In Australia, what kind of church do you go to? A uni church? Church in a cinema? A night service, or maybe a family service?
There are quite a few different choices, but I want to suggest here that there’s more to these configurations than just timetabling and location. In Australia we have an established practice of creating congregations on the basis of a style or demographic group.
Sometimes this practice is given a name, the Homogeneous Unit Principle. The idea is that people will most naturally practice and share their faith within the same ‘homogeneous unit’, an existing cultural/social/language group. Therefore, it is said, if we minimise sociological barriers between the church and the city/suburbs/town, it will be easier for outsiders to comprehend, explore and participate in Christianity. There is a certain sort of missional sense to that, and it’s why the ‘HUP’ became part of the church growth movement in the last few decades.
Existing group identities are a surefire way to start a coherent community. Pragmatically this makes a lot of sense: a homogeneous community can easily stay on message, form a coherent brand, and communicate clearly what and who it’s pitching at. Again, there’s a certain sort of missional sense to that.
But what if there’s more to consider than just pragmatics? An evangelical postcolonial perspective helps us to see that if our thinking is dominated by pragmatics, we end up creating a church that excludes a plurality of voices.
Ephesians shows us that diversity is a gospel interest.
Ephesians explores the idea of a ‘body’ made up not only of different individuals, but different groups — a two-in-one humanity, a biracial metaphor. According to this ‘body theology’, we fully see the plan of God not in a uniform community, but in a diverse community that is struggling in Christ to get along. It is not enough to have Christ as our banner if the peace of Christ cannot be seen in our midst, that is, the togetherness in Christ of people who would otherwise be apart. The new humanity in Christ is made of many parts, and Ephesians depicts this as a reality emerging right now, not only in the future.
I’m not saying that all churches can or ought to become multicultural communities, or that all multicultural churches are automatically good witnesses. What I’m saying is that a white church is not a whole church. Well, perhaps a white church might be understandable in a white-majority world, but is that the Australia we live in? I’m asking, in the diversity of modern Australian suburbs and cities, why in the world would we want to maintain the homogeneity that comes so naturally to us? Why shouldn’t we aspire to an Ephesian body theology with everything we’ve got, and actively seek to be a diverse, reconciling community? What has happened to the expectation that, like Jesus, we would share the table with outsiders?
Multicultural ministry must be more than a niche interest.
Many churches do ‘outreach’ to the poor, refugees, and other groups. But while ever these groups are the object of our outreach, as Efrem Smith notes, in practice we are marginalising them. We are saying, you can receive from us, but you can’t be part of us; we have lots to offer you, but you have nothing to offer us. There is no unity there, only the domination of one group over others. We could talk about ‘including’ them, but that would only be on our own terms — again, no unity, only the option to conform. Ephesians asks us, what is the purpose of doing outreach to these groups if our church is not actually geared to be a life-giving community for them to participate in?
Leadership is also a difficulty here. As long as all our leaders are white men, our ability to address this is crippled.
When I asked the group how they figured that a group of white men could possibly be equipped to lead urban church planting movements among non-white and other oppressed folks, the room got really quiet. No one had a good answer. Indeed, it seemed as if they had never reflected on this question before. Christena Cleveland
As ministers and leaders, do we have any serious expectation that we will be serving alongside people who are not mere mirror images of ourselves? If so, are we prepared to rework our entire ministry around that and go beyond mere good intentions?
The links above are to American situations, and of course Australian cities are different to American cities, but there’s plenty of overlap in the questions about colonial church planting practices. However, I’m excited that the Australian church planting network Geneva Push is actively discussing multicultural church. You can listen to sessions from last year’s Multiply conference involving leaders like Ray Galea of Multicultural Bible Ministries, and Multiply14 is billed as exploring the multicultural face of Australia. This is a very promising development!
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.