The Making of a Multi-Ethnic Church (Parts 1-7)

Back Camera(Here are  all seven parts of my series on The Making of a Multi-Ethnic Church consolidated into one post)

Colorado Community Church is known for its’ diversity.

When we started fifteen years ago our hope was  to reflect our local community of Aurora, Colorado.  At the time, our part of the city was 82% White; 11% Black; 5% Latino; 2% Asian and 1%other.   Today this suburb of Denver is even more diverse with 127 languages spoken in the Aurora Public Schools District!

When you take into account the diversity of our city and the fact that multicultural churches “tend to be more diverse than the neighborhoods in which they reside.”  One would think that multi-ethnic congregations would have been commonplace in our community.  However, that wasn’t the case.  Martin Luther King Jr.’s old adage about Sunday morning being the most segregated time of the week rang true in our city as well.

Today, Colorado Community Church is a vibrant multicultural, international, inter-denominational gathering of 3000+ followers of Christ committed to washing the feet of our city.  Demographically we are 57% white; 32% black; 8% Latino; 1% Asian, 2% other with over 20 different nations of origin.

As Lead Pastor I’m often asked about what went in to the making of this multiethnic church.  I thought I’d take the time to write a series of posts chronicling what we did with the hopes of accelerating what the Spirit of God is doing in our nation.  There are a growing number of churches recognizing and living out the truth that Jesus on the cross broke down the barriers that divide us. We need more.

The authors of United By Faith said it so well:  “The twenty-first century must be the century of multiracial congregations.”

Why do you think multi-ethnic churches are still the minority in American Christianity?

Click here for the latest stats

Break down the barriers.Diversity: You Can’t Make it Happen.  You Can Only Stop it From Happening

Diversity and church growth are similar in that we need to recognize what is and isn’t within our control.  One thing that Pentecost made clear is that multi-ethnicity is first and foremost a work of the Holy Spirit.  When the Spirit of God dramatically descended in Acts 2 the resulting diversity was and can only be attributed to a move of God.

This must be our starting point.  The longstanding walls of race, class and culture that keep Christians from worshipping and serving together need the direct intervention of Jesus in the hearts of his people.  Colorado Community Church makes no sense without first recognizing that God decided to do something.

If you ask me, “How do you make a church grow?” My response would be, “I don’t know.”  When it comes to church growth I don’t think you can make it happen, you can only stop it from happening.  The same is true with diversity.  Only God can make it happen but we can do a lot to prevent it; therefore, we need to intentionally address the barriers that get in the way.

Mark DeYmaz in his book Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church, says that “most local church leaders…are glad for diverse individuals to get involved ‘as long as they like our music, our preaching style, and our environment.  But they should not expect us to change for them.’  Therefore, the message being sent, whether directly or indirectly, is that ‘you might feel more comfortable in another church down the street.’”

In order to send a different message we knew that we had to be intentional about music, language, staffing and false barriers.

Music Barrier

Some multi-cultural churches take a “music appreciation” approach to their worship services with each song is done in it’s pure form—Gospel by the gospel choir; praise by the praise team and hymns with the organist.  This can work but it requires the pastor to remind the various groups in the congregation that some of the songs are for them and others are not.  If they don’t like the songs that are not from their tradition they can at least learn to appreciate them because it is for the benefit of their brother or sister in Christ who is from different culture.

We chose to take a different route by looking for what could be called “crossover genres.”  Paying attention to the local concert venues and taking note as to which bands draw a diverse audience will reveal these.  When you do this you’ll notice that when a country star or classic rock band comes to town that the crowd is not as diverse as with Prince, Earth, Wind and Fire or the Commodores.  The crossover genres in our city are R & B, Jazz and mainstream hip-hop.  Thus, in order to remove the music barrier we decided to filter gospel, praise and hymns through these forms so every song has a higher degree of accessibility to maximum number of people.

Language Barrier

Some barriers are insurmountable on a practical level.  Geographical distance and language may be two such barriers.  Geography isn’t a barrier that we face as a church but language is.  We are an English-speaking congregation and have yet to crack the bi-lingual, multi-lingual code.

However, we are intentional about watching our language.  For example, we never use phrases like, “color blind.”  The person who says it usually means well but the person to whom it is directed is left with the question, “Why would you not want to see me for who God made me to be?”  As a leader I point these sorts of things out often.

