By: Tim Ahlen
The church I pastor in Dallas, TX has transitioned from being a monoethnic Anglo church to a multiethnic church. It took us eighteen years to make the transition. Today, we are 45% Caucasian, 15% African American, 15% Hispanic, 15% African, 5% Asians and 5% Others. We are a small congregation of 110 members, but we love who we are, and we love Jesus. This past Sunday, our music included classic negro spirituals in honor of Black History Month, Spanish contemporary praise, and English language gospel songs.
Additionally, we have over the years helped plant seven generations of monoethnic language churches through which we reach out to the highly diverse immigrant community of North Dallas. Five of those churches share our church facilities and function as partners in our church’s ministry.
I’m sharing this lengthy introduction to lend credibility to the point I want to make. About ten years ago, I was invited to be a guest lecturer in a class on Multiculturalism at a local Baptist University. I prepared for the lecture with enthusiasm, assuming I would be met by a roomful of young college students eager to salute the same Diversity flag to which I was committed. The big day came, and I walked into that room, which was indeed full of those young, culturally diverse college students.
I started my lecture with a deluxe PowerPoint presentation entitled “Multiculturalism and the Church.” I was brilliant (LOL), quoting MLK: “The most segregated hour in America. . . ” I cited Galatians 3:28: “. . .no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. . . ” I took them to the Church at Antioch in Acts 13: “. . . Among the prophets and teachers. . . Simeon (called “the black man”). My arguments were irrefutable. My illustrations inspiring. When I was done, I opened the floor for questions, confident that the class would ask me to lead in a rendition of “Just as I Am.”
The first question came from a young second-generation Korean woman, who said, “Wait a minute. Let me get this straight. I already have to walk around in your world six days a week. And now you want my Sunday too?”
(My prideful foundations began to tremble).
A young Hispanic man said, “Yes. The church is the only place where I can really be myself, speak my language and celebrate my culture. I’m not going to give that up.”
(The foundations began to crack).
An African American woman spoke up next and in no uncertain terms said, “Uh-huh! If you think I’m going to start going to a church where they worship like white folks– No! No! That ain’t happenin’!”
(The foundations crumbled to dust).
More conversation followed , all in the same vein. Each of the students, representing unique and diverse cultures, needed–even longed for– a sacred space to which they could retreat, where they could, in the Presence of Almighty God, celebrate who they were at the core of their being, without having to accommodate to the overwhelmingly dominant culture they are immersed in all during the rest of the week.
Bottom line, many well-meaning predominantly Caucasian churches want to include multiple ethnicities in their churches. They are intentional in their efforts. They do the demographics. They hire people of color. They put them on the platform. They do the social media and websites. And they see themselves as standing before the open doors of their sanctuaries with open hands extended to all. All are welcome here!
(But no one comes).
I asked an African American friend about this one day. He said, “Brother Tim. Those folks mean well, but they don’t realize that what they are saying is “You all can come here. We’d love to have you. You can be just like us! They see themselves standing with hands extended and arms open wide. What we see are hands extended but with fists ready for clenching. Put some nails in those hands,” my friend said. “You can’t clench your fists when you got nails in your hands. Do that, and maybe your church will be ready for diversity.”