Leading a Multiracial, Multiethnic, Multigenerational Church
By Darrell Geddes | Posted In Ministry Tools
While developing an urban ministries curriculum in the early 1990s as a faculty member at North Central University in Minneapolis, I became aware that the combined population of racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S. would outnumber the white population for the first time in the 21st century.
Growth in diversity, which for years has been concentrated in the nation’s large cities, is now expanding into suburban and rural areas as well.
According to “The Browning of America,” a report by William Frey of the Milken Institute, demographic patterns suggest seven states — Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Nevada and New Jersey — will be “majority minority” by 2030. A number of others will be at least 40% minority.
“We are in the midst of an epic transition,” says sociologist Stephen Klineberg, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University in Houston. “The United States throughout all of its history was an amalgam of European nationalities and is now becoming a microcosm of the world.”
The “browning of America” is affecting everything from political strategies to education initiatives. And it will affect the way we plant and pastor churches. We must seize this missional opportunity by viewing our communities through a multicultural lens, developing multicultural competencies, and embracing the inevitable changes that are taking place all around us.
In 2021, the Assemblies of God church I lead, Christ Church International (CCI), is celebrating 100 years of existence on the corner of 13th and Lake in Minneapolis. Formally known as the Gospel Tabernacle — or “The Tab” — it was influential in the early days of the Pentecostal movement in the upper Midwest.
CCI is the birthplace of North Central University, which has produced many leaders who have crisscrossed the globe with the good news of Jesus Christ.
However, CCI did not begin in a diverse setting. Norwegians and Swedes once dominated the neighborhood, and the congregation reflected that complexion for the first 60 years of its existence.
As the community began to change around CCI, the church — under the outstanding leadership of Pastor Paul Sundell — voted to remain and make a concerted effort to reach this new mission field.
So Christ Church International remains on the corner of 13th and Lake, in a community that is drastically different than it was in 1921. It is now a multiracial, multicultural and multigenerational church that is still attempting to crack the code of its community.
Our journey is a case study for other churches going through this process. If you are reaching out to a changing community with the unchanging message of the gospel, here are five things you cannot neglect:
1. Community Reflection
The segregated nature of America’s churches mirrors our broader society. Although every congregation should ideally reflect the great multitude in Revelation 7 — or at least the church at Antioch in Acts 11 — most churches are only as diverse as their communities.
This does not exempt us from knowing our communities. Demographics — statistical data on the characteristics of a population, such as race and ethnicity, age, education, and income — shed light on who we may be missing in our outreach efforts. Finding such information can be as easy as entering the name of your city and the word “demographics” in a search engine.
Over my 30 years of pastoral leadership, the churches I’ve pastored have reflected their communities.
In 1983, my wife and I planted Solid Rock Assembly of God in an established African American community in Little Rock, Arkansas. Though I had always dreamed of pastoring a multicultural church, Solid Rock was totally African American. In the three years we were there, only one family who was not Black visited our congregation, and they did not stay.
Similarly, Southside Worship Center (AG) in Chicago’s Englewood community — where I served two years as youth pastor and five years as senior associate pastor — was 100% African American.
These churches were reflections of their communities.
After nine years as an assistant professor at North Central University and two years as executive director of a nonprofit organization, I became the lead pastor of Christ Church International, which now sits in one of the most diverse communities in the upper Midwest.
The region includes large numbers of immigrants from Somalia and other African nations, Native Americans, Hispanics, African Americans, and Asian Americans.
CCI has the potential to reflect this diversity. But even with this vast mission field, we must be intentional. Jesus is our example in this.
Jesus went through Samaria to reach a Samaritan woman. He ministered to a Canaanite woman who demonstrated great faith. And Jesus commissioned the Church to go to the nations. If we fail to embrace this, we reject His Great Commission.
Not every church will be multicultural, multiethnic and multigenerational. Many will merely reflect their communities, and that is fine. I am not attempting to put an artificial demand on all churches to become diverse. But we do have a responsibility to reach our Jerusalem, our immediate community.
If your church is in a diverse community, your congregation should be diverse. We have a mandate to go into all parts of our respective communities and invite everyone to come to Christ (Luke 14:23).
Intentionality includes making sure those who are in places of high visibility within the ministry reflect the community we are trying to reach. Pastors and staff members should represent the diversity of the community at large.
It came to my attention that our board at CCI was diverse in ethnicity but did not reflect the church’s young adult population. We became intentional and fast-tracked our normal membership process to allow more people to become eligible for service.
After they completed the membership process, we nominated some outstanding young adults for positions on our board, and the church voted them in. Their presence sends a message to our young adults that we value their perspectives.
We also need to be intentional in our forms and styles of outreach. Every July, CCI hosts a block party event. We obtain permits from the city and cordon off part of 13th Avenue, filling the space with inflatables and obstacle courses.
Our resident chef cooks chicken, hamburgers, and hot dogs, and our congregation provides the sides and desserts. We crank up the music and invite the public to join us, especially residents of the diverse community that surrounds us on all sides.
Many Spanish-speaking people attended our first block party, but we were limited in our ability to communicate effectively with them. The next year, we partnered with Maranatha Minneapolis Church (AG), a bilingual congregation that meets on our property. Maranatha members provided music in Spanish and helped us by interpreting and engaging conversationally with our Spanish-speaking guests.
We have continued this partnership over the years, teaming up with Maranatha again last summer as we ministered to our community following the death of George Floyd and widespread social unrest.
Intentionality can apply to worship as well. Many churches that boast diversity have a narrow expression in their weekly worship experience. Although their congregants may be diverse, the worship experience is controlled by the dominant culture. It is good practice to use a more inclusive approach whenever possible. It isn’t easy, and it requires a talented and flexible worship team, but it is worth the investment.
