As many churches strive to achieve more ethnic diversity in their pews, they often discover that maintaining unity in a multicultural congregation means hard work.
Jason Cook, associate pastor at Fellowship Memphis, told the Biblical Recorder in an interview that all people have “tribal tendencies” and church leaders must continually “push Christians toward each other.”
Jason Cook, associate pastor at Fellowship Memphis, participates in a Facebook Live interview with Lindsay Nicolet during the MLK50 Conference in Memphis, Tenn.
Recent studies by LifeWay Research reveal that 93 percent of Protestant pastors believe churches should work toward racial diversity, while more than half of people in the pews did not agree their church should become more diverse.
Cook, who was a speaker at the MLK50 Conference April 3-4 in Memphis, Tenn., said churches should expect obstacles to multicultural unity around the topics of musical preferences, preaching styles, interpersonal relationships and all other areas of congregational life.
Being a multiethnic church is the “first hurdle to cross” in being a cross-cultural church, he said. “I prefer the term cross-cultural because that implies people are bumping into one another and getting some of me on you, and you on me, rather than still being segregated within the church.”
Cook said developing a cross-cultural church is not like a software update, where minor details are upgraded to add the desired features.
“This is like the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk,” he said. “It has never been seen before. … What you create in that space will borrow from cultures but it doesn’t center on one culture.
“The cross-cultural church is born, not out of the adjustment of periphery issues. … It is built and born out of a genuine concern to see people come together. We have to change not just what we do, but how we see.”
Cook added that “interracial conflict” is inevitable, and he encouraged congregations to have the “will and resolve” to be strengthened by disagreements, not destroyed by them. “Many people are so squeamish about conflict, that at the first sign, they bolt,” said Cook. “I believe sometimes you have to make war in order to have peace.”
Addressing musical preferences, Cook said, “In a multiethnic church, there is a mandate for everyone to feel at home, and no one to feel at home. If we are a true multiethnic church, then there are aspects of the service where you are going to feel at home … and there will be other parts of that service where you will feel wildly uncomfortable and outside of your cultural experience.”
He also said “mono-cultural” preachers can hinder progress toward achieving ethnic diversity.
“That means everything from stage presence, to voice inflection and intonation, sermon points, how you arrive at those points and how you make those points, illustrations, pictures and how you think through your sermon holistically, has to be at the very least bi-cultural.”
Interpersonal relationships, or community, can also be affected by unspoken cultural expectations. Cook said visiting coffee shops as recreation or venues for spending time together was one example of a white cultural preference, adopted by many churches and ministries, that is often not held by non-white Christians.
“The fact that white people paid money for coffee at a coffee shop was weird to me until as recently as six years ago. … Five bucks for a cup of coffee – to do what? To talk? Brother, that’s odd,” he said with a laugh.
“Where I’m from, you go get a big can of Folgers, Maxwell House or Community, then you brew a pot at home, and you drink your coffee and talk.”
He also said the location and ethnic makeup of church small groups are important, but often overlooked.
“We’re all essentially looking for a place where we belong and where we feel safe … because, after all, the church is a heavenly outpost on earth that is a reflection of a heavenly reality,” Cook said.
“But far too often, many of my white brothers and sisters have sought that emotion and feeling so strongly that it is to the neglect of many who don’t look like them.”
Cook encouraged churches and church leaders to consider four expectations as they strive for ethnic diversity among their congregations:
1. “Representation matters. Qualified, high-level, decision-making leaders that are non-white matter … The [ethnic] ratio among leadership needs to look like your congregation.”
2. “Developing a cross-cultural church will be the hardest thing you ever do in your ministry, so if you don’t sell out to it, it won’t happen. There is no dipping your toe in this water. You have to go all in.
3. “Expect attrition. Expect people to not be with the program, but also expect [other] people to come to your church and feel at home.
4. “Do not give up, because it’s worth it. From cover to cover, scripture boasts of a multicultural reality in heaven that is fostered because of what God does through us here on earth. Don’t quit. Keep going, but gird your loins, because it’s hard, man.”