Cultural Diversity in Leading Church Revitalization
This paper will demonstrate the crucial importance to church revitalization of cultural diversity—race, ethnicity, and age—that reflects that of its neighborhood. By almost any metric, church decline in the United States is at epidemic levels. In the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) alone, the denomination’s North American Mission Board projects that by the end of 2019, over 900 churches will have closed their doors during the year (Clifton, 2019). Sadly, this is a trend that has continued for several years and accounts only for the closures in one denomination (albeit the largest Protestant group). Reliable numbers are hard to come by, if not non-existent (and Clifton admits that the SBC’s numbers are probably not as dependable as he would like). However, if one projects this trend across all of evangelicalism, an assumption Clifton sees as valid—the number of evangelical churches closing their doors each year is assuredly staggering.
Among one of the most prominent conditions existing in churches that closed is that the congregation no longer reflects the cultural makeup of the surrounding neighborhood (Rainer, 2014). Generationally, socioeconomically, and ethnically, what were once neighborhood churches are quickly losing all connection with the surrounding community. Correspondingly, neighborhood churches that have successfully turned the corner in revitalization have all managed to reflect the cultural-ethnic makeup of their respective communities.
This paper will briefly examine a biblical theology of race, particularly as given by Hays (2003) and seek to apply theology to practice in the church. This student will argue that the Bible does indeed see the church as a multicultural assembly. Further, the author will suggest a few practical ways church revitalizing pastors can lead their congregations to a focus on cultural diversity that at least reflects the surrounding neighborhood. While there is a plethora of material on church revitalization (with church revitalization works all decrying the local church’s failure to “look like the community”), church leadership development and multiethnic, multicultural ministry, precious little literature exists that addresses each of these issues in concert. This paper seeks to synthesize the available research into a coherent argument for multicultural leadership development in the revitalization of churches.
A Brief Biblical-Racial Theology of the Body of Christ
While authors have devoted entire books to race and ethnicity in the Bible, this student will quickly summarize a biblical theology of race. From cover to cover, Old Testament and New, the Bible is a book that speaks of God’s desire to redeem all of humankind, regardless of race or ethnicity. Perhaps the most excellent biblical picture of the diversity of the church itself is in the eschaton.
In the Apocalypse, the revelator describes the song of the four living creatures and the 24 elders, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). The nation-state as it exists today was entirely unknown in biblical times. When the New Testament speaks of a nation, it uses the Greek word εθνος (ethnos), from which come the English “ethnic” and “ethnicity.”
Again, in Revelation 7:9-10 (ESV), John writes: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”
This picture of the diversity of believers uses a four-fold formula (nations, tribes, people, and languages) seen elsewhere in Scripture, particularly Daniel 7:14 (ESV), which foretells the Son of Man, “And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” The saved of all humanity, throughout the ages, and across all earthly boundaries that divide them, will worship the Lord together in eternity. This great gathered worship is much less about territories and borders than it is about the whole of humanity.
Hays (2016, p. 197) sees Revelation’s great gathered worship as an allusion to the dividing of the world’s people in Genesis 10-11, and at the same time fulfilling God’s promises to Abraham. Indeed, God promises to bless then-Abram so that through his progeny, the nations of the world might realize a blessing. Israel is to reflect the glory and wonder of God in such a way that the nations will find themselves drawn to Him. Even the Temple and its Gentile court reflect Yahweh’s desire to be God not of Israel exclusively, but of the entire world, as God proclaims, “For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.” (Isaiah 56:7, NASB).
The earthly ministry of Christ contains many examples of Jesus’ rejection of the racial bigotry prominent among other Jews of the time. The Magi from the East seek to worship Christ in His infancy (Matthew 2). While the origins of the wise men are the subject of centuries of conjecture. Perhaps, however, the following observation sums up the reasons the account appears in Scripture: “Matthew may well have included this story to bring out the truth that Jesus is Lord of all peoples; since this is so, it was appropriate that at the time of his infancy people came from a distant Gentile country to pay their homage.” (Morris, 1992).
