I was a ghetto Asian-American juvenile delinquent, fresh in the faith, when I first walked into a southern California mega-church with a group of other knuckleheads wearing saggy Dickies and oversized t-shirts. This church was located in the heart of one of the most ethnically diverse cities in America and we were excited about connecting with other believers for the first time. Our mentors led us into the huge gymnasium amidst the sound of contemporary worship. We sat in the back like all newbies do but still drew the attention of five thousand eyeballs. I can’t describe to you how uncomfortable and out-of-place we felt among the sea of white faces. There were a few specks of brown and yellow in the crowd but the only logical conclusion was that church was made for middle-class white people…and we were aliens from outer space.
Every missional community (whether mega-church or house church) will say they value ethnic diversity. For some of us we do an excellent job of reflecting all the colors of the people rainbow. But being ethnically diverse versus being culturally diverse are two very different things. We can be ethnically diverse but still be very mono-cultural in how we express our faith communities.
We pride ourselves in being relevant, contextualized, and culturally aware. We write in our vision and mission statements that we value reproduction and diversity for the sake of “every tribe, tongue and language” (Rev. 7:9). Yet at the end of the day our apple trees has little resemblance to the orange trees we claim to plant.
I’m going to say this with as much truth, grace and humility as I can – many of our missional communities are made up of white, middle-class, young people who come from other churches. All of our missional books, trainings and conferences are led by and catered towards post-modern white evangelicals. The Missional Movement has not taken off among Asians, Blacks, Latinos and other ethnicities in the States. It has not taken root among Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus in America. I’m sure a demographical survey of the places we are living and the people we are reaching would quickly show how culturally uniform we are. Those who are really unchurched and neglected are still unchurched and neglected.
Our first inherent weakness is that we focus way too much on creating a familiar environment for a familiar culture for a familiar people who speak a familiar language. So much so that we have no idea how to cross into different cultures and learn different worldviews. We have trained ourselves to become the very opposite of a missionary (“sent one”) because we don’t know how to cross cultural barriers to bring the Gospel to people who are different from us.
Our second flaw is that we mistakenly believe that living missionally means we must be culturally relevant. We fear that if we are not relevant then we cannot attract people into our faith. Jesus never asks us to be culturally relevant or to create consumer-based religious experiences. In fact, Jesus asks us to do the exact opposite. He commands us to die to our cultural identities and take on His. You know…the part that crosses all racial, social, economic and cultural barriers to love others, proclaim the Gospel and bring Him ultimate fame?
It is time for us to ask the hard questions. It is time for us to reevaluate our effectiveness in reaching the lost nations in our cities. It is time for us to stop thinking American culture and start thinking Kingdom culture. It is time for us to put the color back into missional living. Here are a few simple steps to begin the journey of both ethnic and cultural diversity in our ministry and churches:
- Go eat something different. Food is at the heart of every culture. Not everyone can relate to coffee, donuts and organic beer. Try eating at ethnic restaurants in your city. Or better yet, make your own ethnic food and invite lost people to partake in your home.
- Don’t invite new people to church. Jesus left his home in heaven and laid aside His glory to live among…people like you and me. Find ways to enter into people’s homes especially if they are from a different culture. Try to learn their stories and enter their culture before you invite them into yours.
- Think like a lost person. If you are white and long to see more people reached for Christ of different cultures then put yourself in their shoes. How would you feel entering a Mosque or Buddhist temple? How can you express your faith in simple and reproducible ways and not just do church the way American church has always been done?
- Be aware of the challenge ahead. It is incredibly hard to love people who are different from us. Adopt a humble and learning spirit…but also be bad-ass in your commitment of pursuing the glory of God among every language, nation and tribe.