Becoming a multicultural congregation

To reach their communities, church leaders must recognize and embrace cultural diversity.

By Dave Michener

Church executives are responsible for launching new programs, making new hires and setting new budgets. This requires the stewardship of our personal time, energy, intellectual capital, and creative assets — and this extends to our personnel and congregations.

That’s why we do strategic planning, cost/benefit analysis and probe into the unintended consequences of our decisions. So in the grand scheme of church life as a church executive, why in the world would you want to add becoming a multicultural congregation to your goals list? Besides the fact that it’s biblical, there are practical reasons you should get ready to become a multicultural congregation.

With the findings of the 2010 census looming in the not too distant future, one thing we already know is that our country is becoming more and more ethnically diverse.

Community diversity
Every community’s diversity differs. Your community may be very diverse, like mine in Columbia, MD. Yours may be primarily a single-culture community. However, because of the availability of information and entertainment via technology and media, your community may be virtually very diverse. What you see in the racial census statistics may not be what you would find in the culture embraced by your community.

According to Esther Novak in an article posted on entitled, We The People: A Memo on Multiculturalism, “Core values and behavior are even more important than language when it comes to marketing to multicultural America. These include the role of family, connection to home country, respect for the elderly, the influence of community leaders, and the roles of faith, 
tradition and cultural icons.”

Diverse core cultures
As church leaders, even if our congregations are racially single-cultured, their core cultures may be very diverse. Is your church ready for your community? If you are, your marketing will be diverse, your creative elements will reflect cultural diversity, and your teaching pastors’ sermon illustrations will not only be current but in tune with a variety of cultures, regardless of the color of your congregation’s skin.

Time and time again I have heard my fellow white leaders, with whom I have good relationships, say during candid conversations, “We’re multicultural. We have a few non-white families. I mean we want more, but they just won’t come. Or when they do come, they don’t stay. But, we pretty much reflect our community.” Do their congregations really reflect their community?

Let’s take off the gloves just for a minute. If your city’s population is 60,000 people and you have 1,000 people in your congregation, then you are reaching approximately 1.67 percent of the population of your city, right?

So if you truly desire to reflect your community and your city’s population is 94 percent white and 6 percent non-white, then your congregations’ racial and cultural make-up should be 94 percent white and 6 percent non-white. In a congregation of 1,000 people, that would mean that at least 60 non-white people are part of your congregation. While for some churches even these kinds of diverse numbers may be difficult to achieve, it feels fairly doable. Mission accomplished. Conscience appeased. Reflection confirmed. Right?

But what if you look at it another way? Let’s say your city has a population of 60,000 people and it’s 6 percent non-white. That means you have a potential market for Christ of 3,600 people from that minority culture in your church’ sphere of influence. That’s more than 350 percent of your church’s current attendance. Now that’s a challenge but also an opportunity! To find out the statistics in order to reflect your community, county or states racial diversity check out

Reach your community
It’s one thing to be ready for your community with your statements, staffing and staging with an intentional focus to be multicultural, but it’s another thing to actually reach your community. A restaurant can have amazing marketing, delicious food and spot-on price points, but people stay away in droves because of the terrible service. Serving your community is the best way to reach people. It worked for Jesus and it still works today.

Some of the things that we have done at Bridgeway to stretch our strategies of outreach in addition to service on boards is to open our food pantry, offer free financial literacy training and provide free medical services at our community health fair. We also give out Thanksgiving dinners and offer ESL (English as a Second Language) classes. We do this in collaboration with a secular non-profit which demonstrates our willingness to not be controlling (shattering some stereotypes about churches), and it allows us to connect with people that would not normally enter the doors of our church.

In addition, try offering minority cultures in your community the ability to experience your church services not only in English, but in their “heart” languages. This can be done by offering a separate service, which could attract more people of a particular culture. But be aware of the potential downside of this strategy as it can also run the risk of segregating your congregation into sub-churches, which can threaten unity, collaboration and focused movement to accomplish your mission, fulfill your vision and live out your values. Ultimately, that can affect your bottom line in a significant way.

This can also be done by using translator earpieces so that people of other cultures can experience the same service at the same time. This can reinforce the beauty and benefits of a multicultural congregation. However, there are a few churches I know of that have tried this method and failed because they did not have staff or key leaders of that culture, nor did they offer small groups to include those communities.