Jesus determined to go to Samaria, and once there first revealed himself to the last person expected—a Samaritan woman of very questionable reputation (John 4). A Roman centurion in first-century Capernaum might have been a man hated by Jews, but Jesus unhesitatingly heals the man’s servant from afar and praises his faith as something unseen in Israel (Matthew 8, Luke 7). God’s desire for a reconciled relationship with humanity, without respect to race or nationality, is further reflected in Jesus’ charge, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” (Mark 16:15, NASB). The promise that Jesus gives in John 3:16, that whoever believes in the only begotten son of God will gain eternal life gives absolutely no hint of being somehow bound by race, nationality, or ethnicity.
The theme that again and again emerges from Scripture is the idea that the people of God are ultimately defined neither by the color of their skin nor the place of their origin. Anderson (2004) further argues that as Christ has committed to the church the ministry of reconciliation, then racial reconciliation ought to be part of a more extensive ministry of reconciliation. As for church leadership, DeYmaz (2007) sees, in Luke’s mention (in Acts 11:19-25; 13:1) of the places of origin of the leaders of the church at Antioch, a biblical model of diverse leadership.
Multiculturalism: A Mandate for the Local Church?
The Gospel is a sincere call to people of all places, races, and for all times. Moreover, the gathered body of believers forever worshipping in the eschaton will represent all ethnicities and nations. However, does this biblical reality translate into a multicultural mandate for the local church today? In a 1960 interview broadcast on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lamented the tragedy that eleven o’clock on Sunday mornings is America’s most segregated hour. While the situation has undoubtedly improved in the nearly sixty years since King’s salient observation, congregations have remained mostly homogenous. In fact, throughout American history, churches have long flourished on a “monoethnic” model.
Girgis (2011) notes that this “nation of immigrants” has always been extremely segregated, with “Little Italies,” and “Chinatowns,” and other ethnic enclaves located in cities throughout the United States. Vibrant black churches, with no real racial diversity, have long dotted the landscape, working hard to build the kingdom of God. Today’s regional “megachurch” model has often grown on a model of trying to reach the young, white, and upwardly mobile. In short, the American churches have long thrived because the leaders of its local churches have sought to reach people who looked like them (Girgis, 2011).
So what has changed? It is neighborhoods that have changed, becoming much less monocultural. The church this student serves as pastor, for example, occupies a neighborhood once overwhelmingly white (over 78 percent). Today, whites account for 56 percent of the community, which is far less than the national average (Percept, 2019). While African American make up 14 percent of the neighborhood (not much above the national average), Hispanics account for over 25 percent of the residents. The smallest, but fastest-growing, group in the community is Asian Americans.
What is more, the so-called “generation gap” may be more significant than ever, at least in neighborhood churches, and many neighborhood churches look even less like their neighborhood in average age than they do in ethnicity. Older adults in America today grew up in a world where modernity, with its reliance on science and human rationality, were the pervading worldview. If modernism disagreed with Christianity on the source of truth, it at least agreed with Christianity that truth was knowable; in postmodernism, truth is relative. Today, older adults in the church continue to argue against modernism, when younger adults do not even buy into that worldview. Instead, younger adults have grown up in a sort of folk postmodernism. Many local churches have failed to see the cultural shift where it has not entailed a change in skin color (Banks and Ledbetter, 2001).
The natural inclination to seek others like ourselves, a factor which once built vibrant churches in America is now a killer, at least in neighborhood churches. America, while always a nation of immigrants, is becoming even more diverse. By 2045, there will be no racial or ethnic majority in the country (Frey, 2018). Ethnic enclaves are fast disappearing from the landscape of American neighborhoods. Large, regional churches may continue to attract commuters, but monocultural churches will not reach local communities. Indeed, but if it cannot reflect the diversity of the neighborhood church will go extinct in America, and many people who cannot commute or feel uncomfortable in a large church environment will face complete disenfranchisement from the church family.
