What does it mean to be a multicultural church in the context of COVID-19?

multicultural church

Village Church is a multicultural community in Christ. 

Ethnically, we are one of the most diverse churches in Oregon, but our commitment to cultural diversity also extends across generations, from citizens to immigrants to refugees, and across multiple languages. We are not just multiethnic, but multicultural. 

This commitment is not something accidental or without purpose, we see it as a biblical mandate for the New Testament church. 

As we read about the church’s beginning on the day of Pentecost, we see the Holy Spirit speaking to people from all over the world and doing it in their own language. This early evangelism and formation birthed a very complex multicultural community in the Jerusalem church. So much so, that problems between the cultures in the church led to the formation of deacons and the calling of the seven—ethnically diverse leaders chosen to help with the problems impacting the Greek-speaking widows. 

In short, most Christians look to the book of Revelation and acknowledge that the church of Jesus in heaven will be a multicultural reality—with everyone around the throne from every tongue, tribe, and nation praising the Lamb in harmonious unity. 

As the church of Jesus will be a multicultural reality in heaven, Pentecost shows us that the church doesn’t just end multicultural, it also began as a multicultural community. 

Our commitment to this vision of church is why Village works so hard on inclusion, equity, and honoring the languages, traditions, and spiritual practices of the different cultures and groups represented within the church. 

The reality is, that this is long and slow work. And it is not easy. Doing extra layers of work, let alone providing translations to reach and honor as many diverse persons as we can in their heart language, takes significant time, energy and collaboration. But we believe this is Gospel work. It keeps us from being able to run as fast as other churches, but it binds us together as a mosaic. As the East African proverb states, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

So what does it mean to be a multicultural church during pandemic, quarantine, and the giant pivot churches are making to virtual services and contact? Do our multicultural values fall to the background—is multiculturalism a priority that is overridden by pragmatics—or is it something we continue to hold firmly to as we innovate, create, and continue to pursue unity out of diversity? 

The easy answer, that we are and continue to be a multicultural community in Christ, doesn’t mean there are simple solutions or even roadmaps for this. We have our value set as a compass and we pray for guidance from the Holy Spirit.

Here are three essentials that need to define churches as multicultural communities during COVID:

1. Grace

The Old Testament Law was a standard, but also a symbol that we, as broken and messy people, will never be able to hit the mark of perfection. Despite our theological understanding that the law tyrannizes us while grace liberates us, we often create more and more performance categories and higher and higher standards of expectation. If we’re not careful, even in the best of times, we can end up doing what the Pharisees did—heap burdens on people they are not able to carry. Jesus, in contrast, offers us a yoke (expectations) and burdens (what we need to carry) that are easy and light. His expectations for us match what we can do. His encouragement, like most good encouragement, affirms the effort and desire and adds fuel to motivation in the process. Nothing makes the human heart come alive more than grace. 

In this unprecedented season, there are no scripts or easy answers. We are all doing our best and learning as we go. Trying to be a multicultural church under normal contexts is complex. Trying to remain and grow as a multicultural church under challenging circumstances is just plain hard. 

We will not arrive where we want to go by criticizing each other. We will not unite through judgment. We cannot be who God wants us to be through runaway expectations, which is a modern form of legalism. 

We need grace: Grace for ourselves and grace for others. Grace for those who are dealing with the health implications of the novel coronavirus. Grace for those being impacted economically. Grace for those navigating school and work from home. Grace for ourselves as we try to juggle all of these in our own lives while also trying to help others do the same. I once heard it said that it is the nature of grace to bind two things together. What a beautiful image! In this season, we must take deep breaths often and remember our love for one another.

As a multicultural community in Christ, we need to aim high, but in the end, despite the imperfections of our church or the people in it, affirm the effort and desire. We need to add grace as fuel to motivation. In the end, we need grace for ourselves and each other, if for no other reason, than it is impossible to be the face of Christ to each other if we don’t. And if the body of Christ doesn’t look like Jesus, then we will have failed—no matter how much we do or how fancy it is. 

2. Hospitality

Foreign Policy magazine released a forward looking interview with futurists with the title, “How the World Will Look After the Coronavirus Pandemic: The pandemic will change the world forever. We asked 12 leading global thinkers for their predictions.” Out of the twelve people interviewed, I counted maybe three that didn’t talk about growing nationalism in some form emerging in the wake of coronavirus. These experts are looking at the global implications for politics, economy and globalization. Their analysis is that the fear and confusion unleashed by COVID-19 and its economic repercussions will lead to some form of isolation or move toward self-reliance. Stephan Walt states it bluntly in his opening sentence, “The pandemic will strengthen the state and reinforce nationalism.”

What does this mean theologically or for the church? I think it means a lot. If coming together, despite the challenges and our human impulses to segregate, is what we are supposed to do as pilgrims of the kingdom, then a growing tide of nationalism will make this even harder. The harder things get in the wrong direction, the more focused we must become in the right direction. 

