The great civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” Despite his valiant efforts, little has changed over these many years. Becoming a multi-ethnic church is still a challenge.
The Multiracial Congregations Project, led by Michael Emerson, a Rice University sociologist, defines a multiracial congregation as one in which no one racial group exceeds 80% of the congregation. Using that standard, Emerson found that only 8% of all Christian congregations in the U. S. are racially mixed to a significant degree. Only 2-3% of mainline Protestant congregations and 8% of other Protestant congregations fit this standard.
In light of this, there are 3 questions we need to face, in order to start becoming a multi-ethnic church:
- What caused this segregation within God’s church?
- What does the Bible have to say about becoming a multi-ethnic church?
- What are some actions we can take to overcome these barriers and become a multi-ethnic church?
1. How did the church become so segregated?
A. Church growth patterns. The church in America grew rapidly in the last 50 years of the 20th century. This growth was energized by a nation that had gone to war in the 1940’s in order to defeat an evil empire. As a result of the war, many turned to God and started attending church. One major denomination launched a campaign in 1954 called “A Million More in 54” that contributed greatly to their rapid growth.
After WWII, the church expanded its numbers and buildings to accommodate this expansion. A primary strategy for growth in that timeframe focused on the creation of homogeneous units. The concept taught that people of like ages, interests, and life-stage gathering together created an atmosphere for growth. Without realizing the implications, the idea that people liked to gather around common interests accentuated the cultural differences between races and further erected racial and cultural barriers. People who lived in the same neighborhoods, went to the same schools, and worked together ended up at the same church. Ultimately this led to people of various racial groups only reaching people like themselves and resulted in further segregation of the church.
Although men and women of many backgrounds came together in a common effort to win the war, this progress did not carry over into the thinking of the leaders of the American church.
B. Demographic patterns: Also, during the 50 years, housing patterns in the USA created the clustering of races in defined neighborhoods. Very often towns were divided clearly along racial lines. The inner city became a haven for mostly minority ethnic groups, while the growing cities experienced a suburban boom that led to a largely Caucasian makeup of these areas. This has accentuated the difficulty of becoming a multi-ethnic church.
The upward financial mobility of many of the previously minority ethnic groups has now blurred those demographic housing patterns. African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans have helped to move us into a more racially and ethnically integrated America.
C. Non-Biblical teaching against mixed marriages: During this time frame, many churches taught and believed in the false theology that God intended to keep the races separate. Many churches and religious institutions looked down on marriage between the races. This further divided the churches along racial lines. Those who chose a mate from a different ethnic group had difficulty finding a church of either race due to the prejudice that existed regarding this concept.
D. Cultural gatherings in the church: When I began to research this issue, a pastor of an African-American church in our city spoke to me about how his church viewed church as both a religious and cultural experience. This was very helpful to me as we worked towards becoming a multi-ethnic church.
This culture included their dress, music and preaching style. He stated that the black community would find it very difficult to leave behind this experience. All ethnic groups express their culture in their church experience and closely tie the two together. This could prove to be a barrier to many who want to integrate their churches unless a new culture is created.
E. Prejudice: One would be blind to not recognize strong pockets of racial prejudice present throughout the church and between the various ethnicities in America. The melting pot of America became the boiling pot for racial tensions. This is yet another hurdle to becoming a multi-ethnic church.
Certainly, whites bear the burden of how they wrongly treated (and many still continue to treat) African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans, but prejudice in the United States is not limited to one ethnic group. Racist whites enslaved African Americans for many years and continued to suppress African Americans and many others through racist speech, actions, and profiling. This extended, as we all know, to the marketplace and in the governance of our country. Many of us over the age of 60 can remember segregated schools, sitting in different sections of movie theaters, and living in neighborhoods devoid of diversity. Sadly, to a great extent, this division continues to hurt the church and between the ethnicities. These are all major issues standing in the way of becoming a multi-ethnic church.
The church I pastored since 1991 knew this division needed to be confronted. We knew that becoming a multi-ethnic church would be a big challenge. Our neighborhoods were becoming increasingly diverse. We recognized if we were truly to become an Acts 1:8 church, we had to learn what God would have us do with this challenge of becoming a multi-ethnic church.
