Church Diversity – is it Possible/Desirable?

When I first came to LifeSpring, there were about seven people, including me. That was several months ago. We now average about twenty people on a given Sunday. That’s great! But I want to reflect for a moment on something that has always been my desire in ministry, even prior to my arrival here.

I have always wanted to realize a vision of a multi-ethnic congregation. Perhaps it is just my upbringing, having lived in so many different continents/different countries growing up. I really got to experience people and cultures from so many places and I think (not to brag about it) that it gave me a much broader perspective than the usual.

Now that I am here at LifeSpring, I’ve been thinking about that again because we are predominantly a 2nd generation Korean church. Not only that, but we are located in the heart of the Korean community in Orange County: Garden Grove. And we’re surrounded by some huge Korean mega-churches too!

I don’t disparage that. I think there is a place in America for ethnic, mono-cultural congregations, especially of the immigrant variety. But I also see that the children of immigrants tend to leave their parent’s churches when they come of age. They become acclimated to the diversity of cultures around them and don’t quite relate anymore to the ethnic church of origin. Some have labeled this the “Silent Exodus.” And it is a phenomenon that needs further study because the answers that have been proposed up to now seem rather superficial to me. Hence, many aging Korean congregations in America appear to be dwindling in numbers. I wonder if it is the same with other ethnic oriented churches?

2nd generation ministries among Koreans therefore suffer greatly in mono-cultural environments. We have to acknowledge this. But in order for us to effectively reach this lost generation, I think we need to consider the possibility of a multi-cultural missional mindset. I don’t pretend this will be easy. I remember a friend telling me when I was a student at Fuller that he had visited several supposedly multi-cultural churches and thought the sense of community within them was very superficial. Do we sacrifice community when the vision is a multi-cultural church? But, to be honest, my friend visited several of the larger mega-churches and these, it seems to me, are inherently superficial when it comes to community, and not because of ethnic composition.

So, my question is, can a smaller congregation be multi-cultural? And maintain a deep sense of community? Are there ways to be profoundly relational outside one’s own ethnicity? That is actually the strength of the mono-cultural church. People relate well with others of the same culture. I wonder if there are ways to translate that into a diverse Christianity?

I don’t have hardly any answers, but I’m willing to bet that the future of a great many American churches—not just Asian churches, but even White churches (those whose numbers are dwindling)—will be closely tied in to the changing neighborhoods that surround them. Just in my neck of the woods (Orange County) there has been a tremendous population shift over the past few decades. Hispanics and Southeast Asians now dominate neighborhoods such as Santa Ana (where I live), Fountain Valley, Westminster, etc…

I think the time is right for a new church paradigm, a new Antioch as it were, which will require tremendously creative and innovative leadership in existing churches. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We operate within the various contexts that our churches were originated in. In my mind, Dave Gibbons of Newsong is pioneering the way forward with his 3rd Culture perspective. Check out his book, “The Monkey and the Fish” for a good description of what he means by 3rd Culture.

Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch pastor/theologian/politician/philosopher once commented on the racist policies of the Afrikaners who were Dutch Christian Reformed immigrants to South Africa. He abhorred the racism as ‘un-Christian’ but when asked what would be the solution, he didn’t have hardly any answers except perhaps inter-racial marriage between blacks and whites. Dare I say he may be on to something? Is that what will finally, once and for all, destroy the abhorrent racism that pervades mono-cultures, whether consciously or unconsciously?

I dunno! All I know is that the world around me is changing. Globalization and technology have made the world a much smaller place. Just in a ten mile radius from where I live I have a plethora of ethnic choices for food. The church is going to have to reckon with these massive shifts.

But all of that is ‘universal’ talk.

What about LifeSpring? How does that play out for a small, local congregation such as ours, composed mostly of 2nd generation Koreans? What does that mean personally for me as their pastor? What sort of vision am I to proclaim in the face of all these massive societal changes? What exactly does Dave Gibbon’s “liquid leadership” mean for me as leader?

My purpose in this blog isn’t to provide answers.

I am on the inside. I don’t have a bird’s eye view. I can’t pontificate. But what I can do is find a biblical perspective and give assurance to my local congregation that God is sovereignly in control of history, and that his people will suffer tremendously while in this world, but that He will work out all things according to his sovereign will.

And for our benefit.

I turn to Ezekiel who experienced massive societal changes in the exile of his people. He sat by the river Kebar in Babylon astounded, stupefied, confounded by the changes all around him.

“Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you … Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me … The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn … You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious…” (Ez 2:1-8)

The book of Ezekiel is one of the most confoundingly odd books you will ever read. Ezekiel was called to perform several undignified sign acts (such as running through the streets naked, or cooking his food over human feces!). Creative, undignified, humiliated, bizarre, innovative, transformational. In short, I think Ezekiel personified “liquid leadership.” And he stood as the transitional prophetic bridge from Exile to Return, a period of massive societal change that still resonates deeply within Judaism today.

I think pastors today, working at the fringe of massive, global changes, will have to let go of any semblance of dignity. It might just be a good thing that so much of the world has adopted a negative, stereotypical view of us. In this place where we don’t have all the answers, we can operate with humility and creativity, and freed from the shackles of propriety that bound previous generations of ministers. In this place, we can dare to envision a new community, a community that is not characterized by race but by faith.

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4 comments

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