By Alison Istnick
What does it look like to grow in a personal journey of moving from a mainly monocultural life towards a lifestyle that is open to experiencing other cultures?
Nikki Lerner, Culture Coach and Leader of the Multicultural Worship Leaders Network (MWLN) has this thoughtful advice, “If you look at your life, your friends, where you shop, live, and where you worship, if everybody looks like you, then that is a monocultural world. So, one of the first steps is to ask yourself, how can I diversify my life? What kinds of people are missing from my life? And the answer to that question might lead you to the next decision you make. If you take your dry cleaning to a particular place, for example, and the person who owns the store looks just like you, maybe decide to make a different choice and take your clothes to a different cleaner that might be of a different culture. Making changes like this in our everyday life are easy steps we all can do, and it starts to put us in proximity with people who don’t look like us.”
Better Understanding Cultural Come-from
Being open to the experiences of others and empathy can be a bridge in the healing of racial inequalities. Lerner discusses how a specific skillset can break down walls of defensiveness as we all tackle difficult conversations. “We tend to be well-practiced at telling people what we believe and stand for,” says Lerner, “but we’re not always great at asking really good questions. Developing the skill of active listening is also about asking really good questions. When you hear something from a cultural or ethnic group that hasn’t had the same experience as you, a good question to ask is, ‘Can you tell me more?’ It’s a non-judgmental approach. You don’t have to share your opinion; all you’re doing is actively receiving what they’re saying. The second question to have in your arsenal is, ‘How does that make you feel?’ Those questions tap into the deepest part of who we are as human beings.”
Since the death of George Floyd, a spotlight has been fixed on racial injustice in our country. Across America demonstrations continue to blaze a path for systemic reform. Individuals and organizations alike are under scrutiny for actions, or lack of them, that would indicate a movement towards racial inclusivity. What we are seeing is reportedly more than a temporary trend, as the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum in helping to reverse systemic racism.
The faith community has long strived to be more culturally inclusive. Indeed, a study performed by Lifeway Research shows that nearly three quarters of the churches questioned agreed that every church should strive for racial diversity in its membership. In reality though, only a fraction of those churches surveyed could claim more than one predominant racial group in their congregation.
Cross-Culturalism is Complicated
We have been witnessing an ever-increasingly diverse nation. However, our ability to intermingle cultures has not come along easily. As people, we are all drawn to the comfort found of gathering in like communities where we live. We see this homogeneous tendency also played out in our faith with clusters of believers attending houses of worship with people that look, act and believe much the same.
Lerner discusses why advancing cultural and racial unity is so crucial to the local church. “If we’re talking about the community of faith in particular, we want to be on point with what matters to the heart of God. And it is clear and evidenced in all of scripture that God created us to look different, have different experiences, and have different cultures. Anytime we’re running after a more diverse faith in our churches, we can be sure that it is pleasing to God because it is his heart. There are scriptures everywhere that talk about how unity and believers being as one. When the believing church can find a way through Christ to be one with each other and an unbelieving world looks at that and says, tell us how this is happening. And that’s what points to the love of Jesus.”
Lerner cautions pastors to first carefully cultivate a vision for growing diversity within their ministry. Consequently, a church without a clearly defined vision “can become more racially diverse, but essentially still only cater to a white culture,” she cautions.
“Transforming a monocultural church to a multi-cultural one is a complicated process,” says Lerner. “Once a church develops a vision for diversity, they may start hiring people, or changing the musical style. It’s not time for that yet. The first thing is to learn. Church leaders must seek coaches, trainers, books, education, whatever it is to know what they don’t know. Reach out and ask someone who is a practitioner like me, or someone else in my lane. It will be necessary to invest dollars into training and education around how you build a multicultural church.”
According to Lerner two areas must be present in a church for it to be considered truly multicultural. One of them is the outward expression of culture, and the other is the empowerment of culture, “the expression of culture you see through things like music, art and preaching style,” says Lerner. “For example, can you have a worship team full of people with a woman in Nigerian headdress? Does that make the congregation uncomfortable, or is that okay? Even that small thing is an expression. The big one is empowerment. You cannot have a multicultural church and have monocultural leadership. It’s impossible because a monocultural body of leaders cannot appropriately make good decisions for a multicultural body.”
When envisioning a church that moves in the direction of becoming more diverse racially and culturally, Eric Byrd, president and owner of VIP Consulting, who has a multi-ethnic family, agrees that nothing will happen without careful planning and strategizing. “If the mission of a church is to be more diversity sensitive, so we can have people of different ethnicities attending our church, shouldn’t we intentionally hire our staff that way? When being intentional about reaching diverse cultures, I think your leadership needs to reflect the community that you want to attract or the community that you want to serve.”
Yielding the Results of Intentionality
With smaller congregations, having leadership that matches those culturally present in the surrounding community may be more difficult. Byrd offers this solution to such congregations, “If you have a church of 150 and you only have several people on staff and you’re not in a position of growing a great deal, then you can partner with a church that looks completely different from you. Maybe it’s an Asian church on the other side of town, or you could partner with a black church and do some community outreach,” says Byrd. “In this context you get creative and do things like having your pastor preach at their service one Sunday, and their pastor can preach at your church another Sunday. You could switch worship teams, or music teams that Sunday. You can share ministry activities together, or you can just be socially enjoying each other, together. Again, this takes a level of intentionality. You have to work at it and do some strategic planning.”
Diversity and Unity
Including or partnering with a diverse church community develops relationships. “It doesn’t mean that you lose your identity. It doesn’t mean that you have to sacrifice what makes your church feel at home culturally,” says Byrd, “it just means that you have some natural ties to relationships that makes your congregation more diverse, more open to ideas about serving God in unique and different ways. If you’ve prayed with people, if you’ve shared a service, or you do VBS together, then you have a relationship with people. So, when crazy stuff goes on in our world today, and you’re partnering with a diverse community, then you can speak from a position of relationship. You can say to that community, ‘This didn’t happen to me or the community I live in, but I know you. I understand why you’re upset about this. What can I do to partner alongside you to try to make this better? What can I do to help?’”