Trillia Newbell calls us to a higher use of language in our cross-cultural interactions with this video about her recent book, United:  Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity.

Staffing Barrier

meetourstaffWe are intentional when it comes to recruiting and maintaining a multicultural staff. When people attend worship they should see themselves reflected on the platform and in their pastoral staff.

I agree wholeheartedly with DeYmaz when he says, “we should not expect to integrate our leadership teams through random prayer or wishful thinking.  Diverse individuals of godly character, theological agreement, and shared vision do not just arrive on waves of whim.  Rather, they must be intentionally sought.”

False Barriers

We also rejected false barriers.  We refuse to believe that you can only reach people like yourself.  Philip was a Jewish man with a Greek name.  God called him to share the gospel with an Ethiopian eunich.  Anyone can reach anyone!

Popular in church growth literature is the idea that multi-cultural churches wont grow.  We chose to reject that notion.  Even if it was true, we are compelled by a higher calling of faithfulness to the gospel.

Join the Conversation:  What do you think of the statement, “When it comes to diversity in a church you can’t make it happen, you can only stop it from happening?” What other false barriers do you think need to be rejected?

hands symbol of diversityTaste of Heaven

As a Christian, the pursuit of a multi-ethnic worshipping community is a response to what we read and see in the scriptures.

We want to be the answer to Jesus’ prayer:  “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”  (Jn. 17.23)

Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream but we serve the King who prayed for and paid for the dream to become a reality.

Jesus taught us to pray for life on earth to be “as it is” in heaven.  When John glimpsed eternity he saw, “every nation, tribe, people and language standing before the throne and in front of the lamb.” (Rev. 7.9)  That is so beautiful.  When heaven arrives and we receive our glorified bodies our ethnicity and nationality will still be distinguishable.

A multicultural church wants a taste of heaven now.  As followers of Christ we seek “as it is” moments.  Worshipping and serving as a multi-ethnic congregation is a preview of heaven.  It is one of those rare times that heaven and earth meet.

Efrem Smith in his book, The Post-Black & Post-White Church, reminds us that this was the goal of the civil rights movement.  Smith wrote, “The multi-ethnic and missional church as a Christ-centered community becomes the beloved community that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of.”  The church remaining segregated was ultimately the source of King’s nightmare and the King of Kings heartache.

Join the conversation:  What do you think about the concept that your view of eternity should inform the kind of church you choose today?

“A” Value Not “The” Value

I believe we set ourselves up for failure when we make diversity “the” value instead of “a” value in a church.  When it is “the” value it is front and center and all we see.  When it is “a” value it is always on our radar screen but not the dominant priority.

??????????????????????????For us at Colorado Community Church becoming multi-ethnic was not the primary goal.  Our focus was our call to transform our city and beyond by connecting people to Christ, community and calling.  That is what is front and center for us.

As we live this out there are many convictions that guide us (nine to be exact). One of these is that we are inter-cultural thus we celebrate our God given differences in all aspects of ministry. Diversity is “a” value for us but not “the” value that is given precedence above all others.

First and foremost the mission of the Church is to grow the saved, reach the lost and care for the downtrodden.  It is a gathering where Christ is worshipped; His Word is proclaimed; people are inspired, equipped and mobilized to serve Him; and where care, prayer and family are available to all.  Not being multi-ethnic can hinder this mission but we mustn’t think that it is the mission.

Horst and Greer say that there is an unspoken crisis facing leaders:  Mission Drift.  They write, “Without careful attention, [churches] will inevitably drift from their founding purpose and mission.  It’s that simple.  It will happen.”  Mission Drift is prevalent but not inevitable.  “Mission True organizations know why they exist and protect their core at all costs.”

Fostering a Culture of Diversity

We need to distinguish between being multi-ethnic and diverse.  A diverse church moves beyond black and white.  Colorado Community Church is not just ethnically eclectic but we enjoy denominational, theological, political, age and spiritual diversity too.

