My Time at the Mosaix Multi-Ethnic Church Conference
Being multi-ethnic is intrinsic to Christianity. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
At the Mosaix Multi-Ethnic Conference in Long Beach last week several main stage speakers and workshop presenters referenced the massive demographic shifts impacting the U.S. According to the Brookings Institute, by 2043 the country will be a “minority-majority” population, meaning that ethnic groups currently identified as “minorities” will outnumber “majority” Caucasians. Given the higher minority birth rate, by 2018 those in the 0-18 age range will be a minority-majority population. Of the top fifteen most populous cities, seven are already minority-majority populations.
Many of us have heard these statistics and some of us experience them in our daily ministries. But so what? It’s one thing for church leaders to notice the changing demographic landscape. It’s something else entirely to know how to respond.
Anxiety is one response to these changes. Around the country we have seen some states that are facing the coming minority-majority reality propose legislation that would adversely affect minority groups. Politicians tap into this anxiety with speeches about “our country” and getting back to how things once were. This language is a fear-fueled reminder to the minority families in our churches that they are not included in this vision of America. They are not we. Theirs is not ours.
Thankfully this sort of ostracizing language and anxiety is mostly absent from evangelical churches. The recent cooperation around the issue of immigration reform reveals just the opposite: a spirit of compassion and commitment to love our neighbors. Dr. David Anderson of Bridgeway Community Church encouraged white leaders at the conference to reach out to those white people within our influence who are anxious about a more diverse future.
Another response to the coming demographic shifts, one more common in our churches, is pragmatism. As the changes in our cities and neighborhoods become more visible many churches will look to multi-ethnic movement as a means to reach their neighbors. As understandable as it is, this instinct comes with unintended consequences. Many of the speakers—Christena Cleveland, Soong-Chan Rah, and Ed Stetzer among others—pointed to the dangers of appearing multi-ethnic while remaining mono-cultural. When being multi-ethnic is simply a method, the church’s majority will require others to shed aspects of their culture at the door in order to be accepted. In contrast to the beautiful New Testament vision of a reconciled community worshipping God from the uniqueness’s of culture and history, such pragmatism is little more than a bland melting-pot version of multi-culturalism. It may initially attract a more diverse crowd but does little to express the stunning and multi-faceted Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The speakers at Mosaix acknowledged the present cultural anxiety—some with very personal and painful stories—but there was very little about pragmatism. Instead what we heard time and time again was the theological necessity for multi-ethnic communities of Christians who are proclaiming and demonstrating the reconciling Gospel. Our churches must be as diverse as the neighborhoods in which they reside for the sake of the Gospel. As Jim Wallis put it on the last day of the conference: “It is not admirable to be multiracial in the body of Christ; it is intrinsic.”
Paul Metzger described these multi-ethnic churches as communities centered on Christ who has accomplished the miraculous work of reconciliation on the cross. That is, the work of multi-ethnic congregations is in response to what God has already done. No one embodies this conviction more or has suffered more for it than John Perkins. In many ways the godfather of the multi-ethnic church movement, he provided the most poignant moment of the conference. Looking over the sanctuary filled with 1,000 leaders from around the country Dr. Perkins repeatedly choked up as he reflected, encouraged, and admonished. “This is the first time in my 83 years that I’m meeting with people that believe the multi-ethnic church is possible … I’ve seen some hope and some leadership that we’ve been longing for. I feel finished. I can go back to Mississippi and live out the rest of my life.”
Dr. Perkins’ life proves that even when we trade anxiety and pragmatism for Gospel-motivations, multi-ethnic ministry is costly. The message and our diverse communities are foolishness to a world that, despite surface-level multi-culturalism, remains deeply divided. Pastor Eugene Cho reminded us of the spiritual nature of this work. “If you are committed to the work of biblical reconciliation, be aware that there’s a mark on you. Please take care of yourself because we need to be in this for the long haul.” It’s an important reminder for all who minister in a rapidly changing world that is making inescapable our call to make visible God’s reconciling Gospel.
David Swanson is the pastor of New Community Covenant Church [Bronzeville], a multi-ethnic church on Chicago’s South Side.