DeYmaz (2010) argues that, like the first-century church, the twenty-first-century church must reflect a multicultural reality. Failure on the part of the church to recognize the changing cultural landscape and adapt accordingly and scripturally, DeYmaz (2010) fears, “may soon render our work, or worse yet our message, irrelevant. For in an increasingly diverse and cynical society, people will no longer find credible the message of God’s love for all people when it’s proclaimed from segregated churches.” If Christians in changing times genuinely believe that Christ is a savior for all people, the church must demonstrate the truth of such a profession.
Those without Christ, DeYmaz (2010) argues, are more convinced by practice than by platitudes and will respond not to empty words, but to incarnational and “authentic witness of God’s love for all people that is daily displayed in life and action. And I believe that this witness is best matured and manifested through healthy multi-ethnic churches.” The biblical call is to love neighbor as much as self and, increasingly, the neighbor looks less like the self. The mandate for multiculturalism, though, is not merely a matter of having diversity for diversity’s sake, but rather, a matter of reaching people where they are (Bradstreet, 2018).
The Neighborhood Church Killer: Failure to Adapt to Culture
As no one in the first century could have driven a car twenty minutes to worship, the every local church mention in the New Testament was a neighborhood church. Rainer (2014) makes numerous observations in comparing the local church of the New Testament to neighborhood churches which have ceased to exist. Where vibrant churches, such as those in the New Testament, seek to be other-centered, to exhort others, to look after the interests of others, and to care for their communities, dying churches have no heart for ministry to their communities. They are inward-focused, preference centered, concerned with self-preservation, and with “doing church” a certain way. Rainer says they are not only closed to the community but closed to what God has called them to be and do in the community. As Rainer says, the way to tell that a church has stopped caring for the community is that it does not look like the community.
Clifton (2016) echoes Rainer’s sentiments; dying churches ignore the multicultural realities of their neighborhoods, withdrawing from the life of their neighborhoods, and blaming the community for its lack of response. Clifton zeroes in on another crucial factor, and that is the cultural difference between generations. American culture is shifting so rapidly, that it is possible to have people from several generations of the same family, living under the same roof, who yet belong to different cultures. In the dying neighborhood church, this generational, cultural gap manifests itself in a church that has failed to pass on leadership to a new generation—because that generation will almost certainly change “the way we’ve always done it.” For some churches, failure to look like the community in age is a much more significant problem than failing to match the neighborhood’s ethnic composition. The evidence is clear; if neighborhood churches in need of revitalization are to survive, they must aggressively address their failure to look like the neighborhood in every demographic respect.
Church Revitalization Terms Briefly Defined
As this paper addresses church revitalization and replanting, it seems wise to explain what is meant by the terms. According to Clifton (2016), a church in need of revitalization is one that has experienced stagnation or decline for the past five years. Attendance and giving have been level or falling off, along with other indications of unhealthiness. The church needs to make several adjustments over a few years to regain vibrancy and health. The majority of American churches likely fall into this category to some extent. On the other hand, churches in need of replanting are those that have been in steep, decade(s)-long decline and are at serious risk of closing. As many as 20 percent of American churches may fall into this category (Rainer, 2019).
Churches approaching a replant have four basic approaches, all of which bring the potential for considerable cultural conflict—either generationally or ethnically. The first option is to gift the building(s) to a church plant, which will often be of a very different culture or ethnicity, more reflective of the neighborhood. The church currently occupying the facility then “dies with dignity.” The second option for a dying congregation is to share its building with a church plant. Here again is a potential source of cross-cultural conflict, as the congregation is brought more directly into contact with a group with different cultural values. The dying church may choose to merge with a church plant, with each congregation building on the others’ strengths. As contact between cultures becomes even closer, the potential for cross-cultural conflict further increases.
Finally, a church may choose to replant from within the four walls. Clifton (2016) calls this the most challenging approach, usually demanding the church move from monocultural to multicultural. Churches attempting to replant from within often find themselves in a “catch 22.” They often feel they have no people of other cultures, so they cannot, in turn, attract people of different cultures.
