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 Eight
“My community tends to have people of the same ethnicity around me, and I don’t see that as a problem; however, I do recognize that it can enrich my life to be surrounded by people who are different from me. What are some ways that I can connect with a diverse group of people, even though I mostly interact with people who are similar to me?”
Highland Park, MI
I once posed this exact question to a panel of Christian leaders. One of them was my friend Josh Fort, and I’ll never forget his witty, wise response:
- Change your network.
- Change your network.
In other words, you can change your network by finding ways to branch out from your current community, so that you personally have a more diverse set of connections than you could find just in one place. And you can change your network (i.e. your home community) by welcoming into your community those who wouldn’t otherwise feel at home there. Your question seems to mostly be about branching out, so we’ll focus there in this post.
The Mestizo Church
You mentioned that your community is mostly made up of people from your same ethnic background. Although that’s true for many people, followers of Jesus shouldn’t get used to it; we’re ultimately heading for a community with “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9 NIV). That’s our future in Jesus.
But it’s not just our future; it’s also our present. The Nicene Creed affirms Christian faith in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” a community of believers united in Christ across time and space, as beautifully shown in this video of Christians around the globe saying the creed (including my personal friends Gabriel, Evans, Juliane, and Sebastian!). Paul encourages us to imagine this community like a human body: “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12 NIV). Even if our local Christian community is homogeneous, our global Christian community is profoundly diverse. That’s not just a fun fact; it’s vital to the way we think about our life in Christ. We need our brothers and sisters: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’” (1 Corinthians 12:21 NIV). My pastor-friend Eduardo calls us the mestizo church. When we imagine the body of Christ as a human body, we can picture someone with mixed heritage. All the threads of that heritage contribute to the work of God’s people in the world. The chance to build relationships across our normal boundary lines is the chance to love and be loved by our own spiritual family.
Change Your Network: Branching Out
You mentioned that connecting with people who are different than you can enrich your life. So true! At the same time, I would challenge you to not think about building cross-cultural or cross-ethnic relationships primarily as a personal enrichment project. Bearing in mind God’s vision for Christ’s multi-ethnic body, when we build relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ who are unlike us, we’re coming into contact with spiritual resources we need, not just a nice addition to our current experience. As we engage new friendships or new communities with humility and openness, we’ll learn lessons we could not learn from those who share our same background. We’ll receive healing in the Spirit that we otherwise might not have. We’ll see Scripture with fresh eyes. We’ll be encouraged in our hearts as we’re “knit together in love” in ways we haven’t been before (Ephesians 2:2 ESV).
So how do we build such relationships? I’m no expert, as the lion’s share of my own network is still taken up by people with a similar background to mine (white, Christian, and middle class). But in my attempts to diversify my own network in a healthy way, I’ve found four helpful steps and one nasty pitfall.
The Pitfall: Treating People as a Means to an End
Let’s start with the pitfall: Treating people as a means to an end. I’m embarrassed to even think about it, but I remember having a conversation with a college classmate who was Black during my senior year. I was confident that I was heading into planting a multi-ethnic church right after college, and told her something to the effect of, “I’d like to get to know you because I think you could help with this multi-ethnic church plant project I hope to do!” Not “I’d like to get to know you because you’re cool” or even, “I’d like to get to know you because you’re Black” (which would still be awkward), but “I’d like to get to know you because you’d be useful to my project.” This mercenary attitude betrayed an immaturity that showed I was definitely not ready to try and lead a multi-ethnic church plant. Especially as a white leader, engaging in a cross-cultural relationship in this way, where the other person’s perceived value is determined by their relevance to my endeavor, smacks of colonialism and the evils of white supremacy. Thankfully, my classmate, who had plenty of experience dealing with well-intentioned but uninformed white Christians on our campus, called me out on my approach directly and graciously. Let my pain be your lesson! Befriend people because they matter for their own sake.
Step 1: Diversify Your Inputs
It could be that you’re not tempted to treat people who are different from you as a means to an end . . . because you have a genuinely hard time even finding people who are different from you! Especially this past year with social distancing, it’s possible you’ve barely laid eyes on another human being outside your closest circle. If for that or any other reason you’re not sure how to get started building cross-cultural relationships, you can start by diversifying your inputs. Do you listen to podcasts or sermons? If so, do most of the podcasters and preachers look and sound like you? Give a listen to a church with a diverse preaching team or a family of podcasts with thinkers from all different backgrounds. Order a book from a writer who’s outside your normal demographic. Live stream a different church service than normal. If you’re a contemplative Christian music person, try some hip hop, and vice versa.