We need to remain hospitable in a biblical sense. This isn’t a passive concept, it is an active one. Biblical hospitality, and the forms still practiced in many cultures around the world today, are intentional efforts to make space for the other. Hospitality isn’t just a willingness to be inconvenienced, but a readiness and joy to make space for and honor others even if and when it is outside our comfort zone. 

One of Village’s cross-cultural workers recently wrote me the below asking not to be named for safety reasons. 

This corona pandemic is putting us all into unfamiliar territory, disconnecting us from the “known”.  Much of our personal world might seem out of control. Our natural reaction is to retreat into our comfort zones of our support group and familiar circle of friends where we know what to expect. We want to feel the familiarity of our comfort groups.

Sometime in the future this virus will no longer cause a pandemic and we will again gather together as a physical body of believers.

Here’s a question: If we stay within our own comfort groups now, how will we later still know how to be multicultural or multi-anything at all?

This person continues,

“It’s easy to hide within your own comfort groups when you don’t have to interact with people different than yourself. Cross-cultural workers, whether overseas missionaries or people who crossed social boundaries within their own country, always have chosen to intentionally reach beyond their comfort zones to those who don’t know about God’s love or salvation or justice… We must intentionally get out of our comfort zones beginning now. That means we choose to find ways to reach outside of them, outside of ourselves.  If we don’t, our “new normal” will be all about ourselves. And God will be deeply saddened that we did not take this global opportunity he has given us.”

I think the above words are prophetic.

We have all heard how it takes about thirty days to make a habit—either a good one or a bad one. We must make sure during this season that we intentionally prioritize one another. That we challenge ourselves to get out of our comfort zone regularly. That, even if it is through safe forms like phones or Zoom or letters, that we reach out and engage those who aren’t the default, the norm, or our safe people. We may have to socially isolate ourselves, but that doesn’t mean we stop living like Jesus.

The more we seek to overcome what divides us through a biblical commitment to hospitality (in its broadest sense), the less we will find ourselves alone, divided, and unaccustomed to the rhythms of a biblically multicultural church on the other side of this pandemic. 

CNN recently posted an eerie comparison between an old Twilight Zone episode from 1960 and our current pandemic. The episode examines what happens when a neighborhood “is suddenly hit with an unseen menace.” Part of the show’s genius “is that [it] depicts how people react to fear and paranoia in ways that remain timeless.” The article talks about how the Television show mirrors real life—that mass fear can create scapegoats and that an unseen threat is harder to fight. 

This past week, evangelical leaders from across the country signed a statement against anti-Asian Racism in the wake of COVID-19 and an FBI report warning of continued spikes in hate crimes against Asian Americans. Turning on others because of fear and powerlessness is the very thing the writer of the CNN article was trying to spotlight. It is also an absolute must that the church speak out and provide a counter-cultural narrative and a lived example of Jesus’s kingdom to the world in this moment. Hospitality, or choosing to make space for others, has to be a commitment of the church during times of uncertainty. 

Who could you reach out to today that might stretch your comfort zone, and build the church in some small way in the process? How can we fight the impulses that would let fear turn us against one another? Possibly, now is the time to read a book by a different author, follow someone on social media who can stretch your thinking in a new way, or simply reach out to your neighbors.

3. Sacrifice

Sacrifice takes different forms. There is the sacrifice of time and energy in trying to accomplish things you wouldn’t have accomplished without it. Think of training for a marathon and the sacrifice it requires. Sacrificing, in this sense, for a multicultural church means there are things we do—committing to diversity, multiplicity of voices, getting things translated, long meetings to think through and hammer out how services or communication pieces will be interpreted through various cultural lenses and more. It means sharing the pulpit, asking more questions, and giving up power to reach for shared leadership. It is also a sacrifice of bridging out, seeing, and empathizing with the needs of various communities within the broader church. It is a sacrifice to do more than what most would consider normal for a church because we are committed to being a multicultural church and because we love each other.

There is also a kind of sacrifice that isn’t of time and energy, but of wants, wishes, and preferences. This kind of sacrifice is what parents are familiar with. Parents forego so much of what they desire in lieu of what their children want or need in order to have a healthy and well-nurtured family. As sacrifice, rather than personal comfort, provides the necessary building blocks when trying to grow a healthy family, so too is sacrifice necessary in building a healthy community. 

It’s no surprise that Jesus uses sacrifice as the metric for measuring his kind of love. “Greater love has no one than this,” he says, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13). Paul pulls all of these strands together in the context of the church writing, “From him (Jesus) the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” (Ephesians 4:16)

There are no perfect churches, which means there certainly aren’t any perfect multicultural churches. It’s not our performance standards that matter most, but our heart for one another and the willingness to lean in when the world is making it so instinctual to lean out. 

What does it mean to be a multicultural church in the context of COVID-19? That we continue to be the kind of church we see lived out in the New Testament. It means we prioritize our multicultural value rather than neglecting it, that we sink deep into grace, pursue one another tenaciously and hospitably, and make a collective sacrifice for Christ’s diverse vision of his church.

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