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Evangelical learnings on hybridity 3: multicultural church

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!

Categories: Tanzanian culture Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

4 replies

  1. Great stuff. I reckon pictures of God’s multi-ethnic throne room in Revelation also push towards multi-ethnic church now being a picture of the universal, eschatological, church, which I think our churches should be ‘anticipating’ in our practice.

    While I think the Homogenous Unit Principle is popular for people in the majority in Australia, I think there’s an equally interesting problem (and it no doubt stems from the majority not playing nicely with others) where minority groups create ethnic churches. I don’t know if these are more exclusive than majority-group churches, I’ve never tried being non-anglo at an anglo-dominant church, but when I’ve gone to things at Chinese Churches or similarly culturally identified churches something about the name itself feels exclusive.

    1. Yeah it’s not only us white guys doing HUP! For us to experience an ‘ethnic’ HUP church can really help us see how we might (unwittingly) be doing exactly the same thing.

      Now, here’s the tricky thing. Even if we are convinced we should create multicultural churches, our natural inclination is to position ourselves in the driver’s seat — for example, have we ever imagined being part of a community that might not only operate in English language?

      So the question is how we will see ourselves taking a step back, and beyond merely ‘including’ non-white people, actually become participants with them. For example, a real multicultural movement will have multicultural staff teams, multicultural conference speakers, etc…

      1. Yep. As for me and my church… we have a growing number of Iranians in our congregation, so we have Bible readings in Farsi, and we’re committed to training up Farsi speakers to lead small groups, and disciple others, in Farsi. But I’m keen for our Iranian brothers and sisters to also join in our small groups – I don’t want homogeneity in these groups either…

        The language barrier is a real obstacle – felt from both directions (and bad english can be a source of shame in an honour/shame culture). Our Iranian brethren also want to learn english, not just the Gospel. We take Farsi speakers through the talk the day before, at a much slower pace, so that when Sunday comes they can pick stuff up more easily. I reckon the multi-lingual throne room of God (and even the Pentecost event in Acts 2) are pictures of the ideal gathering and I hope our church services will reflect that as we become multi-ethnic.

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