If your church is in a diverse community, your congregation should be diverse.
CCI is blessed with amazing musicians who make an effort to include something for everyone. For example, we have a large contingent of West Africans who have graciously accepted a culture of worship expression that is not their own.
Our worship team put together a worship medley of African songs that had appeal across the African countries represented in our congregation. The entire church responded to it with joy and dancing.
As Mark DeYmaz says in Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church, “A multi-ethnic church does not just happen. Planters and reformers alike must first identify and then take intentional steps to turn their vision into reality.”
3. Relationship Building
A diverse congregation does not necessarily guarantee the establishment of relationships across ethnic, cultural and generational lines.
Yet, as DeYmaz points out, “The development of relationships, specifically, the development of relationships that transcend ethnic and economic barriers, are essential for building a healthy multi-ethnic church.”
I observed early on at CCI that though we were diverse in our numbers, people stayed in individual silos. At the end of our morning worship experience, our diverse congregation was not mingling.
You could consistently find the seniors by the water fountain and library. Our African population occupied most of the foyer. And our young adults remained in the sanctuary, while the youth filled in the Connecting Point Café. Everyone had retreated to their corners — to what was most familiar to them.
We attempted to counteract this by instituting monthly community meals. But even at these events, people clustered in demographically similar groups.
So, we not only assigned seating for a time, but we also had a list of questions at each table that fostered the opportunity for individuals sitting together to go beyond superficial communication and form relationships with other members of the church.
We also launched a ministry we called Journey, to connect people across generations through mutually supportive relationships. We have a large senior adult population and an equally large segment of young adults. We felt our young adults, who were just starting careers and families, could benefit from mentoring relationships with seniors who had successfully navigated these life stages.
Although we only did this for a short time, the cross-generational relationships that formed are thriving to this day. For example, an African American senior adult mentored a white young adult missionary candidate. The younger woman went to the Middle East, maintaining contact with her mentor while she was away, and has reestablished a close connection since returning to the U.S.
4. Cultural Sensitivity
Leading a diverse church requires a desire to learn about other people — and a willingness to do what it takes to show them the love of Christ and reach them with the gospel.
Soon after I assumed the lead pastor role at Christ Church International, my wife and I accepted an invitation to a party celebrating the completion of a graduate degree by one of our Nigerian young adults. We were excited about his accomplishment and honored to celebrate with him and our West African community. The invitation indicated the event would take place from 4 to 8 p.m. at a local reception center.
My wife and I dressed for the occasion and arrived at 3:50 p.m. — an appropriate time by Western standards. As the first to arrive, we sat down and waited patiently for others. To our surprise, the event didn’t start until 5:30, and people continued arriving well past the stated ending time.
The two of us had a choice as to how we would react to this situation. We could become angry and disappointed at the lack of punctuality demonstrated by the celebrant and his guests, or we could grow in our understanding of how their culture treats time.
We chose the latter and now arrive acceptably late for West African celebrations, understanding that showing up and rejoicing with those who rejoice is far more important than being on time.
Let me share another example of the need to develop cultural sensitivity. During my leadership at CCI, I have had the privilege of hiring five competent youth pastors. One of them was a Detroit Pistons fan who wore his hair in the same braided style as players Ben Wallace and Richard Hamilton. His braids were well-maintained and stylish, but they represented something totally different in Western African culture.
One of the West African leaders in our congregation took me aside and told me West African men wore braids to demonstrate consecration and commitment to pagan gods.
After becoming aware of this, I arranged a meeting with members of the West African community and my youth pastor. We discussed their concern, the innocence of the hairstyle within the African American community, and the great influence our youth pastor had on the young men of the congregation.
The youth pastor graciously agreed to refrain from wearing this particular hairstyle in deference to the concerns of the West African community.
Diverse leadership that reflects the community you are attempting to reach is paramount in building a successful multiethnic, multicultural and multigenerational church.
When I have time off from pastoring at CCI, I enjoy visiting other churches, especially multiethnic churches. However, I’ve noticed that even when the congregation is diverse across ethnic, cultural and generational lines, the leadership often reflects the dominant culture. To me, this dichotomy conveys the message, “You can worship with me, fellowship with me, and deposit your tithe and offering here, but you cannot lead me.”
When I took the helm of Christ Church International 18 years ago, I inherited a diverse team. My predecessor left me with a staff that was on its way to being a reflection of the community in which we were located.
Our worship pastor was of Chinese descent. Our lead singer was a young man from Trinidad, and the other vocalists were African, African American, and white. Our children’s pastor was a competent young white woman who had excellent cross-cultural skills and was highly effective in ministering to a diverse kids’ church.
Over our youth was a brilliant, young African American man who was fluent in Spanish and had a heart for missions. Our senior adults pastor was a former lead pastor of the church; he had made the decision to remain in the neighborhood and had built the sanctuary in anticipation of reaching the community as it changed.
As these pastors began to matriculate out to other assignments, I was determined to continue the pattern that had been established. Over the past 18 years, we have remained intentional in our efforts to reflect the congregation and the community in choosing leaders for pastoral positions. The guiding principles for making those choices have been competence, ethnicity, and cultural acuity.
Every church setting is unique, and there is no perfect template for growing a diverse congregation in a diverse community. However, if you seek to reflect your community, reach out with intentionality, build relationships, grow in cultural sensitivity, and raise up leaders who look like the people you serve, you will be moving in the right direction.
May you reach your Jerusalem as we all labor together to reach a harvest from “every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9).
This article appears in the January–March 2021 edition of Influence magazine.