In 1991, when I began as pastor of Fielder Road Baptist Church, our city was 80% Caucasion American. While there were a few small pockets of other ethnicities, primarily we lived in a white, middle class city. During those early years we experience exponential growth as we employed the homogeneous growth concept. Since we were focusing on people “like us”, we didn’t engage with the challenge of integrating other cultures into our church family. This however, wasn’t helping us on the road to becoming a multi-ethnic church.
In those days we could not build buildings fast enough to keep up with the level of growth we were experiencing. After about 10 years of this kind of expansion, we noticed a leveling off of our numbers. This caused us to examine other churches in the US that were continuing to grow and sought to copy their programs, planning and worship styles. One day we woke up to the fact those churches, usually new churches in growing cities, often capitalized on the ‘new rooftops’ around them that ignited their dramatic multiplication. As a result of this attendance plateau, we stopped to take a closer look at our “Jerusalem”.
We realized our city had changed ethnically without our recognizing it. Today, our city’s schools are 78% non-Caucasion American and are continuing to move toward even greater diversity. As pastor, I began a quest to discover churches like us in America whose setting had rapidly moved from suburban to urban, while continuing to flourish.
To my surprise, these churches were extremely rare and almost nonexistent. I studied those churches that were in the same setting as Fielder and discovered they approached this change in several different ways:
- The pastor resigned. Rather than face the changing demographics, the pastor would leave. This left the church to find a new pastor with the leadership skills to guide them into a vibrant ministry in their neighborhood. Rarely could they find such a person.
- Many pastors chose to stay and change nothing. The result of this is that the church attendance dwindled. The leader would choose the easy path rather than confront the reality of what was happening to their “Jerusalem.”
- Rapid transition and change. Some pastors decided to “jerk the church through a knot-hole” with rapid change and transition. Very few survived this experience, as many of the church leaders left because they did not agree with the new direction. This caused a significant drain on the finances and the leadership core of the church. These churches then lacked the resources to recover and have a vibrant ministry.
- Many turned inward. They became known for mission projects in other places to soothe their conscience about not reaching their own neighborhood. The attrition caused by white flight and many funerals left the church ill-equipped to grow and prosper.
- Relocation. Many churches chose to relocate, and often sold their building to a congregation primarily composed of another ethnicity and moved to an area of town that reflected their ethnicity.
God directed Fielder to choose another option on our path to becoming a multi-ethnic church. We felt God wanted us to “do whatever it takes” to seek to become a vibrant congregation in the midst of changing city. Even though none of our staff or the leaders of our church had ever been a part of something like this, we believed it was God’s plan. Many on our ministerial team and lay leadership could have moved to places where the task was easier, but we felt a calling from God to become a multi-ethnic church.
As we labored over this decision there was a sense within our soul we wanted to climb this mountain and attempt to do something not many others had been able to do. We had faith that this was honoring God and He would be pleased by our willingness to spend our lives reaching our “Jerusalem”.
2. What does the Bible say about diversity in the church?
The first step was to go to God’s word and seek His guidance as we proceeded. Our study of the book of Acts brought forth some dramatic understanding about the need to embrace diversity. While the book of Acts is primarily about the work of the Holy Spirit and missionary expansion, one sees an underlying effort to bring diversity to the early church. God confronted the “Jews only” mentality by calling Paul to the Gentiles and giving Peter a vision at Joppa. One of the reasons Antioch became a missionary church from the beginning was because they embraced diversity. Even a visit from Barnabus to investigate what was happening in this outreach to the nations could not stem the tide of a new day of inclusion of all the races in God’s church.
The book of Ephesians calls people to the reality that God was about breaking down the wall of separation. The converted Jewish leaders wanted to create barriers to keep the early church Jewish in makeup.
Galatians reminds us that there is neither male nor female, Jew or Greek, slave or free in Christ. The Bible reminds us that from the beginning God wanted to show the availability of the gospel to all the nations of the world. There may not be a greater witness to the transforming power of God than a church that is color-blind, a reflection of its community, and demonstrates a willingness to learn to love and interact with all people.
On the road to becoming a multi-ethnic church, our church encountered resistance and opposition. From the beginning, underlying prejudice surfaced in opposition to this course of action. It disguised itself in other issues. Rather than confronting the reality of their lack of acceptance of people, prejudiced members chose to criticize the leadership or leave the church. Even some well-meaning leaders departed because they were simply unable or unwilling to build relationships with people who were not like them. We lost 10-15% of our attendance during this 2-4 year period. It certainly cost us financially in the beginning, but at every turn there was a sense of “rightness” that brought God’s blessings upon our church family.