Pastoral Leadership: The First Key to Multicultural Church Revitalization
The pastor is the most crucial player in church revitalization or replanting. While the church will not succeed by his efforts alone, the pastor remains one of perhaps less than a handful of single-point failure modes in revitalization or replanting. Almost everything about church revitalization and replanting hinges upon pastoral leadership, often with little or no help (and even opposition) from other church leaders. The pastor must continuously articulate a clear and compelling vision of a preferred future, especially of the church reaching the neighborhood. The pastor must consistently cast multicultural vision from the pulpit and in personal interactions.
Further, the pastor will, at least initially be the person in the church who most models cross-cultural outreach, discipleship, and leadership development. Indeed, in a replant, Rainer (2018) reports that it is usually the pastor who must do all leadership development and most discipleship for the first several years of the undertaking. If the pastor is not committed to reaching all of the neighborhood and building leaders from the neighborhood—across ethnicities and generations—the revitalization or replanting effort will fail.
Multicultural Leadership: A Crucial Factor in Healthy Multicultural Churches
For the revitalizing or replanting pastor, the leadership challenge is two-fold. The first hurdle is to lead a congregation, most of whom typically claim a desire to reach a multicultural neighborhood, to make the changes required to accomplish this mission. The pastor must challenge some deeply held notions and traditions. The pastor will frequently find himself accused of compromising biblical principles—even when that is not the case. But a church cannot directly go into a neighborhood, invite people to come, and then expect that all newcomers will eagerly adapt to an old, white model of church that is culturally irrelevant and fails to speak to those newcomers where they are on their spiritual journey.
Indeed, as Anderson (2004) observes, “We can tell house guests that they are welcome in our homes (and churches). We can tell them that our home is their home. But if we refuse them the right to touch the thermostat, hang their pictures, or place their food on the table for dinner, they will know the truth: they are not home, and it will be necessary to move.” Anderson continues that, to feel at home, those coming to the church must find a church ready to cooperate, share power, and be receptive to their ideas. Shared power, responsibility, investment, and accountability is critical to the feeling of ownership so necessary for the church to operate healthily (Anderson, 2004). So many unhealthy churches in need of serious revitalization refuse to share these aspects of “their” church because it threatens long-held traditions and preferences for “doing church.”
Church leaders in a revitalization or replanting situation would likely benefit in their decision-making from Anderson’s helpful racial reconciliation survey. Honest answers to the survey can give church leaders insight into racial attitudes and perceptions within the congregation. The study includes not only demographic information such as race, gender, age, broad income ranges, and educational attainment, but also asks several questions concerning perceptions and attitudes about race, discrimination, and the role the church in reconciling racial tensions (Anderson, 2004).
Multicultural Leadership Development
If leading a congregation to a multicultural focus is the pastor’s first leadership challenge, the second challenge is that of multicultural leadership development. DeYmaz (2007) convincingly argues for the need to empower diverse leadership within a multicultural, multiethnic congregation. It is not enough for the congregation to look like the neighborhood; the church’s leadership must reflect a multicultural reality, as well. DeYmaz is hardly an advocate of a quota system and does not argue for some programmatic ecclesiological affirmative action. However, he does argue for intentionality. If a neighborhood’s demographics have shifted, for example, changing from a white area to a predominantly African American community, the current church leadership must be intentional about identifying and developing African American leadership potential. DeYmaz would undoubtedly argue that a church whose ethnic demographics have shifted should consider filling any pulpit vacancies with a pastor who looks more like the community than, perhaps, the church does.
Finding leadership candidates.
