Are We Multicultural Because of Our Community, or Because of Heaven?

This following is borne out of a conversation among some of our staff about the importance of multiculturalism in worship. The question: do we incorporate various cultural and ethnic elements because of our surrounding community, or because of the final vision of “every tribe, tongue, and nation” worshipping around God’s throne in Revelation 5?

When I mentioned multiculturalism and worship in a sermon a few weeks ago, I mentioned that the church in our age is only a sign, not the fulfillment of Revelation 5. So we give a dim shadow, where we can, of what is to come. Even our best multicultural effort here is still all in English, which is not really multicultural, because heart language is the most basic element of a culture.

The following is borne out of a conversation among some of our staff about the importance of multiculturalism in worship. The question: do we incorporate various cultural and ethnic elements because of the makeup of our surrounding community, or do we do it because we are trying to replicate the final vision of “every tribe, tongue, and nation” worshipping around God’s throne in Revelation 5?

When I mentioned multiculturalism and worship in a sermon a few weeks ago, I mentioned that the church in our age is only a sign, not the fulfillment of Revelation 5. That means, at our best, we can only give a dim shadow of what is to come. Our best efforts here are severely limited. For one, even our best multicultural efforts here are still all in English, which is not really multicultural, because heart language is the most basic element of a culture.

Furthermore, geography makes certain kinds of multiculturalism impractical. To judge a church in Northern Ireland for not being multicultural when their entire community for miles around is made up of only one race is unfair. Using Revelation 5 as the goal for a church overlooks the distinction between the church as “sign” of the coming age and “fulfillment” of that age. Only in heaven will we experience the fulfillment of multiculturalism. Here, we give a glimpse of it whenever we can. But the best we can do is give a glimpse.

Think about it: Can any church say it truly “looks like heaven?” Not many churches in America pursue elements of Arabic and Eskimo music, even though those groups will be in heaven with us.

In our community, we have large African-American, white, Asian and Hispanic populations. Thus, we believe our church (and church leadership) should reflect that. We believe God is more glorified through a multiplicity of cultures in worship, and we believe that picture gives a glimpse to our community of the unity found only in Christ  (Revelation 5:9; Eph 3:10-11). But that we don’t have an Middle Eastern pastor on staff (yet) should not dismay us, even though there will be lots of Middle Easterners around the throne in heaven. They’re just not as heavily represented in our community yet.

Furthermore, our pursuit of multiculturalism has to be balanced by another biblical command: the command to reach the lost in the majority culture around us and the need to contextualize the gospel into their culture to do so. Paul indicated that lost Greeks would be reached by his becoming “like a Greek” to them (1 Cor 9:19-21). He did not expect lost Greeks to be won to Christ by seeing the gospel in its multicultural dimensions (though that may help); he expected Greeks to be reached as he put the gospel into Greek clothes, Greek expressions, and Greek styles. In other words, he doesn’t expect the lost Greeks to become multicultural before they are saved; he will adapt himself as closely as he can to the culture of the Greeks in order to reach those Greeks. After all, embracing other cultures is a sign of maturity–and how can we expect that of people before they are saved? Thus, we have to balance our pursuit of multiculturalism with the demand to clothe the gospel in the culture of those God has positioned us to reach.

Furthermore, God makes each person, and each congregation, particularly suited to reach certain kinds of people (or specifically calls them to certain groups), and they need to adapt their presentations of the gospel to those people. There’s nothing wrong with that–it’s at the heart of what Paul says in 1 Cor 9. But each church should be seeking to teach those people to love, fellowship, and submit to believers from other cultures as they reach them.

I think there’s a real potential to go off course here. I’ve observed a number of ministries make a good thing–multiculturalism, the only important thing. But the core of the Great Commission is making disciples of lost people; it’s the one thing Jesus enumerated when he gave that Commission. So, as we set up our ministries, we have to balance the pursuit of multiculturalism with the need to keep contextualizing the gospel to make disciples of the majority culture around us. But as believers in the majority culture are reached, we need to lead them to appreciate and embrace multicultural expressions of worship, as modeled by Paul and Luke in Acts 13:1-4 and Eph 2-3. That’s part of discipling them.

It’s not wrong for our ministry styles and leadership to reflect many of the forms of the majority culture around us–in some ways, it’s being faithful to 1 Cor 9. But we believe that believers in the majority culture should be seeking to adapt themselves to believers of other ethnicities–that they should go first and farther in their adaptation. Why must they go first? That’s just the way of the gospel—those in a position of “strength” must consider others (and other races) to be more important than themselves (Phil 2:1–5). But, that majority culture has to remember that, as they seek to adapt to other cultures, they still have a lot of lost people within their own culture to reach, which means continuing to express the gospel in ways that the majority culture can understand and are culturally comfortable with. Or, to put it Paul’s language, If a Greek is charged to reach other Greeks, he has to keep expressing the gospel in Greek ways.

We have to reach our own lost community as fast as possible. But the most culturally diverse place in the whole community ought to be the church, so we out to push the majority culture to embrace and love the cultural diversity of God’s kingdom.

Well, I’m simply thinking out loud here and probably being really repetitive. At the Summit, we still have a long way to go, but we are are actively pursuing this as God enables us. I’m grateful for all the patience church members are giving us as we pursue these biblical objectives, and I welcome the continual dialogue as we grow together.

So for now, we have to take many of our cues from the cultures that are in our midstand in proportion to how much they are represented. We also have to balance our pursuit of the demonstration of this sign with the fact that multiculturalism is not our only goal: making disciples is, and that requires some elements of homogeneity. To the Greek, Paul says, he became as a Greek, not that he insisted the Greeks learn to appreciate Arabs before they were saved. It’s unfair to expect people to act mature in Christ before they are mature, and embracing other cultures is a sign of maturity.

I have seen a lot of churches go badly off course here. They replace the one most important thing—disciple-making—with a good thing, multiculturalism. And when a good thing becomes ultimate, it becomes an idol. We can’t let that happen. Our context is still, at present, largely white, and it’s okay if a lot our music and leadership still reflects that. And that we don’t have an Arab pastor on staff (yet) should not dismay us. That’s not to say we still don’t have a long way to go, or that we stop seeking these things. I just want us to be clear on our expectations.

I certainly don’t want this to end the discussion. Nor do I think that I see this issue with perfect clarity. This is my perspective, and I welcome others to enrich our thought as we continue to grow in diversity.

 

*Not his actual name. Sadly, we have no one named “Frank” on our staff . . . yet.

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