When Someone Different Comes to Church

In early July I gave a presentation at Lipscomb University’s Summer Celebration. I spoke on the topic: Practical Steps to Becoming a Multi-Ethnic Church. You can listen to the 50 minute presentation HERE. Since time didn’t permit me to cover all the points in my notes, I thought that I would use the presentation as a template for a series of articles addressing the individual points in greater detail. So here we are…

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The main stage at Summer Celebration

Before getting into specific practicalities of making a multi-ethnic church work smoothly, we need to consider the goals that pursuing.

A few years ago I put considerable effort into improving our church’s hospitality ministry. I read books. I held meetings. I moved some furniture around and recruited volunteers. I laid out a vision to the volunteers of how we could greet guests and provide a pathway for them to assimilate into our congregation.

The goal of the hospitality ministry was assimilation: the process of a stranger becoming family.

When I reflect on that hospitality process it occurs to me that it functions under the assumption that people coming to our church will generally share our values and appreciate the same things we appreciate. We assume that most people will want to be part of our church and that assimilation is the process that facilitates their incorporation into the life of the church.

However, this process breaks down when the people walking through the church doors for the first time come from different cultural backgrounds. The church can no longer assume that we share the same values or appreciate the same customs. While the church still longs for these people to become part of the church family, assimilation no longer provides the best model.

Assimilation contains the idea that the newcomer will adapt and change in order to match the culture and values of the church. Over time the individual reflects the congregation. At first glance, this appears deeply spiritual. The church represents God and Scripture tells us that “We all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Cor. 3:18) All followers of Jesus are on a journey of transformation into the image of God.

While it seems logical that if the church reflects God, then as individuals reflect the church they’re also reflecting God, this line of reasoning overlooks the humanity of the congregation. United States’ churches can generally recognise that churches in other parts of the world will look and sound different than churches in this country. Those churches will reflect their cultures while still remaining true to the teaching of Scripture. This principle also holds true within the United States. U.S. churches reflect a culture. We may not recognise it because we’re immersed in it, but it’s true. When we expect newcomers to reflect our church, we’re not only asking them to reflect spiritual principles, but cultural customs and values also.

Accommodation vs Assimilation

When I was a kid and my friends came over for dinner, they were assimilated into my family. The same rules applied to them as applied to me. They ate the same food as the rest of the family. They sat in on our family devotional time with the rest of the family. If they were sleeping over we’d make up a mattress on the floor.

When I was a kid and guests from out of town came to visit, my family accommodated them. Family rules didn’t apply to them. Rather the general rules of politeness were in force. My mother would find out if there foods they couldn’t eat or that they particularly liked. They could choose whether to join our family devotional time, and at night they slept in the family’s beds while my brothers and sisters dispersed to couches and floor mattresses all over the house.

Accommodation requires that the church intentionally adapt in areas of culture and custom to meet the needs and interests of newcomers as a means of demonstrating God’s love for them. None of this diminishes the need for all people to be transformed into the image of God, but it acknowledges that not everything we do at our congregations reflects deep spiritual truths. Much of what we do reflects our culture and we need to be willing to make cultural accommodations where necessary in order to communicate love to people different than ourselves.

Over the next few months we’ll discuss what some of these specific accommodations may look like.

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Hospitality & Reconciliation

The Islamic month of Ramadan this year ran from June 6 to July 5. During that month a local Turkish Cultural Center hosted a series of community meals. They offered a variety of formats.

First, they invited community members to come to their facility and enjoy a meal with a large group of people. Second, they offered to prepare the meal but host it in our church’s fellowship space. Third, if people were interested they would schedule community members to come into their homes and share an iftar meal with them.

international-food-map-01As I talked with them they explained their simple reasoning. Sharing a meal together breaks down barriers. It encourages conversations as people share the experience of meeting a fundamental human need, eating. They longed for their neighbors to see past their religion, or different clothing to recognise and acknowledge our shared humanity. In discussing the experience we talk about the food and their favorite Turkish dishes. They share what they value about Ramadan and we exchange notes on the Muslim and Christian practices of fasting.

By sharing a meal we discuss topics we would never broach talking to each other across a desk or in a classroom.

Jesus knew the power of meals. In the Gospels we find him frequently eating with a variety of different people. Often, Jesus ate with those who were furthest from the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ dining habits were apparently a frequent source of conversation to the extent that Luke describes the criticism Jesus recieved,

The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ (Luke 7:34)

A couple of weeks ago my church declared October our “Month of Hospitality”. My sermon that week was based on Ephesians 2:11-22. I suggested that if Jesus died to reconcile Jews and Gentiles to each other, and if “you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” (Eph 2:22) then we need to actually be doing something.

wp_20161014_12_20_22_richWe gave the church the simple task of using a meal to break down a wall by eating with someone on the other side of a divide. We provided a few guidelines:

  1. You should invite someone from our church that you don’t know well to share a meal or a coffee.
  2. The person should be on the other side of a divide: race, nationality, age, marital status, education, income, etc.
  3. Given the context of our church, this is a great opportunity to intentionally break racial barriers and specifically ask each other how you perceive the racial climate in this country at the moment.

The natural next step is to expand the hospitality to bridge divisions with those outside the church. Each of those steps takes more confidence and requires a greater investment, but the results make it worthwhile. Even in a multi-ethnic church people often need encouragement to break out of their comfort zones, spend some time building relationships and destroy some dividing walls.

We make this as simple as possible. Although we use the word “hospitality” we don’t pressure people to invite others into their home, or to cook a 3 course meal. The goal is to sit, eat, and drink together. If that happens at a Wendy’s or a Starbucks, or if the bill is split rather than one person treating another, it doesn’t matter as long as each person knows the other a little better at the end of their time together.

When we first did this in 2014 we posted the above board in our foyer and encouraged people to record their participation. It’s gone very well and I’d love for you to try it in your church setting and hear how you improve it.