Monday, May 05, 2008

On mono/multi-cultural congregations

one differentI’ve really enjoyed reading Tony Siew’s two posts on race and religion, here and here. I have always struggled to negotiate the tensions inherent in the task of assimilating into British culture while retaining a distinctly Malaysian identity; it gets even more complicated when you factor in that I am in some ways very Western, having taken the road less travelled by studying for a degree in English Literature, and have also been involved in international ministry for some time now predominantly amongst East Asians!

This translates over into church as well, where I initially sort of fell into attending a Caucasian-majority church during my A-Levels – I had no say in the matter really, but this turned out to be a good thing – and have done so ever since. Part of the reason for this was a conviction that church congregations should ideally be multiracial, having grown up in such a church myself. (Isn’t it interesting that Tony comes from the same denomination as myself? Ahem. OK, enough boasting for now. :->) I should hasten to add that I did not view my choices of churches primarily through ethnic lenses; there were plenty of other, more important reasons why I committed to the churches I did. And in any case, there are plenty of times when church congregations can’t be multiracial – I’m thinking hypothetically of the small church in the Japanese countryside where’s there’s unlikely to be any foreigners around!

In truth, there is a gospel tension "between building one church that displays Christian love, and the Christian love that reaches out to people in all their diversity", as Carson puts it. Andrew Lim, a pastor in Australia who comes from a Chinese church context, helpfully lists both criticisms and valid reasons for a mono-ethnic cultural church:

  • They ignore the fact that we are all one in Christ (Galatians 3:28); there should not be distinctions (no longer Jew or Gentiles…)
  • They encourage cultural biases like a sense of superiority or monoculturalism
  • They are by definition racist, and may be seen by outsiders as such
  • They may foster cultural intolerance
  • They are inward and exclusive, by not seeking to minister to outsiders
  • They are prone to mix up cultural ethics with Biblical ethics
  • They restrict evangelistic opportunities. The environment might not be one you would feel comfortable inviting friends from other ethnic backgrounds to.
  • They are anti-integration and anti-assimilation, a charge often summed up by the questioning statement, “But we live in Australia [or Britain!]...”
Valid reasons
  • Jesus tells us to reach ‘all nations’ (Matthew 28:19)
  • They overcome language and cultural barriers to understanding the gospel
  • They target specific ethnic groups for evangelism
  • They are a better forum for addressing culture-specific issues
Andrew and Carson (and I!) all agree that there is plenty of value to mono-cultural congregations, especially for missional purposes. I also find them a much needed resting place when the task of crossing cultures become too taxing . The dangers come in when churches become more "Chinese [substitute any other ethnic grouping here] than Christian", and Andrew helpfully lists 7 key identifiers when this might happen, all of which can be said to be a variant of insularity and/or restrictiveness. In other words, against the grain of a gospel that purports to be for all cultures. His whole article is worth reading. May I gently suggest here too that I’m afraid that some Asian Christian gatherings in England run a real danger of falling into this trap.

My current church has a small afternoon mono-cultural congregation for people who come from a particular Asian country (or who speak their particular language), but at the same time, they are encouraged to participate in wider church activities which will see them mixing with Caucasians and others. I think this is quite a helpful model, although in practice it isn’t always as neat as outlined here!

What are some of things I’ve learnt from being in such a congregation? Well, firstly, I think in some small way, I really do understand more what it feels like to be a minority. I think I know more of what it feels like when there are not many who can always understand where you are coming from, or to appreciate certain jokes. I agree with Tony that we should be seeking to understand the cultures of others, and on some things that’s not a problem for me, but it’s also true that it’s unlikely you will be able to get to attain a similar level of understanding unless you have the luxury of time. To be fair, for some it’s easier than others; I think some Malaysians and Singaporeans in particular are brilliant at this. Just last night I was listening to banter about people’s experiences of Christian summer camps. I’ve been in British church circles long enough now to have some knowledge about Iwerne and Sparkford and Bash Camps and their influence on British evangelicalism generally, but I don’t really know what it’s like to go on one, and I found no avenue to participate in such a conversation. I think wistfully of the Christian camps I’ve been to as a teenager and think that it would have also been quite alien to the many around me!

But I also know a little more about what true gospel unity looks like. I can think of a couple of British Christian friends who have put in the hard work of getting to know me, and thus provided some impetus for me to put in the work myself and I am thankful for that. Again, for some people this is not a problem, but for me personally I know it’s unlikely to ever get to a stage where it’ll be second nature for me to relate to a Brit. And the hard work stems from the wider recognition that together, we are a body in Christ.

I like what Tony says about over-sensitivity as well. I know there are times when I find it difficult to relate and it’s easy to blame it simply on cultural differences, when it’s more a matter of, for example, different temperaments. I do find it hard occasionally that I do get pigeonholed with mainland Chinese, when in reality I am very different to them, but well, the answer should be better education, not explosive reaction! After all, I do get it from the other side as well, when Malaysians who hear that I’ve studied literature have me pigeonholed as some sort of Shakespeare-spouting thespian when I’m nothing of the sort.

Finally, Tony suggests that "Western churches make extra efforts to show hospitality and love to foreign students or workers in their midst". I am glad that British churches are beginning to wake up to the reality of the huge numbers of overseas students and workers that are flowing in. A good friend of mine has just recently been appointed to a newly created international students worker post at a London church and I’m excited for him.

Won’t it be great when the day comes when such struggles will be no more?

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Blogger Bob said...

I've been involved in Jewish evangelism the last 30 years in New York and DC and (the last 10 of those years) in Sydney. I grew up a Jew and came to Christ in 1971 in a multi-cultural congregation in Kansas City. I'm richer for being with my brothers and sisters of all peoples in the multi-churches.

As a sodality which reaches its own people, (and heaps of others), I'm very grateful for your comments about the positive/ valid reasons for monochromatic churches. D McGavran of Fuller Seminary wrote seminally on this topic decades ago and I was greatly influenced by his works. I'm very involved in Jews for Jesus and hope that those outside of the mono outreach/churches will speak well of us.

Thanks for your good words. Tiramakase!

11:33 pm  
Blogger BK said...

Sama-sama! Nice to hear about your experiences and work Bob. I've only met 2 Jews in my entire lifetime! Do you know Joseph Steinberg? He spoke once at my university but that's the extent of my knowledge of JforJ.

5:59 pm  
Blogger Bob said...

Hi BK,
Sure, I remember Joseph, when he was a teenager and sang with our music team and then as a priest in the UK and then with our workers for a few years. I haven't talked to him in years, but hope he's well.

And nice to meet you as well. God be with you. If you are ever in Aus or back home in Malaysia, hope you will let us know. We're almost neighbours.

12:46 am  

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