Urban Ministry 6
Last week we discussed the foundational importance in urban ministry of building a multi-ethnic church. In the Bible understanding is why, wisdom is how, and knowledge is what. Having briefly helped you last week to understand why urban ministries should be multi-ethnic I want to build on that by giving you some knowledge and wisdom. In other words, I want to give you some ideas about what you should and should not do in order to accomplish this. Our church has grown into an average sized church with significantly above average ethnic diversity. How did it get that way?
Negatively, I learned early on the cost of telling ethnic jokes. Let me give you a perfectly awful example of something I said from the pulpit in my first few months as pastor here. Back then I was still asking visitors to introduce themselves during a service. We had one complete Hispanic family and they had brought some visitors that were also Hispanic. As our members introduced their friends to the church I thought it would be a great time to tell the one good Hispanic joke I knew. I said, "Hey, Bro. __________, do you know why the Mexicans never win anything in the Olympics? Because all the ones that can run, swim, or jump have already crossed the border into the United States."
Yes. I really said that. From the pulpit. During a service. While greeting Hispanic visitors. I look back on that now with utter and complete horror. Needless to say that visiting couple never returned, and we soon lost the couple that were already members. It was a painful way to learn a lesson but learn it I did. It is foolish to directly exploit ethnicity in an insulting manner for a cheap laugh. Because I am white it screams, "We white people think that we are better than you!" Do I believe that? No. Did I believe that then? Also no. But that is how it came across. Honestly, just lose all the ethnic jokes, permanently.
More importantly on the negative side, do not segregate classes or ministries by ethnicity. I spoke of my mistakes in that regard earlier in this series. Yes, we currently have a Spanish language adult Sunday School class, but we also have Hispanic adults that attend our other adult classes, and we still bring all the adults together in each of our three weekly preaching services. It is not uncommon at all in our services to hear someone softly whispering in Ukrainian or Tagalog or Spanish while I preach. Not only is it not uncommon it does not bother me in the least. I welcome and encourage it.
Before I discuss the the specific steps we have taken that have helped us in a positive way let me take a moment to establish a governing philosophy in your mind. It is not enough for me as the pastor not to be racist. Certainly I must start there but it is not enough. Why? Because I can be sincerely color blind in my approach but that does not mean the various minorities that visit here sense that. In other words, our church can be ethnically neutral in our approach and still fail to be welcoming to those of a minority ethnicity who visit here. We are not good at hospitality when we think we are; we are welcoming and hospitable when those who visit here think we are. Minorities are often very conscious that they are minorities. They do not want to assume racism but they often cannot help how they feel. I must find a way to lead our church to immediately and constantly reassure them that they are welcomed.
For example, if a black family walks into our church for the first time and every face they see is white how will they feel? They will almost certainly feel uncomfortable. What I have to do as a pastor is to somehow find a way to lead my church to understand this, and then to structure it in such a way so that is not the case.
This thought leads me to the overarching principle that drives our approach: we work incredibly hard at putting all kinds of ethnicities in front of our people. When you arrive for your first time visit to our church for the main Sunday morning service you will be met outside the door by a group of very young children. They stand on the sidewalk and wave at the cars passing by. That group of children contains Caucasian, Hispanic, and Asian children. You will probably pull up while our church van is unloading those who park in our unattached parking lot. On the side of that van is a graphic about four feet high that contains a picture of a Hispanic adult male and female, an African American adult female, an Asian male, and young Caucasian girl all of whom are actually from our church. When you walk in the front door you will be greeted by the cheerful adult lady who staffs our Welcome Center. That job is rotated amongst a group of ladies that is majority minority. In other words, there are more African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians on that staff than there are Caucasians. Once you have been warmly welcomed there, given a visitor's packet, and had your questions answered, you will be directed to our auditorium up the stairs to the right. As you climb the stairs you will pass flags that represent the nations in which our missionaries minister. You will find well known flags from each continent of the world. At the top of the stairs you will be met by an usher wearing a green suit jacket emblazoned with our church name and logo. He may be white but he probably will not be because our usher corps is staffed similarly to our Welcome Center. He will smile, shake your hand, open the door, and direct you to an available seat. As the service begins I open in prayer, but then I do not return to the pulpit until I preach. A Hispanic man leads a song. A majority minority choir led by an Asian woman sings from the platform. An Asian man leads a song. The Hispanic man comes back for three more songs. A different Asian man leads us in corporate Scripture reading and prayer. I preach. Two ushers, one of whom is Caucasian and one of whom is almost always not, lead in prayer and receive the offering. A different Asian man leads us in the closing chorus and we are done.
Do you get the picture? No matter what color you are you see someone in front of you at some point who looks like you and sounds like you. That person clearly has an important role to play at our church. What do these things quietly shout to our minority visitor? You, too, can be at home here like they are.
Some reading this will scoff, call it a religious brand of affirmative action, and declare it manipulative. Stuff and nonsense. It is not affirmative action for the qualifications for each of these positions are exactly the same no matter your color. And it is not manipulative to ensure that various ethnicities feel the welcome that genuinely exists in our hearts. It is knowledge and wisdom applied because we understand how people feel.
This works. It really works. Just last Wednesday I was unable to preach because I was sick. Our newest deacon, a mid-thirties Filipino man preached in my place. Unbeknownst to me he told the story of his first impression of our church. He and his brand new wife had moved to Chicago in 2007 and were looking for a Baptist church. He pulled up our website, and when he saw Filipino faces smiling at him in pictures he decided to visit. Nine years later he is an integral part of our church.
Of course, our inclusive (and do not hate that word because of how it is improperly applied in our day) approach is not limited to the people our visitors see in front of them when they attend on Sunday morning. It bleeds out into so many different areas of our church. Three of our four deacons are Asian men. Seven of our nine Sunday School classes are taught by minority teachers. I regularly preach against racism in my sermons because I find it taught in so many places in the Word of God. I do not have to unnaturally force it on the text; I find so often that it is already there. Ten different laymen share the pulpit when I am occasionally absent; seven of them are of an ethnic minority. We will often celebrate some aspect of a certain culture or ethnicity such as having a group of Filipinos sing together in English and Tagalog for our Christmas Party every year. At our International Dinner during Missions Week we encourage each person to bring a food that is unique to their culture. We stock tracts in a large variety of languages. I could go on and on and on. It has literally become the way we operate on so many levels.
Did we have all this when I started? Truthfully, my predecessor had already taken some steps in this direction before I arrived. I made a few mistakes, learned some tough lessons, and built on what he had done with what I have learned. Now then, whatever color or age or gender or class you are you will find someone like you in front of you when you visit, smiling broadly, greeting you warmly, and making you feel the welcome that genuinely exists in our hearts for all of the human race.
And the reason for this is not pragmatic; it is scriptural.
James 2:1 My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons.
2 For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment;
3 And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool:
4 Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?
5 Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?
6 But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats?
7 Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called?
8 If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well:
9 But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors.
The Saviour welcomes sinners. All kinds of them. And His church should reflect His heart in this as in all other things.