How to effectively and quickly move your multi-ethnic congregation beyond welcoming in 3 steps

Step 1: Take time to listen

Throughout high school, I attended a church 20 minutes away from my home. When I asked my mother why we didn’t join the church in our neighborhood, she replied, “That’s not our kind of church.” Years later, I realized what she really meant: “That church is all white; we wouldn’t be comfortable there.” This black church/white church duality was my experience until I attended my first church with a diverse congregation in 2001.

Not only does my current church have an array of members from many nations and backgrounds, but the leadership and culture of the church reflect that diversity. My personal experience reflects that of many others. There has been a seismic shift in the number of multi-ethnic churches in the U.S. Churches with at least 20% ethnic diversity made up fewer than 7% of churches in 2000; by 2010, this number had doubled to 14%. It is now realistic to believe 20% of churches will be multi-ethnic by 2020.

In light of this information, what are some ways that churches prepare to actively welcome those in their church who come from different cultures?

Understanding the various perspectives within multi-ethnic churches starts with understanding our implicit biases as leaders. We all have implicit or unconscious biases that impact our behavior. For example, during my 10 years in youth ministry, I have actively encouraged our students to benefit from other generations’ perspectives. In return, I have sought to benefit from their perspective. I know experientially that teenagers are brilliant, faith-filled people, but that doesn’t exempt me from the influence of negative generational stereotypes and assumptions that they are tech-obsessed, shallow thinkers.

A veneer of peace in your congregation is not peace for those who feel unseen.

Oneya F. Okuwobi

How do I interact with our teens as fellow image-bearers and not as “kids”? I slow down and focus my attention on what they are saying, starting from a positive instead of a critical point of view. If I disagree with their perspectives in a ministry or theological discussion, I ask questions to understand instead of rejecting their opinions out of hand. This ensures that my unconscious view of the world is not clouding the way I see their contribution.

Our congregation’s racial makeup has gone from 95% White to 50% Caucasian, 25% African American, and 25% International, an ultimate representation of 34 nations. Once we became aware of the increasing need to listen to every congregant’s views, we put together listening sessions that included six major ethnic groups in the church body. They were asked questions including if their culture was being represented in the church, how the church could go deeper in representing their culture, and how they could contribute to making sure their culture was represented.

These listening sessions also encouraged greater participation from those in other cultures. It’s not enough to merely sing a song in Spanish if there are no Latinos on the worship team. As everyone recognized that their culture could only be represented through joint participation, all groups increased their service.

According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, “A CEO’s commitment [to inclusion] often arises from his or her own understanding of what it means to be an outsider.” Minorities frequently have to adjust themselves to the majority culture. For those in the majority, relating to this kind of adjustment can be difficult.

Step 2: Empathize with outsiders

In order to develop empathy for their diverse congregants, leaders can seek out opportunities for cultural displacement by engaging in situations in which they are the minority. This can be as simple as joining a sports league with diverse others or as substantial as moving to a minority neighborhood. My husband, for example, Nigerian by birth, joined a Southern Rock band called “Country Fried.” Through this group, cultural sharing and even conversations about race have made him more at home in a culture that is far from his own.

At the end of a service in which we worshipped to a song from West Africa, a Ghanaian exchange student ran up to our pastor and said, “Thank you so much for that song. For the first time in six months, I felt at home.” Our commitment to cultural inclusion made a difference in that student’s life and his ability to worship God in a new country. If a person can see Jesus as relevant to their culture, the distance between them and salvation is reduced.

Step 3: Going beyond a veneer of peace

For over 13 years, I worked at Procter & Gamble, serving as a finance manager on brands from Folgers to Old Spice to Iams. Within the company, we had a critical concept called “The First Moment of Truth.” At this moment, a consumer engaged with the product on the shelf, decided it was worth the asking price, and placed it in their cart. In the past few years, however, our marketers realized that “The First Moment of Truth” was often not the first interaction a consumer had with a brand. That was the “Zero Moment of Truth,” when a consumer interacts with a product online prior to shopping. If this moment left a negative impression, any work to engage them in-store would be futile.

Your church has a zero moment of truth: your website. Before they will ever set foot in your church, minorities will visit the staff pages of your website. If they don’t see themselves represented in pastoral or board leadership, chances are you will miss the opportunity to have them even visit. Empowering diverse leadership is one of the most important first steps to attracting, retaining, and leveraging diversity in your congregation.

In recent years, we have seen a great deal of race-related controversy from Trayvon Martin, to Ferguson, to Baltimore. Often, even pastors of diverse congregations avoid these issues in an effort to “keep the peace.”

But a veneer of peace in your congregation is not peace for those who feel unseen. Romans 12:15 tells us to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. When your African American congregants are mourning, their emotions are real and personal. Leaders who fail to recognize this risk their congregants feeling uncared for within their own congregation.

There is more than one way to have this conversation. At my church, we took a direct approach and held a forum during Sunday morning service to answer questions texted from the congregation. As a result, we were able to speak directly to the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner from Scripture.

In spite of our white pastor and a congregation that was divided on these issues, we were able to do this because we kept the dialogue biblical and prayed for all parties involved. We also moved on from the facts about specific cases to talk about broader issues of injustice.

Another church in our city, College Hill Presbyterian, had a different approach. The majority-white church, which is quickly diversifying, addressed these socio-political issues primarily through congregational prayer times and small groups centered on tackling up-to-date racial issues head-on.

Methods will vary by context, but all church leaders should discuss Biblical justice issues in a way that communicates to our diverse congregants that they matter. Instead of glossing over issues, we can speak truth from Scripture and trust the word of God to bring peace.

As churches seek to welcome people of all ethnicities, they’ll need to go beyond simply having a mix of races represented in their church toward making sure every unique perspective is fully expressed. In this way, the church can make known the manifold wisdom of God (Eph 3:10).

Oneya Fennell Okuwobi
Oneya Fennell Okuwobi

Oneya Fennell Okuwobi is the Co founding elder and teaching pastor at 21st Century ChurchDirector of Cross-Cultural Education for Peoples Church, Cincinnati, OH. She is co-author of the Multi-Ethnic Christian Life Primer, a guide for diverse congregations to walk, work, and worship together as one. Find her @OOkuwobi or oneyaokuwobi.com.

“This article first appeared on ChristianityToday.com on (June 16, 2019). Used by permission of Christianity Today, Carol Stream, IL 60188.”

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