They also failed, because they required those that were using the translation headsets to sit in the back corner of the theater. The unintended consequence was that these people felt quarantined from the rest of the congregation, instead of celebrated. At Bridgeway, the people we serve using the translators are given prime seating as an attempt to honor them.

Revive your community
In Columbia, MD, where I’ve lived for more than a decade, I have the privilege of experiencing a multicultural life in a beautiful setting. My community is very diverse in every sense of the word — economically, culturally, generationally and spiritually. It’s a great place to live. In fact, Money magazine just deemed Columbia/Ellicott City, MD as the second best place to live in the U.S. While the community is not perfect by any stretch, it sparks of vitality.

But not every community is a Columbia, MD. However, with the right focus, the positive changes can be dramatic. I recently visited Sunset Park in Brooklyn, NY. I had not been back there for about 15 years.

Back in the mid-90s, crime was rampant in that neighborhood. It wasn’t safe to be out at night. After sunset, the playgrounds were barren and everyone barricaded themselves in their homes. At night you would hear continuous car alarms, yelling and screaming, and even shots fired from the street. Racial tension was high and criminals were in control.

When I returned, I saw a different community altogether. At 9:30 at night, the playground was packed with families still playing together. People from several different cultures were out for a stroll enjoying the summer evening. Children were laughing and playing tag. The empty lots that had once been full of trash three feet deep were now basketball courts.

A lot of things happened in the city of New York that had a profound effect on crime and the economy. Many pages in books and blogs have been written by experts. But according to my relationships in that community and my informal ethnography, the fact that there were more churches than a decade ago, had a profound influence. And not simply more churches, but churches that bothered with becoming more multicultural to be ready for their community.

Profile: Bridgeleader Network Inc.

What does it take to make your church reflect the type of cultural, ethnic, socio-economic and generational diversity found in your schools and places of business? How can your church become more welcoming to people from around the world and around the neighborhood?

Can your church be the catalyst for change that addresses the underlying racial tensions in your town or community that builds bridges of reconciliation and peace? BridgeLeader Network can not only help you answer these questions but also help you define strategies to take them on.

Based in Columbia, MD, BridgeLeader Network Inc. is a non-profit 501 (c)(3) diversity consulting firm. We offer churches, businesses and corporations solutions to the problems of racial difference and offer proactive strategies to help them live the values of reconciliation and effective multiculturalism.

In 10 years, we have assisted church leaders of small to mega-sized congregations develop healthy and growing multicultural ministries that reflect God’s full kingdom of worshippers from every tribe, tongue and nation. We have helped colleges and universities diversify their student body, faculty and staff. We have also assisted Fortune 500 leaders build into their bottom line by developing diversity strategies that promote an inclusive working environment.

Wherever your organization falls on the spectrum, BridgeLeader Network can partner with you in the areas where you would like to progress. You can learn more at or email info@bridgeleader — Margarita R. Cabellon

Resources on going multicultural

David A. Anderson is author of the following helpful resources:

  • Letters Across the Divide: Two Friends Explore Racism, Friendship and Faith co-authored with Brent Zuercher (Baker Books, 2001)
  • Multicultural Ministry: Finding Your Church’s Unique Rhythm (Zondervan, 2004)
  • Gracism: The Art of Inclusion (Intervarsity Press, March 2010)
  • The Multicultural Ministry Handbook 
(Intervarsity Press), Edited by David A. Anderson and Margarita R. Cabellon, featuring the staff of Bridgeway Community Church.

One Response to “Becoming a multicultural congregation”

  1. In my experience a diverse church starts at the top. Regardless of race, if the lead pastor does not have a diverse group of friends, mentors, and leaders immediately surrounding them, then diversity in my opinion will remain a dream and never become a reality.

    I am on the executive team at Oasis Church in Los Angeles and we reach a very diverse crowd with two different races making up roughly 30% each and then the other 40% divided out by a couple other races. This creates a sense of belonging for most people who enter our church. Los Angeles is a diverse place in public settings but many of our neighborhoods and segregated. The great thing about a diverse church is regardless of who enters they immediately see people that look like themselves and can have an easier sense of belonging. On the flip side, a diverse church creates unique challenges because of a diverse set of likes a dislikes. A diverse church requires constant vision casting and focusing on what brings unity to a group of diverse people.

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