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February 10, 2014Missiology

The Church as a Mosaic: Exercises for Cultural Diversity, A Guest Post by Dr. Bob Whitesel

Dr. Bob Whitesel explores what it would look like for the church to be variety of ethnicities and cultures.
The Church as a Mosaic: Exercises for Cultural Diversity, A Guest Post by Dr. Bob Whitesel

A Church of Many Colors (and Multiple Cultures)


Though the term multiethnic church is often used today, researchers prefer the term "multicultural," because culture is a more accurate way to describe people who share similar behaviors, ideas, fashion, literature, music, etc. Christian anthropologist Paul Hiebert defined culture as people who join together because of "shared patterns of behavior, ideas and products."

  • Behaviors are the way we act,
  • Ideas are the way we think, and
  • Products are the things we create such as fashion, literature, music, etc.

Therefore, people of a culture can tell who is in their group and who is out of their group by the way they talk, the way they think and the way they act.


Ethnicity is a type of culture, often based on biological connections to a geographic area of origin, such as Sri Lankans (from the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka), Yemenis (from the Republic of Yemen) or Chinese (from the People's Republic of China). But the term ethnicity is very imprecise, because there may be dozens of different ethnic groups that hail from the same area of origin (and thus the term ethnicity is not without controversy ). For instance, China has 50+ recognized ethnic groups but they all originate from the same country. While all are Chinese, so too are all 50+ different cultures. Since ethnicity is so imprecise, culture is usually preferred.

Multicultural or Multiethnic Church?

So, what should we call a church that reaches multiple groups of people? And what should we call a neighborhood that has Guatemalan Hispanics, Mexican Hispanics, aging Lutherans and a growing base of young Anglo professional? The accurate answer is a multicultural neighborhood. And, such a mosaic of cultures should give rise to a multicultural church. Below are examples of groups that have been identified as justifiable cultures:

Affinity cultures (these are cultures that are based upon a shared fondness or affinity):

  • Motorcycle riders
  • Country music fans
  • The NASCAR nation
  • Heavy metal music fans
  • Contemporary Christian music fans
  • Surfers

Ethnic cultures:

  • Latin American,
  • Hispanic American
  • African American,
  • Asian American
  • Native American, etc.

Socio-economic cultures

  • Upper Socio-economic Level
  • Upper Middle socio-economic Level
  • Lower Middle Socio-economic Level
  • Lower Working Socio-economic Level
  • Lower Socio-economic Level

Generational cultures:

  • Builder (or the Silent or Greatest) Generation, b. 1945 and before
  • Boomer Generation, b. 1946-1964
  • Leading-edge Generation X, b. 1965-1974
  • Post-modern Generation X, b. 1975-1983
  • Generation Y, b. 1984-2002

Therefore, to help our churches grow in the most ways possible while recognizing the broadest variety of cultures, it is good to speak of multicultural churches. These are churches where people from several cultures (e.g. ethnic, affinity, socio-economic, etc.) learn to work together in one church.

5 Types of Multi-Cultural (Mosaic) Churches

The Multicultural Alliance Church

This church is an alliance of several culturally different sub-congregations. Daniel Sanchez describes it as one church "comprised of several congregations in which the autonomy of each congregation is preserved and the resources of the congregations are combined to present a strong evangelistic ministry." The different cultures thus form an alliance by joining together as one religious organization in which they equally:

  • Share leadership duties (i.e. leadership boards are integrated),
  • Share assets (it is only one nonprofit 501c3 organization)
  • Offer separate worship expressions (to connect with more cultures)
  • Offer blended worship expressions (to create unity).
The Multicultural Partnership Church

Here a congregation, usually in a more affluent position, partners with a church in a financially struggling culture to help the latter. This often occurs when a church in a growing suburb partners to help one or more struggling urban congregations. Al Tizon and Ron Sider in their helpful book, Linking Arms, Linking Lives: How Urban-Suburban Partnerships Can Transform Communities, share many success stories regarding how wealthier churches are redistributing their wealth through a financial partnership with urban congregations.

The Multicultural Mother-Daughter Church

This may be the most prevalent model in North America. Here a mother church launches (or plants) a daughter congregation that is intended to become self-sufficient. The daughter is usually a different culture than the mother church. For example, an Anglo mother church might launch a Hispanic Church, a Hip-Hop Church, an African-American church, etc. These daughter congregations are "external" church plants, because the intention is for them to eventually become independent or "external" to the mother church's organizational structure.

The Multicultural Blended Church

The Blended Church may be the second most common type of multicultural church. Most of its worship celebrations blend or mix several different cultural styles of music and liturgy. For example, a 17the century hymn may be followed by Africana music, followed by Hispanic or Asian songs and sermon illustrations from Native American stories. The idea is to celebrate varied cultures in one worship service. While worshiping in a blended format can create a degree of cross-cultural sensitivity, it may also be weaker in its outreach potential because it is less relevant to people who identify strongly with their cultural traditions. People from emerging cultures usually adapt to the dominant culture in one of three ways.

  1. Consonant adapters are people from an emerging culture who adapt almost entirely to the dominant culture. Over time they will mirror the dominant culture in behavior, ideas and products. Thus, they will usually be drawn to a church that reflects the dominant culture.
  2. Selective adapters adapt to some parts of a dominant culture, but reject other aspects. They want to preserve their cultural heritage, but will compromise in most areas to preserve harmony. They can be drawn to the Blended Model because it still celebrates to a degree their culture.
  3. Dissonant adapters fight to preserve their culture in the face of a dominant culture's influence. Dissonant adapters may find the blended format of the Blended Church as too inauthentic and disingenuous to their strongly held cultural traditions.

Not surprisingly, the Multicultural Blended Church usually attracts those who are selective adapters.

The Cultural Assimilation Church

This is actually not a multicultural church. This is the church where a dominant culture tries to make over other cultures in its image. One researcher described it this way, the dominant culture "opens their doors for the ethnics to come to their churches and worship God in their way with predictable lack of success" (italics original author).

There are churches in North American who embrace the assimilation model today in hairstyles, clothing styles, music, etc. They believe that newcomers will mature quicker in their faith if they adopt the congregation's pre-existing traditions. These churches can give the impression that their culture is superior than other cultures (and they may actually believe it). For example, assimilationists insinuate that non-Anglos should be come whiter. But theologians cry foul, with one stating: "The New Testament precedents strongly asserted that the gospel was not indented to make Gentiles more Jewish, and Jewish more Gentile, but rather that each culture was to maintain its integrity in the body of Christ."

These five types of multi-cultural churches can provide a framework through which the church must begin to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each.

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