Three congregations share learnings
"If heaven is not segregated, why on earth is the church?"
The work of Mark DeYmaz inspired the Rev. In-Yong Lee to challenge her congregants to think about this question.
Lee is pastor of Cokesbury United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her church has been striving to become a more multiethnic congregation.
In the early stages of its renewed emphasis on diversity, Lee said Cokesbury hosted small groups, which intentionally met outside of the church building, to discuss The Multi-Ethnic Christian Life Primer (Mosaix) by DeYmaz, who is a pastor, author and leader on multiethnic ministry.
This was important in "challenging our preconceived notions about race and pushing us to the higher level of cross-cultural competence," Lee said.
Change consultants often cite Garfield Memorial United Methodist Church in Cleveland as an example of a successful multicultural body. The Rev. Chip Freed said the church views its multiethnicity as "a faithful commitment to the great commission, to go and make disciples of all nations, not just some nations.
"We're really serious about reaching non-church people. Non-church people live in diverse environments. It's only church people who live in segregated environments."
For Freed, the church's multiethnic identity is about "presenting a credible witness to the gospel."
"If we want to be relevant, if we want to connect with a growing new generation of people, we need to commit to this, or people will write us off as irrelevant," he said.
In 2011, the Rev. DeAndre Johnson began serving as pastor of music and worship at Westbury United Methodist Church in Houston — another congregation focused on reaching diverse people.
As Westbury saw its neighborhood demographics change, Johnson said, the congregation began asking, "How do we let our multicultural identity shape everything about us?"
The church envisioned being "a church for all people with more than enough love to go around."
"We are committed to maintaining and living out what it means to come from different places but have a common vision and life together," Johnson said.
The church's first core value is "multicultural inclusivity."
Ministry for reconciliation
The Rev. Bob Whitesel, author, professor and national church change consultant, said multiethnic ministry is about reconciliation.
"We are given the ministry of reconciliation. Reconciliation is more than just reconciliation to God. That's the most important, but it also means reconciliation of people from different cultures," he said.
In his latest book, re:MIX: Transitioning Your Church to Living Color (Abingdon Press), written with DeYmaz, Whitesel said multicultural identity is a crucial aspect of the church's mission on earth.
"We're never going to reconcile people unless we get the established church today to embrace this, to embrace a church of living color," he said.
Moving toward multiculturalism, Cokesbury decided that listening sessions would allow groups within the church to learn.
"We've realized, not only in different ethnic groups but across the economic divide, there are so many classes and groups that are divided from one another," Lee said. "They all act out of preconceived notions, assumptions, prejudices. So we are intentionally breaking those barriers between us by reaching out and listening to one another."
Cheryl LaTanya Walker, director of African-American ministries at Discipleship Ministries, said her goal is to "demystify" differences and break down "assumptions based on race or class."
"We can worship together, be vital together if we break down the assumptions on what we see with the physical eye but look to God's spirit," she said. "We will see that we are more the same than we are different."
To that end, Walker suggests that historically black churches begin by "doing pulpit exchanges" with congregations that seem different.
"Take your congregation, confirmation class and other ministry groups to churches that have different worship styles and persons who are outside of the African descent family," she said. "Tour the facilities. Observe what is on their bulletin boards. Listen to the announcements. What are they doing in the community? Listen and observe what they are doing that may be the same or different."
Start with leadership
At Garfield Memorial, "empowering diverse leaders was a very important strategy," Freed said. "We don't want the people on stage to be all one race. We try to represent diversity from top to bottom in our staff."
Whitesel agrees that diverse leadership is a crucial point,
"Oftentimes, the dominant culture will have a tendency to try and run a multicultural church," he said. "We teach in this book about shared leadership. It's almost impossible to grow a multiethnic church without having multiethnic leadership in place first. You have to include these people and their voices in the decision-making process before you make structural change."
Walker observes, "Bishops are assigning black pastors to historically Anglo churches that were in downtown with a specific mission of moving that pretty much Anglo congregation with some black members, to a more diverse, more multiethnic congregation," she said.
Renovate worship, outreach
Westbury shifted from a "traditional, middle class, Anglo worship service" to something "in the language and style of peoples worldwide."
"We started singing in languages other than English — some represented in our congregation and some not," Johnson said. "We did this to nurture this sense of multicultural inclusivity within us and to challenge us to go further."
Another key for all of the churches was a renewed vision for ministry in the community.
Walker pushes congregations to be creative in their outreach.
"What mission things are you doing for the neighborhood?" she asks. "What is your piece to get them in the congregation? Once they're in the congregation, you begin the disciple process and inviting them to be involved."
That involvement is not limited to Bible study or even to something in the church building, she adds.
"Particularly for our young folks, they are the ‘do' generation. Sitting in a service for two to three hours doesn't make a lot of sense to them, unless they see some output from doing that," she said, "but they will go volunteer."
In July, Garfield Memorial hosted "freedom week," similar to vacation Bible school, at its South Euclid campus.
"It's focused around teaching some of the Civil Rights movement," Freed said. "As part of that, we have police officers come in and talk to the youth. They played a whiffle ball game."
Partner with schools
Cokesbury and other churches are working to "do even more for the school" in their neighborhood. "Every time we meet and talk, we sense that it is not we who are doing this, but God is guiding us," Lee said.
Garfield Memorial hosts an annual back-to-school event to assist low-income families by providing health screenings, haircuts, backpacks and supplies. "We're trying to meet a need," Freed said. "We're bringing joy to the city. We want to make Cleveland a better place."
Westbury also created the Fondren Apartment Ministry (FAM), a ministry at a nearby apartment complex, which houses many refugee families.
The ministry has led the congregation to be "tremendously blessed" as people from all over the world join in Westbury's worship services.
"Many of these dear friends of ours have also become part of our worship life," Johnson said, adding that they "faithfully participate" in worship despite some language struggles. "You can watch them begin to feel comfortable in the space and to take ownership of their own place here."
"A person who doesn't know the love of Christ, they're our VIPs," Freed said. The mentality is, "I'll do whatever it takes. I'll set aside my personal preferences to reach those who are unchurched. When you do that, diversity will walk through your door."
As churches embrace new cultures, Whitesel said, it's important to create short-term wins. "Demonstrate to the congregation that this is going to work, that this is a worthwhile way to go."
Humility, courage, vulnerability
DeYmaz emphasizes that, if a congregation tries to grow into a multiethnic church, "there is a 100 percent chance to offend each other."
"Humility is the only way to approach one another," Lee said. "We will offend the others without meaning to, because we don't know them well, but we will be willing to approach each other. If offense happens, (we apologize), and mutually we will learn better together."
Moving toward diversity requires pastors to take risks — and not worry about themselves.
"When you venture out to something new, there is a big possibility of failure," Lee said. "Only when you are ready for failure can you do something.
"Those of us, when we are trying to grow in diversity, we need patience, persistence and perseverance. It'll turn out to be a blessing to your local church, to your community and to yourself, so do some-thing!"
Emily Snell is a freelance writer living in Nashville, Tennessee. She writes frequently for Interpreter and other publications.
Originally published in Interpreter Magazine, September –October , 2016.