Reflections on Becoming a Multi-Ethnic Church

2014 Multi-Ethnic Symposium
A conversation during the 2014 Multi-Ethnic Symposium that included presenter Dcs. Raquel Rojas (right).

The Multi-Ethnic Symposium just concluded (January 27-28) reminds us of the changing mission environment in which the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod seeks to be, as confessional Lutherans, a faithful witness to the visible church on earth.  Whether any earthly manifestation of the kingdom of God, described in the New Testament as disciples of all nations, including those of all languages, tribes, and tongues (Rev 7:9), is exemplified by a church body that is 95% Anglo is a troubling question worth pondering.  Certainly it can’t be our theology.  Could it be our culture?

As cultural anthropologists reminded us, we cannot separate theology from culture except in the abstract, but we need to know and recognize the difference.  The Gospel is incarnate and came in the person and work of the Jewish man, Jesus of Nazareth, son of David and Abraham, son of Adam, son of God.  The anchors of Lutheran theology are grounded in solus Christus, sola gratia, sola fide, and sola scriptura. The cultural elements of the LCMS are tied to 16th century Europe, the Saxon immigration, and American life in the last several centuries, where our beloved synod has adapted and changed. We have learned to function as a synod primarily in English, not German, even as we now hear other languages amongst us. The same confessional Lutheran theology, for it to be biblical and catholic, can be manifest, articulated, and celebrated in a diversity of cultural expressions.

It is easy to expect others to give up some cultural identity to join us. It is harder to give up some of our cultural heritage, which also relates to our sense of identity. But if cultural claims might actually interfere with the mission of Christ to all nations, in which culture is always present but secondary to the new unity in the Body of Christ, shouldn’t we be willing to consider what we, too, might give up for the sake of the larger identity?

This is a critical issue without easy answers, and Concordia Seminary will continue to provide safe space for listening and learning from one another.  We will continue to take seriously the insights of cultural anthropology, too long marginalized in our discussions of theology and culture.  We will continue to listen to the voices and variety of cultural expressions, incorporated into our life and worship and witness.  We will continue to affirm and profess our Lutheran theology, as anchored in Christ, normed by Scripture, and articulated in our Confessions. We will continue to utilize the creativity and “problem-solving” strength of our Lutheran heritage, now into the 21st century, built on the past but always ready to engage the present and future.  This is no time for simple repristination or a formalized restoration of the past as though that will adequately address the issues of today and tomorrow.

So what will a multi-cultural LCMS look like?  Some corners of the church are showing us, and it is a joy to behold.  We even had a foretaste of feasts to come in the symposium worship service—as nations gathered, flowing into the Chapel of St. Timothy and St. Titus for a thoroughly Lutheran (and thus also catholic) worship service of word, prayer, and praise that reflected the inculturation of the Word of God into a wonderful diversity of cultural expression.  Maybe this isn’t so hard.  But it does take some good work.

We Anglo(-Saxons) have much to learn from others, even as we have something to offer and teach as well. This will take listening, time, and patience.  We need to understand and negotiate the ever-present differentiations of power.  It’s not simply “be or become like us,” but how will we all be together in Christ?  Every one gives up something, and for many, that is the support of family and indigenous culture that many of us, as “native” Lutherans, often take for granted.  While many of our own children are now reminding us that we can be left behind with our beloved synod, sons and daughters of those outside the LCMS culture are finding Christ somewhere in our midst, and we should rejoice in the power of God’s Word and Spirit that unites us.





9 responses to “Reflections on Becoming a Multi-Ethnic Church”

  1. Johnson Rethinasamy Avatar
    Johnson Rethinasamy

    Great article for our times among our tribes struggle on multiculturalism.
    What to “give up for the sake of the larger identity”?
    Let us consider finding ways to dismantle and separate the embedded practices of colonialism out of our missiology and our colonial mission practices worldwide. It is bad. Very bad. It seems to be on the rise in our tribe. It should change. Church of the Reformation and her confession is always empowering the indigenous communities and appreciating cultural anthropology. Do you think we really have that in our tribe’s theological education and pastoral formation?