If a diverse community is to feel part of the neighborhood church, the membership must not only reflect the demographics of the community, but critical leadership positions must also reflect that same multicultural makeup. At least in the earliest stages of the replant, that quest will mainly be the task of the pastor. This student is a Baptist, and with most other Baptists, sees a complementarian role for leadership in the church. Indeed, women are gifted for ministry and serve essential leadership roles outside of pastoral ministry. However, women also more readily come to church and involve themselves with the life of the church. With Clifton (2016), this author sees the most challenging part of leadership development in finding and developing young male leaders. Clifton also urges the pastor, who will often be the only disciple-maker early in a church revitalization or replant, to focus his efforts in reaching and discipling young men. Pastors looking to develop leaders overnight will find themselves sorely disappointed.
Especially early in the process, the revitalizing pastor must be the key leader developer. Even if the development process is informal in its early stages, Malphurs and Mancini (2004) advocate a scalable progression that will serve the church well through all phases of growth. First, the pastor must determine support for the development process and build five other leaders who focus on worship, missions and evangelism, membership, and spiritual development. Clifton (2016) cautions that the first stages of leader development might take years.
Malphurs and Mancini (2004) then advise that the pastor recruit and train a leader for leadership development. This person must be a passionate visionary who possesses wisdom, discipline, discernment, and excellent communications skills. Merely identifying this person might be a years-long process, and the pastor must fill that role in the meantime. Third, Malphurs and Mancini (2004) recommend recruiting a leadership team who are in alignment with the church’s values, vision, mission, strategy, and doctrine. This team must reflect a diversity of age and ethnicity. Under the leadership of the pastor, the team should arrive at a consensus definition of leadership.
Further, the leadership team should identify what leadership levels are present at the church (for example, volunteers, teachers, directors, deacon, staff, and pastor). The team will take ongoing action to discover, develop, and deploy new leaders while evaluating and rewarding the process. It is to the workings of this new leadership team that this paper now turns.
Working as a multicultural team
Livermore (2015) shows that it is unrealistic to clump together a group of people from various cultural backgrounds and expect to have a functioning multicultural team. Instead, as Hibbert and Hibbert (2014) observe, multicultural ministry teams will often find themselves challenged in communication, decision making, and conflict management. Leaders must clarify expectations and the role of team members in confronting and solving problems.
Cultural values are “inculcated into us from birth and profoundly affects the way we interact with other people. Cultural values influence perception of good leadership.” High power-distance cultures, such as China, expect directive leadership. Low power-distance cultures such as Australia tend to focus on leadership as consensus-building. Americans and Western Europeans value punctuality, while in some cultures, such as the Middle East, not only do not value punctuality but view it as rude to arrive on time. These cultural value differences can foment conflict when brought into close contact in a leadership team. Many believers misunderstand the concept of Christian unity as meaning that there will never be disagreements and that everyone has the same values. Rather than disagree, then, many team members will be quiet, and the tension only increases. (Hibbert, 2014).
A team is a group of people committed not only to a shared vision but to each other. They hold one another accountable and work interdependently according to a shared set of values. In a good team, people feel safe and valued, with a collective identity. In a multicultural team, there are likely no cultural values the entire team shares. Further, the team members will generally lack self-awareness of their cultural values, as these values inculcate themselves from earliest childhood. A multicultural team is ripe for inadvertent transgression or disrespect (Hibbert, 2014). Especially early on, the revitalizing pastor must help the church leadership team (and even the church as a whole) recognize those cultural differences and their own cultural biases. Most importantly, the pastor must help members see their common identity in Christ.
Developing CQ Within the Leadership
In church revitalization, the pastor himself must be proactive in leading cultural intelligence development. He lead, if needed, by first becoming culturally intelligent himself. Livermore (2015) writes to a broad audience in the leadership and management community, but his principles certainly apply in a church setting. Livermore advises those who want to develop cultural intelligence (CQ) to begin by understanding the positive dimensions of CQ to any organization. For the revitalizing pastor, this means a church that, by reflecting the makeup of the neighborhood, effectively reaches its community with the Gospel.
