I grew up attending churches in three different countries—Australia, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand—and have attended or visited many churches dominated by a particular ethnic group as well as churches where the proverbial cultural melting pot was bubbling away.
But as fun as cultural diversity might be when it comes to combined church lunches, it’s also a point of friction. One of the very first conflicts within the early Christian church was along ethnic lines: “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food” (Acts 6:1).
. . . my call is for inclusion rather than exclusion. Open doors and open hearts.
Nearly 2000 years later, it’s sad how some things haven’t changed. I’ve sat in very multicultural churches in Australia and noted that, when it comes to Communion time, suddenly it’s only white men presiding over the table. I’ve known people in ethnic minority congregations to tell someone from another cultural background that they don’t belong. I’ve been present at diverse gatherings in the Pacific and heard the host nation’s language dominate—spoken and sung to the exclusion of many in the congregation, including myself. In some ways I was grateful for this experience, because it’s not often that a white guy feels marginalised. It was an important lesson to learn.
It’s the 21st century and the global village is fast becoming a reality. How are we going to deal with it? Many Australian churches are seeing a rapid influx of migrants. Our denomination in a number of Pacific nations is searching for ways to engage the growing Chinese population.
I’m not going to be prescriptive, because each church has its unique situation. There are good reasons for establishing ethno-specific churches; there are good reasons for keeping them that way (like being a base for intentional evangelism to unreached local people from that cultural group). But sometimes there are good reasons for surrendering to the changing times and making the transition to a multicultural rather than an ethno-specific or blindly “mainstream” church.
In any case, my call is for inclusion rather than exclusion. Open doors and open hearts. Our leadership teams should reflect the diversity of our congregations, not the inequalities of our societies—as Christians we are better than that. We have the technology easily available to provide interpreting services where there are significant numbers of congregants who struggle with the church’s main language. And, on that point: is the church’s main language a matter of tradition or consideration?
I’d love to sing more songs in different languages, using different melodies, rhythms and instruments that reflect the cultures of those sitting around me. I’d love to invite more people home for Sabbath lunch to share the cuisine of my heritage. And I’d love to praise my God one day together with the “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).
*All Bible verses taken from the New International Version.
Kent Kingston is assistant editor of RECORD.