This is fostered in two ways:  1) Our view of the larger body of Christ and 2) our approach giving.

hands symbol of diversity

Weaving a Fabric of Friendship:  We truly believe that Jesus only sees one church when he looks at our city–it just happens to meet in 1500 locations!  The Body of Christ spoken of in I Corinthians 12 is not about one local church but all the local expressions of the church in a particular city.  That being the case our desire is to play our role in relationship to the other expressions of Jesus’ church.

We recognize that we are only a small part of a larger whole and for our city to be reached we must seek to unify the church to serve the needs of our community.  It is imperative that we build kingdom partnerships with other ministries across racial, class and denominational lines.

Growing Fruit on Other’s Trees:  This is expressed most practically in our generosity.  In an attempt to live openhandedly with the blessings of God we ask every member to give generously to God but NOT to give it all to Colorado Community Church.  We budget based upon half of our people’s giving thus freeing them up to radically bless others.

WE CALL THIS 5 + 5:  Everyone is encouraged to give a least ten percent of their income to God; half  to the church and the other half they hold on to to give outside our walls to other churches and ministries.  This forces us to put our money where our mouth is when it comes to diversity.  Jesus taught us that our heart follows our treasure and we want our hearts connected with our brothers and sisters wherever they worship in our city.

Ultimately, this way of thinking only furthers the culture of diversity within our own congregation.

Dr. David Anderson, pastor of the vibrantly multi-ethnic Bridgeway Community Church, writes about the art of inclusion in his book Gracism.   He defines this new term saying, it is “the positive extension of favor on other humans based on color, class or culture.” Grace crosses all barriers, not just race.

Anderson says that one way gracism plays itself out is through grace-onomics:  “…the leveraging of financial and relational networks to help others succeed in their economic worlds…Grace-onomics are acts of gracism as they relate to money, class, opportunity and justice.  Such acts are at the heart of reconciliation”

Depositphotos_11227702_xsMetaphors Matter

Metaphors matter immensely when we cast vision for a multi-ethnic congregation.

How do we communicate the kind of unity that the Spirit of God makes possible?  What image captures the kind of diversity we see at Pentecost?

E Pluribus Unum—from the many one—is the motto for our nation.  But we have had many bad metaphors to communicate this maxim.

For example, the melting pot requires that you give up your unique identity for the sake of the new culture; it’s more about the one than the many.  The salad bowl analogy allows for each part to remain distinct but then we are left to argue as to what our unifying “dressing” should be.  Ultimately it is more about the many than the one.

Ensemble Community

I’m grateful that we have an indigenous metaphor of unity without uniformity.  There is a product of our country that was born out of the tensions of E Pluribus Unum:  Jazz.

Ensemble community balances the individual and the group. Each person remains distinct while playing the same song. Everyone brings who they are to the experience as the Spirit calls out the song.  We live in concert with and for each other.

Click here for more information about Jazz Theology & my book, Finding the Groove:  Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith 

Cultivating Curiosity

As I look back over the last fifteen years of leading a multi-ethnic congregation I am more committed than ever to this beautiful expression of the gospel.  It is a joy to worship in a community that celebrates our God-given differences.

ae86271e9b7fe58dabce3a59b33be7e2Do You Taste Like Chocolate?

In the 1994 movie Corrina, Corrina, there’s a wonderful scene with two little girls that gives hope for what can be in multi-ethnic community.

Molly (a little white girl) says to Lizzie (a little black girl), “Do you taste like chocolate?”  Lizzie responds, “I don’t know, do you taste like vanilla?”

For the next few moments they proceed to lick each others cheeks!

Inquisitiveness is innate to children.  It’s normal for a child to wonder and ask probing questions of discovery.  Inquiry about skin tone and hair texture flows without inhibition. Then we grow up.  As adults we sense the barriers that society has set up and fear keeps us from getting close to them and each other.  Instead we rely on our self-made fig leaves and our shame keeps us from far from each other.  However, when we come to Christ together his grace clothes and opens up new realities.

Multi-ethnic community is about growing young in an environment where curiosity is cultivated as the norm for christian relationships.

2 thoughts on “The Making of a Multi-Ethnic Church (Parts 1-7)

  1. Reading the “making of a multi- ethnic church” is its totality( all 7 parts) is so encouraging. If I lived within 50 miles of Colorado Community Church it would be the church locale for my “working out my salvation in fear and trembling”. God bless you and thank you.

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