Faithful Mission: On becoming a multicultural church
A bimonthly online column by Linda Valentine
The Revelation vision of community is not merely "welcoming the stranger" but becoming a new community together.
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and nations, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. (Rev. 7:9)
This vision is at the heart of the mission of the New Covenant Fellowship of Austin, Texas. But "becoming a new community together" has also been adopted—and embodied—as a personal charge by the congregation's pastor, Rev. James Lee.
"That the good news is for all nations illustrates the paradox of the 'already but not yet,'" James says. "Christ has paved the way for us to build a vibrant community that celebrates the wonderful ethnic diversity of the kingdom of God, and now is the time for us to incarnate that practice."
Called in 2003 by Covenant Presbyterian Church of Austin to create a new, diverse church there, James became New Covenant Fellowship's first installed pastor when the congregation chartered in 2009. For over 10 years, James has committed himself to making the congregation "a safe place to have a conversation, to come together, and to see how people can cross bridges to reach common places."
He says that many churches—even those that seem homogeneous—are already doing multicultural ministry without knowing it.
"If you look at a European American congregation and don't see the obvious racial-ethnic diversity, as soon as you get into the cultural backgrounds of its individual members, there's always more diversity than meets the eye," James says. "But being a multicultural church also goes beyond racial-ethnic diversity. It's about economics, education, gender, and generations. It's about being united by faith across the diversity of our respective cultural contexts. It's about how we relate to each other, even when we're talking about something like church finances."
To illustrate his point, James says that he currently has a corporate CEO and a woman on welfare sitting in the same congregation—sometimes even at the same table—listening to each other's stories.
"When you hear people's stories, you can't just stereotype them as lazy people who only want benefits and don't want to work," he says. "When you hear their stories, it changes your theology and your perspectives, which makes ministry difficult, because people don't always want to be challenged. They want the priest, not the prophet or the evangelist, which can be an obstacle to authentic multicultural ministry."
Because James believes that Christ's charge to become a new community together is to the whole church, he began to engage multicultural ministry at the mid council and national levels. His introduction to the work of the Presbyterian Multicultural Network, which he now serves as moderator, came in 2008, when he participated in a national multicultural conference in San Antonio as well as a strategic planning session at Ghost Ranch.
"The regional and national multicultural conferences were my lifeline to...the broader picture," James says. "The significance of the Presbyterian Multicultural Network is that it enables us to hear the voices of the people at the grass roots. It also allows us to find ways to connect not only with the folks in the larger multicultural movement but also with folks within the church that can benefit our own communities."
A key way the network introduces leaders to resources and training to help them address challenges brought about by demographic shifts is through the National Multicultural Church Conference, which will meet July 31-August 3 in Fort Worth, Texas.
James says that choosing to hold this year's event—themed "Journeying and Awakening into God's Diverse World"—at the historic Hilton Fort Worth, where John F. Kennedy spent his last night, will offer conference participants the added benefit of "redeeming a hurtful part of our history."
Most importantly, the conference will give participants a foretaste of the "great multitude...from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages" envisioned in John's Revelation (7:9), which inspires and challenges us all to see changes in our church and culture as blessings rather than as threats or obstacles to overcome.
“We are called to move beyond our fears," James says, "in order to do ministry together."
Joining because of the Multicultural conversation.
James and New Covenant are most definitely about ushering in the reign of God. May their tribe increase!
When I was serving churches, before I retired, we often used the Belhar Confession as part of our worship service on Sunday. Members of the church often requested it.