By Evelyn Eng
I felt like an outcast in my own church. I did not grow up in a Christian family but became a believer during college. The people who first shared the love of Christ with me were part of a young adult fellowship group from a local Chinese church, which I later joined. Unfortunately the only English-translated part of the service was the sermon. The rest of the service was in Mandarin Chinese.
It took a while to figure out what was going on. I learned Chinese words for pray, Bible, sit down, stand up, and welcome, but the rest of the service was incomprehensible. Even though I attended and grew up spiritually in this church, was it ever really home?
Many churches in America are ethnocentric like that Chinese church. I have since attended other churches that are predominantly Caucasian, Hispanic, African American, and Korean. I am quite sensitive to how a church welcomes newcomers who may be a little different from their average member.
What makes a church culturally diverse? Is it various ethnicities or cultures in the congregation or among the staff members?
Diversity in the church is not a characteristic as much as it is an attitude.
My Caucasian husband and I once attended a church in a rural area as we looked for a new church home. We visited for several weeks with barely a perfunctory hello during the meet-and-greet time but decided to give it a month’s trial to allow for off weeks. We knew we stood out as a couple, and it was obvious we were visitors. I finally realized how my husband felt each time we attended an Asian church over the years of our marriage.
We had met a friendly multicultural Asian-Caucasian couple during our first visit, but they weren’t there the next week. So we returned each week, wondering if this could be our church home. The preaching and praise time were wonderful, but we craved friendliness. We returned for what we thought would be our fourth and final visit.
As soon as the service ended, the associate minister made a beeline to greet us and get to know us. Later the senior minister invited us out to lunch along with several newcomers. We learned that this church was in transition, and many of the people in the church were visiting also. There was a good reason for the lack of friendliness—everyone was waiting for others to greet them! We ended up joining the church and helping them with their outreach to international students.
Common Bond of Christ
My closest friends don’t consider me Chinese, Asian, or American. We bond because we are Christians who take our relationship with God seriously. Our love for Christ transcends any diversity in our upbringings and food preferences.
“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9).
There is a beauty in attending a church with cultural diversity; it’s a small glimpse of Heaven on earth—people of various nations worshipping the same God and loving each other with the common bond of Christ. It doesn’t get better than that until we get to Heaven.
As I grew up I discovered my identity as an Asian American. My life and church reflected a different culture. As a child I experienced African American culture, and as an adult, Caucasians have been my predominant neighbors. As I stated before, although Chinese is my ethnic heritage, I have felt like an outsider in the Chinese church because I can’t understand Mandarin Chinese.
Even now, I am tickled by the comment, “Where are you from?” When I mention my hometown, the response is, “No, but where are you from?” I might answer again the same way or just say where my parents are from. Some Americans of other heritages may find this question offensive, but I usually take it in stride. I grew up in an era where Asians and other minorities were grouped all together and along with African Americans in a category of “colored.” Much has changed since then in society and in the church.
Others who come from a multicultural or multiracial background may be approached even more directly. The question, “Where are you from?” is replaced with, “What are you?” It sounds silly, but ignorant people do not realize how they are coming across when they ask questions implying prejudice. My favorite response would be: “Same as you. Homo sapiens, human beings like you.” Prejudices can arise from any culture, any church, or any individual.
Those Who Are Different
Is it possible for churches to be more welcoming to newcomers of different ethnicity or social status or even different dress? It starts with the church staff, but is also dependent on every member of the congregation. If we fully take to heart the love of God, we would welcome anyone in the church, regardless of race, color, or socioeconomic status.
I have some learning to do in this area, but I understand how newcomers feel in this country due to my skin color and living overseas where I had to find cultural insiders to help me acclimate. In every church the members need to welcome with warm gestures anyone who visits, regardless of how different they look or act. It starts with the greeters who welcome everyone at the door. But everyone in the congregation should stop greeting only their friends and look for those who are new, embracing them with open arms and hearts.
A homeless woman went to many churches looking for help. She was disheveled and her two children were equally unacceptable in appearance. After many attempts to find some help, she finally found a church home that welcomed her and her family as they escaped an abusive situation that forced them to leave their comfortable home. Finally she was able to find love and comfort in a family of believers.
It starts with one person and an attitude of love. If the minister believes in welcoming these differences, then the congregation will follow. Prejudices are negative values that arise from uncertainty and fear. The more we learn about other cultures—food, dress, and customs—the more we can welcome those who may be a little different. Perhaps I wouldn’t have felt ostracized for not understanding Chinese if my earliest church had this attitude.
Like Christ, I want to welcome those who are different from what society views as acceptable; they are extremely valuable in the eyes of God. This is a learned behavior that every Christian needs to develop.
A Melting Pot
Many churches now try to build a multicultural congregation from the start. Others evolve into a multicultural congregation by ministering to international students or allowing immigrants of a different ethnicity to share their church building. A deliberate effort to launch international churches with all of their uniqueness is admirable. There are so many reasons why a church could become divisive, and adding multiple cultures into the mix may increase areas where Satan may attack. But the rewards are greater than the potential problems.
America has been described as a melting pot. Shouldn’t our churches be the same? The church is representative of its members. People come into the church to learn more about God and Jesus. If we can welcome people of every culture, lifestyle, and economic group into our churches, how much more could they see the love of God through us?
Evelyn Eng is a freelance writer.