Livermore (2015) further argues that those who would develop CQ must develop a fundamental understanding of the way cultures differ. The revitalizing or replanting pastor must do his homework and share the results with his leadership team. The pastor would be wise to follow several pieces of Livermore’s advice. First, resist “gut” instincts. Livermore says our “guts” are too shaped by our cultural influences to be very helpful in a cross-cultural setting. Next, the leaders should modify behaviors, both verbal and non-verbal, but not in a way that comes across as contrived or inauthentic. Having first built his CQ, the leader works to build CQ in the team on the same principles. He must communicate goals and expectations and personally modeling the behaviors desired, all while teaching others to do the same.
Relationships: The Glue the Binds the Multicultural Church
Church revitalization and replanting ultimately rely on healthy relationships, and once again, in the early days of come-back effort, the onus falls on the pastor to build those relationships. DeYmaz (2007) contends that the heart of developing leadership for a healthy multicultural church is the need for current leaders to connect with people who differ from them culturally. People who do not connect with others at a church do not stay at a church.
As a black minister, Anderson (2004) puts on the table some of the obstacles to developing close relationships in a church. He says that black congregants often ask him, in essence, “If white people surround us at work and in public places, why should we make an additional effort to bring them into our homes?” Anderson’s congregants worry about being judged in their own living space. What is so helpful about Anderson being brave enough to say this is that whites often think the same thing about blacks. Anderson says that, in turn, Asians and Hispanics often wonder why the issue is always a black versus white when they feel the same way about other groups. Anderson helpfully uses the illustration of “bookends.” Blacks and whites are, Anderson says, the bookends in America. If ethnicities in America, other than black or white, are the books, then the closer the bookends move toward each other, the closer together the books as a whole come.
In revitalization or replanting, it is the pastor who initially (and perhaps even the first several years) will do much of the cross-cultural relationship-building. People may be put off in visiting a church where the people do not look like them (this pastor-student, a white, has heard this from black congregants concerning their early experiences in the church). However, if people coming to church have a relationship with the pastor, even if he is not of the same cultural background, that may be enough to keep people long enough to start building those ties and attracting a more multicultural congregation.
If the pastor cannot initially build relationships, then it is not going to get done. But what about the pastor who desires to develop multicultural relationships but does not know how to go about it? Anderson (2014) has some helpful ideas. Just try to learn a little bit at first, he says. Find out what greetings are polite, and learn some of their vocabularies. In short, Anderson says, within the bounds of privacy, show a genuine interested in the other person’s culture. This author finds the Cultural Intelligence Center’s CQ assessment very helpful in evaluating his readiness for multicultural relationships. Pastors revitalizing churches in multicultural neighborhoods should consider taking this assessment and, if possible, having team members participate in the survey themselves.
The Gospel invitation is open to people of all ages, races, places, and ethnicities, something reflected by the eschatological worship at the throne of God, and a theme repeated throughout Scripture. The first church was multicultural. The tactics that have grown large monocultural churches in America will not serve to build or revitalize neighborhood churches in increasingly diverse communities. The neighborhood church must reach the community in which it is located, not the community it wishes was there. Going forward, multiculturalism, at least to the extent it reflects the demographics of the community (both in ethnicity and in age), is essential to the survival of the neighborhood church.
Neighborhood churches in need of revitalization or replanting are overwhelmingly in that position, in part, because they fail to reflect the cultural makeup of the community. A successful revitalization or replant requires long term vision, strategic patience, and a tremendous effort on the part of the pastor who, most often, arrives on the scene as the change agent. The turnaround takes, on average, five years (Clifton, 2016). If the church is unable to assimilate members, and share power with new leaders, who reflect the demographic makeup of the church, then death is inevitable.
“Can these bones live?” God asks in Ezekiel 37. “O Lord God, you know,” was Ezekiel’s reply. And the dry bones lived. God specializes in turning crucifixions into resurrections. He changes death to victory. Revitalization is not easy. Minds are not easily changed, and relationships take time to build. But this author believes God gains great glory when He moves to make His church live again. Replanting and revitalizing pastors must continuously remain in His word, stay deep in prayer, depend upon His strength, and rely upon Him for His vision for His church.
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