Monday, January 2, 2017

Transitioning Your Church Toward Ethnic Diversity

Urban Ministry 11

From time to time questions come my way as a result of something I have blogged about. Today's post was birthed that way. A couple of months ago I wrote about the importance of building a multi-ethnic church. I also gave some specific suggestions about how to do so. The following question showed up in my inbox soon after; (I have taken out anything identifying in the question):

"I have enjoyed your blog series on multi-ethnic ministry. Here's why: I pastor in the ____________ area, specifically we are in a suburb that is a few miles from ___________ proper. Our area is changing rapidly. There is a heavy influx of Indians, Arabs, and Hispanics. Of course, the inner city families are finding their way out into the suburbs also. I live 3 miles from _______________.
In your last post titled "Build a Multi-ethnic Church: Here's How" you stressed good ways to show your neighborhood how one's church is *already* multi-ethnic. But all of your suggestions (which were good) assumed that the reader already had a multi-ethnic church, i.e., you already had diverse children to greet others outside, minority-race congregants with which to portray in the graphics, and multi-ethnic members to use as ministry volunteers.
My question is: how does one go from a 99% white church to a more diverse membership that would match the surrounding neighborhood? Churches that fail to do this close (as you know) and this is what is happening to the IFB churches in __________________. Since I have come here in '97 I have seen 3 IFB churches close, and I know of 4 on "life support." My church is doing fine (slow, steady growth), but I see that we will need to address the issue of diversification in the near future. The next 10 years is crucial, I think. Any suggestions are welcomed."

This is a great question, and comes from an angle I had entirely overlooked when I wrote the original posts. I have forwarded it to a number of other men who pastor in inner city environments. Today's post is a combination of their thoughts and my own.

First, preach about the importance of an ethnically neutral church. There is nothing wrong with a single ethnicity church if the entire community is that ethnicity. On the other hand there is everything wrong with a single ethnicity church when the community around it is diverse. God is clear in Scripture that there is only one race – the human race. And He expects His church to view it the way He does. Numerous times Jesus ministered to Gentiles. Paul is explicit in his epistles that ethnic prejudice has no place in the church.
Teaching God's position on ethnicity will not only help your church to be scriptural it will also help it practically. If the demographics of your community are undeniably moving in a diverse direction your church must reach out to stay alive. Show them this too. You don't have to go seed on it, but you should plan to mention it fairly often until it becomes natural to you.

Second, you can consciously choose to bring in ethnic minorities to minister. Find an African-American evangelist. Partner with a Hispanic missionary next. I do not merely mean someone going to Mexico; I mean someone who is himself Hispanic. You cannot do this often but every time you do it you will be acclimatizing your people to the realization that God's people are not white, or black, or brown; they are just human.

Third, as the pastor do your personal soul winning in ethnic neighborhoods. I've said a thousand times on this blog that you reap a harvest where you place an emphasis. Place your emphasis where you wish to harvest. If you can reach someone pour extra time into mentoring/discipling them. At first when they attend your church they will feel out of place, but if you build a close personal relationship with them they will come for you in spite of their feeling of discomfort. That then gives you something to build on.

Fourth, pray for ethnic laborers. The only prayer request Jesus ever mentioned was a plea for the Father to send laborers into His harvest. Many times in my twenty years in the pastorate I have gone to God with the need for a specific type of laborer. More often than not over time He has brought exactly that kind of person to our church.

Fifth, include ethnic minorities in your advertising even if you have to use stock images to start with. If your intention in so doing is to tell those minorities they are welcome it isn't hypocritical; it is applied wisdom. At the same time it will also help your church to get used to the idea as well.

Sixth, start some kind of a ministry that will probably involve ethnic minorities. You do not have to say, "We are starting this in order to bring in black people." Just pick a ministry that involves the problems of people in poverty and you will automatically reach ethnic minorities. Start supporting or staffing a local food pantry. Buy a 15 passenger van and pick up children in a government housing project near you. The children there won't care that the rest of the church is different then them. Bring their parents in for special days. Once you get a key family there have them host a neighborhood BBQ. Invite all the neighbors for free food and just get to know them. Start or adopt a ministry to unwed mothers. Begin a ministry in a public school near you. Start an addictions ministry. Any of these, or numbers of others will inevitably involve substantial interaction with minorities. You know what's coming next, right? Wait for it – you reap a harvest where you place an emphasis.

This interaction with ethnic minorities must spring from a heart that genuinely wants to get to know them, and to reach them. Being patronizing will turn them off. Being aggressively political from the right wing will turn them off. Telling ethnic jokes will turn them off. Just love them. Work at getting to know their culture. Work at feeling comfortable around people who don't look like you. Work at building relationships in which church is not the first thing you mention. And then just love them. In a normal size church all it takes is one or two to begin coming in order to get the ball rolling. Take the time and effort to reach that one or two and then build off of that. the $64,000 question is will you lose some of your current people while you are doing this? Perhaps. And maybe I should say probably. But if you are a careful leader, if you don't jerk the wheel or jam it down people's throats, if you assure them that while you want to become multi-ethnic you are not going to change everything else, and if they trust you then you won't lose very many. Generally speaking, when you go to a new level as a church not everyone goes with you. I do not mean that harshly. I am not the kind of pastor that loses very many people, and I suspect if you read this blog you aren't either. But you may have to prepare yourself to lose some in this process.

One other thing bears mentioning, I think. Going from the ditch on one side of the road to the ditch on the other side of the road is common in American Christianity. I said much about that in my book, "Schizophrenic." As you lead your church into multi-ethnic ministry be careful not to replace an all-white church, for example, with an all-black church. You want all kinds of people to be welcome and to do that you need some of all kinds of people. Do not focus so heavily on one ethnicity that your church becomes predominantly that ethnicity. Aim in love for diversity, and then let God work.


  1. Amen from NY. Needed this

  2. This has been an excellent blog series! Most churches in my area self-segregate, we want to be an exception.

  3. Tom I have greatly enjoyed reading this. I do find it unfortunate that a church would lose anyone over this issue although I guess I understand it. You would think by this time everyone would accept that God doesn't see color differences in people we are all his people, that we should undoubtedly feel the same. Glad to see you take a stand for this!

  4. Very Good! We are starting to branch out, first with our own family. How? We are foster parents and we have fostered/adopted a hispanic/white girl and two cute little black boys along with four white kids! There it is! Multi ethnic. Everybody loves our family BTW really enjoyed Schizophrenic....good read.

    1. Thank you. And that is tremendous. I should have had you write this post. I'm quite sure your church will do just fine in this department. Excellent...

  5. Thank you for this article. There is a lot of wisdom here. I look forward to putting it into practice.