2:26pm

"I'm curious though, how important do you think a conference like this is to the broader church?" My thoughts are that regardless of the topic, it's good to get together with other churches and talk about commonalaties, or issues that affect the church.

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