Creating a Cross-Cultural Church
For weeks now, social media has been filled with reactions to the grand jury decisions about the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The whole nation has been talking again about race and police brutality. I’ve been hesitant to chime in. As a privileged person, I’ve thought this is a season when I’m called to listen more than speak. And listening well, I believe, leads to prayer. In this case, my prayers have mostly consisted of a simple plea: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us. I pray this because my limited experience in cross-cultural ministry has taught me just how much we need the Lord’s help.
When my friend Mike Gehrling and I set out to plant The Upper Room in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pa., six years ago, we said we wanted to be a “multi-cultural” congregation. Mike had experience working in a cross-cultural setting as the English speaking pastor at a Korean congregation. I had spent two years living in the mostly African-American neighborhood, the place about which my humble and wise friend Jen Pelling recently wrote in her post “Walking While White”. Given these experiences, both Mike and I both thought we had a passion for cross-cultural ministry and a calling to lead a multi-ethnic church.
I did, and still do, believe that planting new, intentionally multi-ethnic churches is one of the best ways to combat racism in America. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is often quoted as having said that “eleven o’clock on Sunday morning” is “the most segregated hour of Christian America.” But as Aaron Howard, the pastor of As One Fellowship says and shows in this video, “We’re working to change that through the love of Jesus Christ.” New congregations have the potential to break down the walls that divide us by committing from their inception to pursue cross-cultural relationships and to speak explicitly against racism and injustice. That is what we wanted to do.
When Mike and I shared our plan with the leader of one prominent multicultural church several years ago, he bluntly stated what I’m sure many others were thinking: “But you’re two white men. And you think you can plant a multi-ethnic church?” We were naïve, but we were confident of the calling God gave us. But confidence doesn’t make fulfilling a calling easy.
Two years into that journey, we changed the way we spoke about the congregation. By claiming to be multi-cultural, we were (at that time) shining a spotlight on our Korean member. What we thought was well-intentioned felt like tokenism. So we began to speak of being a cross-cultural church, a community that believes God calls us into relationships that cross cultural, ethnic, and economic barriers. Changing the language we used was easy, but our newer adjective carries an even weightier calling. A cross-cultural church will not only cross cultural barriers, it will be cruciform, shaped by the cross of Christ. To truly be a multicultural church we have to both take up our crosses and actively live counter-culturally. Those who claim to have a passion for reconciliation should expect to bear in their own bodies the passion of Christ.
According to our denomination’s low bar, we now barely meet the standard for being multi-cultural: having one-fifth our worshiping congregation representing “non-majority” people groups. It’s still an uphill battle, and thanks to the honesty and vulnerability of a few current members of the congregation, we’re beginning again to intentionally press toward becoming a more authentically cross-cultural church.
We’re not giving up because the Church is called to be a community where the “mystery of Christ” is proclaimed and embodied. The Apostle Paul wrote, “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members of one body, and sharers together in the promise of Jesus Christ” (Eph 3:6 NIV). The Gospel has from the very beginning included a calling to unite people groups who once excluded each other. The Father’s purpose in sending the Son was “to create in himself one new humanity out of [Israel and the Gentiles] . . . to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Eph 2:15-16).
That means that this Advent, as we confess our need for Christ and our hope in his return, we wait upon the One who comes to put to death our hostilities. We are not capable of achieving reconciliation or peace or justice alone. Only the Christ, who from the cross could have cried “I can’t breathe,” can tear down our dividing walls. Only his Holy Spirit can inspire the creation of counter-culturally integrated churches. And I believe that such reconciliation is the Father’s cross-cultural purpose for us in Christ. Come Lord Jesus.
Written by the Rev. Christopher Brown (MDiv, 2008), Church Planting Initiative coordinator at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and co-pastor of The Upper Room Presbyterian Church.