Step 2: Pursue Friendships Intentionally
As the light dawns at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, it’s also worth thinking about more embodied ways to connect. As you have opportunity, make time to get to know someone who’s different. Is there a family in your church community who stick out from the demographic norm? Or, on the edges of your social network, is there a neighbor, coworker, or that person who’s always on the same bus as you? See if they’d be up for grabbing coffee or a meal. Get to know them for their own sake. See what they’re like. As you build trust, you can also ask them about their cultural experiences, and what it’s like for them to be where they’re at—whether they’re an Asian student at a mostly white school, a Black kid in a mostly Latino neighborhood, or even a white suburbanite trying to figure out diverse city life. When you don’t come with an agenda other than to listen and befriend, it’s remarkable how willing people are to open up. Of course, if someone doesn’t want to open up, don’t push it. As in all friendships, tread gently and patiently.
Step 3: Become A Guest in Someone Else’s Community
I was intrigued by the way you phrased part of your question: “it can enrich my life to be surrounded by people who are different from me.” That turn of phrase betrays a wise intuition: The context and location of relationships matters. It’s one thing to meet up with a friend in a “third space” like a coffee shop; it’s another to visit their home turf and be immersed in a cultural environment with which you have no experience. Although stepping into a space where you’ll definitely stick out as a visitor may feel daunting, it’s also a more dynamic and multifaceted way to engage and learn from brothers and sisters of another culture. It puts you in a posture of humility: When you’re a guest, you defer to the customs and directions of your hosts. You don’t get to call the shots. If you’re visiting a church, you also get to experience worship in a different tradition than your own, which can give you a new window into the beauty of God.
Although we should be intentional about these things, for me, one of the most rewarding experiences of becoming a guest in another community happened without me planning it at all. My wife and I were going for a walk in our neighborhood the first year we were married, and we happened upon a “praise in the park” event being hosted by a local African American church. We listened to some of the music and prayers, met Jackye, the church secretary, and put our information down in their guest book. Jackye reached out later, and I decided to visit the church. I ended up attending Bible studies and men’s group events there on and off for about five years, and I’m still in touch with several friends from that time. Sometimes all it takes is showing up!
Step 4: Find Gatekeepers
This step is a combination of the first two. Even as you build friendships with others and visit their communities, the friends you make are going to be far more connected to other people in those communities than you are. So, you can ask the people you do know, “Is there someone else here that you think it would be good for me to connect with?” You can ask this question in a general way as you build more friendships. It’s also a healthy way to bring other people into any projects you might be working on.
Say, for example, you’re thinking about organizing a community event, and you want the leadership of the event to reflect the community it’s trying to serve. Not a bad goal. But how do you gather a diverse group of leaders? This is almost impossible to do well if you don’t have any pre-existing relationships with people who reflect the diversity of your community. But if you have a genuine relationship with certain gatekeepers, you can ask them to help you connect with others you don’t know who might be genuinely interested in the endeavor! This approach also gives you an opportunity to invite the influence of a diverse group of friends and leaders into the work. Rather than trying to come up with the plan all by yourself (or only with input from from your own community), you can get feedback and insights and shape what you all end up doing together in light of the collective wisdom God has given his diverse people.
Finally, a word of caution. Don’t rush into things with an idealized attitude of what cross-cultural relationships are like; instead, buckle up for a bumpy ride. There will be difficult dynamics. People will say things to you that they shouldn’t, and you’ll probably end up with your foot in your mouth once or twice, too. Different communities have different levels of emotional and spiritual health, and not every community will be a place where you can keep growing. But that doesn’t mean that the struggle for cross-cultural relationships isn’t worth it; it just means it’s hard. The four-step recipe I’ve recommended here certainly isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a way to get started. And once you’ve gotten started, God will give you the grace to keep going as he leads you into everything he wants you to glean from and give to these relationships. As Peter encourages us, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8 NIV). No matter how messy it gets, and how much sin needs to be recognized, repented of, and forgiven, the love that God gives us for each other is enough.
Photo by Jim Balye on Unsplash