This week, we continue our series Ask Mission Central, where we tackle real questions on spiritual life from emerging Christian leaders. Subscribe to get the next post in your inbox!
Ask Mission Central: Question Three
“As someone who is white, how can I effectively lead a multi-ethnic community with humility and understanding of people with such different experiences than me? I minister in a diverse context, and sometimes I’m not sure how to navigate conflicting cultural expectations about everything from timeliness to family relationships to prayer.”
Vineyard Christian Church of Evanston (Illinois): “Our church has significant diversity — there is no ethnic majority and we have people coming from 55 countries. No matter your age, stage of life or background, we expect you’ll find something in common with our church family.”
Heritage Academy (Augusta, Georgia): “Heritage Academy is an independent school offering a quality Christ-centered education to children of diverse economic, racial and ethnic backgrounds, empowering them to become a positive influence for Christ in this community and around the world.” (Also, don’t you wish your first day of school looked like this?)
Notice how these communities include being multi-ethnic when they speak about who they are and who they want to be. Using clear language like that sets a tone of welcome and intentionality, which can make a real difference, not just in the words we use, but in the lived relationships that reflect those aspirations.
Work to foster—and learn from—multi-ethnic leadership.
As one person, you can’t create a community. As a white person, you certainly can’t create a multi-ethnic community all by yourself! By nature, multi-ethnic Christian community only comes into being when people of diverse backgrounds are moved by the Spirit to collaborate with one another, to fellowship with one another, and to love one another. That collaboration, love, and fellowship has to make it to the highest levels of leadership; it’s not really possible to navigate the choppy waters of cross-cultural interactions in a healthy way without leadership that reflects the distinct groups that are coming together.
Michael O. Emmerson, a leading scholar of multi-ethnic religious communities summarizes the insights of several Christian leaders of color: “there can’t be white-led multiracial churches. And that doesn’t mean there aren’t white leaders. . . . [But] there’s a leadership team [that] has to be diverse. And it has to be diverse not just in appearance but in actual perspectives.” The assumption that a white leader or a white leadership team can set the agenda and then involve people of color is part of the problem, not the solution.
At the same time, I can appreciate the circumstance of an all-white team finding themselves in a diverse community and acutely feeling the problem of their homogeneity. I’ve been there! If that’s where your team is at, you can start diversifying your leadership “inputs” even before you seek leaders of color who might serve shoulder to shoulder with you. Part of the humility of stepping into leadership in a multi-ethnic setting is recognizing that you need to let diverse voices speak into your life, and into your community. If your “sending church” or the leaders over you are white, you may need to branch out in some way in order to seek mentors of a different background.
Such relationships can take time to forge, but you can take a step right now by pursuing the insight of leaders of color in your reading, watching, and listening. (Not sure where to start? A leader of no less impact than John M. Perkins leads a Zoom Bible Study every Tuesday morning.) You mentioned different perspectives on family relationships and prayer; why not seek out how teachers of various backgrounds address these subjects? These mothers and fathers in the faith can help you see spiritual life with fresh eyes, and equip you to minister to others more effectively.
Broker uncomfortable compromises.
We never need to compromise our integrity or our faith in order to get things done in ministry. But we will need to compromise our cultural comfort if we want to form a healthy multi-ethnic community. Once you’ve counted the cost in your own heart, it’s your job to challenge others to do the same. In Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church, pastor Mark DeYmaz writes, “a healthy multi-ethnic church is a place in which people are comfortable being uncomfortable” (p. 110).
Everyone has to be willing to give something up for the sake of unity, whether that’s a preferred worship style, a certain pattern of prayer, or the speed of conversation they’re used to. Lord willing, when people from the dominant culture give up some measure of comfort, it means others can feel a little more at home. At the same time, those from the dominant culture are likely the least experienced in giving way to others’ cultural preferences, so they may be the most resistant. You may need to shepherd them out of their comfort zones more assertively than others!
Let’s take an example. You mentioned timeliness in your question. Say that some members of the community want meetings to start at a set time with an agenda for the sake of efficiency, while others’ sense of time prioritizes relational connections, even if it takes longer to get down to business. You and your fellow leaders will need to broker a compromise about expectations for timeliness for different kinds of meetings. If someone is concerned about others always being “late,” you may need to challenge them to realize that there is no one right perception of time.
Depend on grace!
There is no failure-free way to do the messy work of building a multi-ethnic community. You will fail. When you do, seek forgiveness from those you’ve wronged, and trust in God’s grace! This is a lifelong endeavor that we never truly master, even as we learn how to love one another better and more beautifully over time. God’s purposes will bring about the beautiful communities that he longs to inhabit and animate with his Spirit. It’s not your competence that matters in the end; it’s his.