    1. Andrew Bartelt Avatar
      Andrew Bartelt

      Thanks, good brother Johnson; I do hope we are making some progress, but colonialist tendencies are always lurking. You remind us that we have a long way to go. Open dialogue based on trust can help us identify the problems, but we need to name these issues and give examples so we can deal with them.

      You are right about the strengths of the Reformation to give God’s Word back to the people, with the Bible and worship in forms and language they understand and use. That’s an example of the “creativity and problem-solving” that is a great strength of our heritage. Our understanding of biblical theology is also a great strength and heritage, and it should not be limited or constrained by protectionist issues of culture (which is a defensive move), or worse, colonialism, as you note (which is both an offensive move, and offensive!). So we continue to work on distinguishing the unity of confession and of the church catholic amidst the diversities of all nations, tribes, and tongues. Our Lord emptied himself as a servant and died so that something radically new may “come forth and arise,” given by God’s power and Spirit.

      Your concern about theological education and pastoral formation is well taken. Diversity is greater at our seminaries than in the larger church as a whole, but that’s not saying much. When our CHS and EIIT students are on campus, it increases significantly. But it is still nowhere near the current or future diversity of our society, certainly not that of Queens, NYC, or as Dcs Rojas reminded us, of the Bronx! Your perspective from those neighborhoods is appreciated and needed!

  2. Al Buckman Avatar

    If the multi-ethnic numbers among us are to be increased, effective models, methods and structures for doing so must be given visibility and duplicated endlessly. Otherwise it will continue to be meet, discuss and lament over and over again.

    1. Andrew Bartelt Avatar
      Andrew Bartelt

      Thanks, Al, and you have been on the front lines of effective models, methods, and structures. Meeting, discussion, and even some lamenting can give voice and expression to needs and concerns, and we continue to learn how to listen to one another, which is a skill too often lacking throughout the church. But thank God his Spirit is actually at work doing things, too! What are some examples of effective models, methods, and structures?

    2. Al Buckman Avatar


      Thanks for your comments, and my apologies for this tardy reply.

      I would suggest “Urban Missions – LCMS”, “POBLO (People of the Book Lutheran Outreach)” and “CFNA (Christian Friends of New Americans)” as some from among those who have demonstrated, or are demonstrating, effective cross cultural outreach in this country. NO doubt there are more.


  3. Robert Scudieri Avatar
    Robert Scudieri

    This is an oasis. Thank you CSL. I’ve heard it said we in the LCMS are declining in numbers because “We are not having enough children.” That is true only if we assume the only families we are reaching are white English speaking. We are better than that.

    1. Andrew Bartelt Avatar
      Andrew Bartelt

      Yes, I’ve heard it said, too, and it may well be true that some among us are not having enough children, but to what end? If we are engaged in generational self-genocide (<2 children is losing ground, and we are losing ground!), is the goal to make sure our church remains an Anglo-dominant church? You said it well: we are better than that. I’m all for the next generation, connected to the previous one, our grandfather’s church now as our grandchildren’s church, and of another generation; it is how God’s holy history moves forward, from generation to generation,
      and so that all the families of the earth will be blessed! And we should also be for all the families of the earth, not just our own children, being blessed by God's salvation!

  4. Chad ingle Avatar
    Chad ingle

    I use to by into the Lutheran idea that we’re having less children. But I realized what a cop out that indeed is, a mere embarassing exscus, just another form of defeatist language. There are 315 million people in the US, and how many of those don’t go to church

  5. Paul Mueller Avatar
    Paul Mueller

    I often challenge people to think about ministry among immigrant populations in the USA by asking them what Joy and I had to do when we traveled to Africa. They are quick to point out that learning the language, eating their food, learning about their culture and rules and such are very important if we are to communicate effectively and winsomely. Yet, when immigrant populations come to our shores, we expect them to model what we as missionaries did – learn OUR language, eat OUR food, learn about OUR culture and rules and such and then they will be able to hear OUR communication. People often give me this exact response for the method to reach other culture peoples. Seems to me that no matter where we meet different culture peoples, WE should take on the posture of missionary in order to effectively and winsomely share Christ with them. And BTW – immigrants to our shores know us MUCH better than we know them and their worldviews.

    Thnx to CSL for keeping this on the front burner.

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