How Can I Help Lead a Multi-Ethnic Community?


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.”


–Daniel
Chicago, IL

 

Answer

Leading any kind of Christian community is dicey; serving people well while managing our own shortcomings takes all the grace we can get. Layer on top of that the challenges of cross-cultural relationships, and the task can feel overwhelming. Add to that the legacy and present-day realities of racial injustice in the United States, and it can be enough to make you despair of fruitful leadership altogether.
Which may not be such a bad thing. Thinking, “this is beyond me” is a much healthier attitude than thinking, “I’ve got this” when it comes to multi-ethnic Christian community. I’m so grateful that, as a white Christian, you’re asking, “How can I lead with humility?” In the history of racial injustice, white people have often rushed to take positions of leadership over people of color, assuming that it’s appropriate or even ideal for white people to be in charge. That assumption about leadership itself has proved dehumanizing and destructive, excluding brothers and sisters from places of influence in the church time and again.
It’s also possible for that assumption to operate in a more hidden way, when white Christians attempt to foster multi-ethnic communities, but without giving up their hold on power and decision-making. There can be false motives for seeking to diversify, and diversity itself does not guarantee much. The plantations of enslavers were, after all, “diverse communities.” Even in a well-meaning Christian effort, it’s possible to treat our brothers and sisters of color as means to an end. You might, without realizing it, be trying to “have your cake and eat it, too”: getting the perceived benefits of multi-ethnicity without sacrificing the cultural comfort of white norms. A measure of hesitance about being in a leadership position as a white Christian in an ethnically diverse community is appropriate.
Given the stark history of exclusion and the dangers of false motives, should those of us who are white even consider stepping into multi-ethnic leadership? Turning the tables is a biblical pattern of redemption; wouldn’t it make more sense for God to form multi-ethnic communities led by Christians of color, bringing unity by empowering those who have been excluded? And indeed, God is doing just that all around the country!
When we have in mind that biblical pattern of God turning the tables, it seems like those of us who are white might be disqualified for leadership in multi-ethnic communities. But God is also a God of grace. Inasmuch as there is a place for white Christians at the table of multi-ethnic fellowship, and even in positions of influence, it’s because God and his people have graciously extended an invitation for us to be there. We’re certainly not qualified because we are white; we’re qualified, like any minister, because we’re called, in spite of our own sin and inadequacies, and in spite of the way we share in the legacies of injustice.
With that in mind, there are specific things we can do to help foster healthy community in a diverse, cross-cultural setting.

Become aware of your own culture.

Culture and race are distinct, but they are often interconnected. If you are white, you may have more specific cultures than just “being white” that form a part of your story—the specific ethnicities of your ancestors, especially if their traditions were passed on in your family, or the culture of the neighborhood where you were raised. (Shout out to third culture kids the world over!) At the same time, it’s important to recognize that white culture is a thing. It’s easy for us to think that the cultural patterns we’re used to are just “normal life” in the U.S., when actually they’re distinctively white. Pastor Daniel Hill shares a helpful story of the first time he realized he had a culture. Spending some time coming to understand your own experience of white culture as a white person is essential to relating well cross-culturally.

One simple example: Like most white Americans, I value direct communication. I’m tempted to think that “saying what you mean and meaning what you say” is the right thing, end of story. But many of my Latina sisters and Latino brothers in Christ may be used to a more indirect approach to getting their point across. For me, it takes mental work in a conversation to read between the lines and perceive what someone may be saying indirectly. That’s work I should be willing to do. After all, Jesus was a pretty indirect communicator sometimes!
Become a student of others’ cultures.
We don’t know what we don’t know. There’s no way for you to anticipate everything that will have special cultural importance to someone else. The best way to learn is often to ask! A word of caution here: We shouldn’t exoticize other people’s cultures, as though anything different from our norms is justification for a kind of scrutinizing curiosity. Instead, we should normalize cultural differences by asking open-ended questions that help us learn from our brothers and sisters. Shoot for questions like, “What were mealtimes like in your family growing up?”; not “Can I touch your hair?”

Also keep in mind that opening up to a white leader may be emotionally fraught for a brother or sister of color. Don’t take it personally if someone shies away, and count it a privilege to gain someone’s confidence. If someone is courageous enough to keep sharing their experiences over time, it could be helpful to ask them about their experience of your specific community: “What is being here like for you? What’s challenging?” You’ll learn a lot.
Count the cost.
As you learn more about your own and others’ cultures, it may gradually come home to you just how hard multi-ethnic life and ministry can be. To “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21 NIV), we’ll have to give up what feels natural or normal. (More on what that practically looks like below.) Count the cost. Are you willing to give up cultural ease and a measure of control? Are you willing for things to feel awkward instead of natural sometimes, or even most of the time? Are you willing to open up to the stories of pain that your privilege has protected you from, and the real needs that go with them? Are you willing to work harder for less numerically impressive “results” than you might see in a homogenous context? If not, your heart may not be in the right place for this kind of ministry. Every leader who feels called to a diverse context needs to get on their knees and ask for the power to lay down their life in love for others.
Champion a multi-ethnic vision.
Although we need to soberly watch our hearts for false motives, it is possible to give a joyful and emphatic “yes” to multi-ethnic community with pure motives and for all the right biblical reasons! One of the features that distinguishes multi-ethnic communities is that they clearly communicate their commitment to being multi-ethnic. Consider these selections from the mission or vision statements of the following ministries:
  • InterVarsity Trojan Christian Fellowship at USC (California): “We strive not only for diversity and inclusion, but also God’s shalom among every race and ethnicity.”
  • 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 fosterand learn fromdiverse 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.