The more we began to “look like heaven”, the more we sensed the presence of the God of heaven.
For me as the leader, this journey proved especially painful at times. Some of my closest friends left the church. We struggled to deal with reduced financial resources and the discouragement of declining attendance. There were many times I felt like a failure and wondered if I should leave as well. Only the continual reassurance from the Lord and the encouragement from some truly godly people sustained me. A godly staff stood with me so that we never looked back in this journey. We shared a commitment to please God no matter what the cost. A leader must realize from the beginning that this is not a growth strategy, but simply a decision to do what is right and please God!
3. What are some concrete steps to becoming a multi-ethnic church?
1. A complete dependence upon God is an absolute necessity.
It was clear the early church needed the power of the Holy Spirit. The work of the church in a hostile culture must have the miraculous power of God to not only exist, but to flourish. The Bible’s promise that in our weakness we will become strong must be the heart and lifestyle of a church that wants to become diverse. Prayer for God to “tear down strongholds” of prejudice must be a daily practice.
I can remember when we introduced our first mixed-race staff couple, one of our senior ladies told me she spent the whole day confessing her prejudice. She thanked me for stretching her and deepening her walk with God by leading her to face some wrong thinking and change her attitude.
The church is filled with hidden “strongholds” that have existed for decades that God wanted us to confront. This will never be accomplished by human persuasion, but the supernatural work of God in the mind of man (Rom. 12:2).
2. The leadership must do this from godly conviction.
One will be quickly knocked off course of becoming a multi-ethnic church by naysayers if this journey is not from the heart of God. The leader must live his life before an audience of ONE to be sustained during the trying times of criticism and rejection by some church members. It is vital that the ministry team be united in purpose and have a clear calling from God to pursue diversity.
3. Each step must be purpose driven and intentional in its commitment to becoming a multi-ethnic church.
When becoming a multi-ethnic church you must examine every image put forth in order to reflect the diversity they desire. The PRIMARY place this image must be reflected is the stage on Sunday morning in all elements of worship. This must be more than mere tokenism, but an integration of ethnicity in every aspect of worship and presentation. It must reflect a desire to elevate all ethnicities throughout the Sunday morning worship event.
4. Staffing that is multi-ethnic must be a priority.
Some say, no, just find the best person for the job. I believe if God truly wants the church to be diverse, we can trust Him to bring those persons to a staff. This is also true in non-staff leadership. The ministers must be on the lookout for leaders of all ethnicities to places of leadership within the church.
5. Care must be taken with terminology and illustrations.
A diverse staff is so important to becoming a multi-ethnic church. It must develop a trust that enables those from a different ethnicity or background to honestly speak about any story or term they feel is derogatory. Transparent discussions are absolutely necessary for those who “have never walked in someone else’s shoes” to be open to those who could be hurt by language choices.
6. Look for ways to connect the church to the ethnicity of the world around them.
Every year Fielder sets aside one Sunday to gather outside for a time of praise and a prayer before dispersing into the community to do service projects in schools, low-income apartments and the neighborhoods. Gathering with other multi-ethnic churches and other churches with different majority ethnicity helps as well. For our primarily Caucasion American church, we chose to get involved and at times lead celebrations of Martin Luther King Day, celebrations in the Hispanic community, and other events as well.
7. Confronting prejudice in sermons and testimony is part of the transformation process.
A willingness of leadership to be transparent about his or her own struggles will create an atmosphere of humility and can be used to unite the church as you take steps to becoming a multi-ethnic church. While we’ve encountered great challenges related to this process, I can truly say it has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my ministry. To look around our staff and within our congregation each week and see an increasingly multi-ethnic group (close to 25% now) is exciting. This experience has been used of God in all of us to deepen our walk with Him and has given us a little glimpse of what heaven will be like one day.
What steps can you and your church/organization take to becoming a multi-ethnic church in the year to come?
Dr. Gary Smith is currently serving as a church consultant with The Malphurs Group and has been a Senior Pastor for 37 years. During his 24 years at Fielder Church in Arlington, Texas, he took the church from a very traditional church with a very storied past to a multi-generational and multi-ethnic church with a successful, directed succession process. Gary is married to Sandy, has 3 children and 4 granddaughters and has a passion for church consulting that allows him to serve pastors and churches engaged in church revitalization.