 

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “How Can I Help Lead a Multi-Ethnic Community?”

  1. I would encourage more direct Biblical references in your reply, Chris!

    My simple answer to the OP would be: “As a servant, with love, like Christ.” You also lead by example.

    The two greatest commandments are “to love God… and love our neighbor.” (Mark 12:30-31). I personally always try to define my behavior by asking if I’m doing those two things in every situation.

    Is the OP asking because he is not used to a diverse culture? If so, the simple answer would be to learn about the culture you are in. If someone new from where you are unfamiliar with comes in, our job as Christians is to love them. Greet them, extend personal hosplitality (1 Peter 4:8-9) (and Leviticus 19:33-34 “‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. 34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”)

    From an article I enjoyed: “Ordinary Christianity consists of loving one another (John 13:34-35); certainly, an ordinary pastor does the same. We pray for the sheep often, counsel them when they are straying, encourage them when they are weak, visit them when they are sick, cry with them when they are hurting, and rejoice with them when they are happy. We joyfully, willingly, and sacrificially serve the flock in view of their holiness. This is what it means to model the love of Christ (Mark 10:45; Heb. 12:1-2; 1 John 3:16). After all, Jesus loved us when we were unlovely; therefore, we joyfully respond by loving others.” (https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/ordinary-christian-pastor/)

    While the OP may be a “white man” teaching the Word, the tenants he believes and holds dear are true, regardless of creed or color. The Gospel was given and commanded to be spread to every nation. The true focus should be on Christ and Him crucified. It is important to lead with a servants heart and one of thankfulness. (Colossians 3:15-17)

    With the current cultural climate, forgiveness is often overlooked in exchange for a spirit of vengeance. I would encourage you to help your congregation to remember that we are to not only love our neighbor but also our enemies (Matt 5:43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[a] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”)
    We are to forgive. (Colossians 3:13 “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”)
    – James 5:16 “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”
    – Ephesians 4:31-32 “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. ”
    – Matthew 6:14-15 “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. ”
    – Matthew 18:21-22 “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. ”

    I love the story of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10:25-37). The example set in the passage is truly inspiring. He truly loved his neighbor.

    Perhaps these might help too:

    We are not to show favoritism, preferring one brother over another, for any reason. I try to apply this to everyone, to those who “look like me” or those who dont… to those who are rich or poor, to those who treat me well or not.
    – James 2:1 My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism.

    Remember that every single person is an individual… be they from a “white culture” or any other. No one is completely summarized by their external identity. Each person, even if they share common customs or appearance, has distinct nuances as to how they communicate, what their personalities are, their education, their background… Every single person has an incredible multitude of things that give them identity. Community is built on the common ground of our love for Christ, our desire to read His word, and our love for one another.
    “Rich and poor have this in common: The Lord is the Maker of them all.”
    – Proverbs 22:2

    From another article: ” The question to consider is whether our churches are places where people sense Christ is celebrated — not culture, class, or ethnicity, but Christ. It is difficult to not celebrate culture, class, and ethnicity. Yet, this is what we are called to do. This is what we are called to strive after. The fact that our churches are not integrated is not as troublesome for me as is the fact that culture and ethnicity often trump the gospel, even in what we might believe to be the best of churches.” (https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/being-black-and-reformed-an-interview-with-anthony-carter/).
    The main point being that culture and ethnicity do not trump the Gospel. If they do, it is a club, not a church.

    I hope that is helpful!

    1. Hi Esther!
      Thanks for adding all these specific Scriptural references to the conversation! I especially appreciate the passages that speak to forgiveness. As I’ve thought about dynamics of culture in the U.S., I think that naming specific injustices, both past and present, is part of the process of practicing Christian forgiveness. We don’t overlook a sin when we forgive it, we name it and respond with love in light of God’s forgiveness for us in Christ. That’s why in my response I’ve encouraged learning about one’s own white culture as well as others’—including the ways that white culture has been bound up with injustice. Anything that distracts from the Gospel or following Jesus by loving God and loving others is out of place—but learning to name injustices specifically isn’t a distraction; it’s a fruit of the Gospel and an embodiment of God’s redeeming love!

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