“Communities of Hope, One Community in Christ”: Becoming a Multiethnic Church?

multiethnic symposiumEditor’s note: Andy Bartelt provides the first of two reflections on the Multiethnic Symposium held at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, January 26-27, 2016. Videos of Symposium presentations can be viewed at scholar.csl.edu or downloaded at iTunes U.

After five multiethnic symposia over the past 10 years, we are making progress. When this symposia series began, under the leadership of John Loum, Leo Sanchez, and various ethnic leaders from the church, we hoped simply to create some safe space for honest discussion of the issues that tend to keep us such an Anglo-dominant church, and we have learned much in simply talking – and listening – to one another.

A major theme has consistently highlighted the important tension between the unity of faith and confession as one body in Christ and the diversity that represents God’s gifts inculturated into the real lives of real people from every nation, tribe, people, and tongue. Drawing on the motifs of community and hope that have framed every previous symposium, we listened to the various “communities of hope” that find unity in the “one community in Christ.” The plural “communities” is intentional and important and raises the question of how biblical and confessional Lutheran theology is inculturated and expressed within different communities, each in – and from – its own cultural context.

What have we learned?  First, that our LCMS is, can be, and needs to be multiethnic. If we actually believe that our confessional theology best expresses the truth of God’s Word, then we simply must be intentional about any barriers that may privilege our culture over God’s theology. Is our Lutheran theology really only best suited for Anglos? Over the years we have learned that our non-Anglo brothers and sisters love our church for our theology and confession of faith, but generally do so in spite of a long list of cultural insensitivities, from use of the parish kitchen to understanding different worldviews.

This is tricky business, as cultural identity and barriers cut both ways: we are all creatures of our cultures, and we all need to cross boundaries. But as the dominant culture of our church body, we Anglos need to take extra effort and care that what we are communicating as the truth and message of God’s Word is, in fact, God’s Word and not our own culturally appropriate way of articulating and confessing and practicing it. All too easily “cross-cultural mission” is really an invitation for others to enter into our context and be and do church “like us.”

And so we need to listen. Instead of our talking about how we Anglos should be doing multiethnic ministry, we learned from ethnic leaders themselves, including our own faculty colleague Kou Seying, along with Rev. Mason Okubo, the first graduate of our cross-cultural program with Concordia University, Irvine.  We German-Americans like to be problem solvers, but sometimes we are the problem! A key question that framed the whole symposium was the shift from being a church that “does ethnic ministry” to being a truly “multiethnic church.” Sometimes it’s easier (or at least more fulfilling, and maybe even deceiving) to “do” rather than “to be.” We need not only to give voice and expression to all, but also to take other cultural perspectives seriously, even getting past cultural stereotypes – and sometimes celebrating cultural stereotypes! – to knowing one another as persons who are loved and redeemed by God in Christ.

We know that God’s worldview will always be “counter-cultural,” but it is also incarnate into the world of cultures.  For all the concern about our distinctiveness from “American culture,” we might consider the need for our synod actually to reflect the demographics of the social context in which we live as God’s people. America is not 95% Anglo, but our church is. And while there is legitimate concern about the declining birth rate among Anglos, it’s not simply about making sure we have enough Anglos in the next generation. The greater concern in the mission of our church is about God’s mission to all nations, which are all around us.

Finally, we were reminded again of the importance of the ministerial use of social sciences, something many too easily dismiss with general broadsides against “church growth.” Most of us grew up in a church of Meyer, Schmidt, Krueger, and Schultz in congregations that looked alike, thought alike, sang alike, smelled alike. Few of us have had any formal study in cultural anthropology. To sauerkraut we have added some wonderful new tastes and smells. Jack Schultz from Concordia Irvine has been a major presenter in two of the past symposia, and this year our own James Voelz coordinated a session that engaged readings of Mark 9:14-29 (the demoniac son) from a Native American, Hmong, and West African cultural context to show what different “meaning producing factors” are in play from different cultural contexts. We do well with our understanding of theology, but attention to cultural issues will take some humble learning.

So now what? Practically speaking, do something! While issues are complex and sensitive, small but significant steps can easily be taken. Walk the neighborhood, engage conversation, bring questions not answers, and bear the servant’s mind and heart of Christ. Many of our workshops repeated these refrains in just being the Body of Christ where God has put us. Rev. Okubo compared our life together as a godly “arranged marriage” (more on this in part two), where beyond just liking or even loving each other in spite of our differences, we might grow into a greater entity of “two becoming one,” with a unity in diversity that is more than simply the sum of each part.

The fifth biannual Multiethnic Symposium at Concordia Seminary raised our level of understanding and discourse, building on growing honesty, integrity, and trust. A true foretaste of the feast to come, our festival worship service rejoiced in the diversity of gifts within the unity of body and blood of Christ, anticipating that day when those of every nation and tribe, people and tongue will stand before the throne and before the Lamb (Rev 7:9).

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  1. Rev. Dr. Mark Koch March 2, 2016

    Thank you, Dr. Bartelt, for making the distinction between “to do” and “to be.” Effective multicultural ministry, in my experience, is not only the “doing” of bridging ethnic cultures, but also the “being” of fostering a missional culture, which then subsumes though does not ignore ethnic culture. As we grapple with how to reach an American population that is increasing in ethnic diversity as well as values diversity, we need to have more frequent discussions about what is church and what is culture. Then, like a building when it undergoes renovation, keep what is essential and theologically “load bearing” at all costs, but also be willing to let go of what may have outlived its original usefulness, all so the church can carry out its God-given purpose. Because, as the missiologist Tim Dearborn has put it, “Christian mission is not our arrogant pursuit of other people to make them like us. Rather, it is our participation in God’s pursuit of all people to make them like Him” (Beyond Duty, 1997).

    Also, you mention that “Few of us have had any formal study in cultural anthropology.” Yes, and we could greatly improve our multicultural efforts by addressing this. For anyone truly serious about getting their brain around the hugely important anthropological angle, consider reading Anthropology for Christian Witness by Charles H. Kraft (Orbis Books, 1996).

  2. Andrew Bartelt March 2, 2016

    Thank you, good brother, for your comments and encouragement. I was just a learner along with others at the symposium — the “to be” language came from Mason Okubo and was reinforced by a lot of other presentations. What is also encouraging is the number of folks all around synod who are asking the right questions as we wrestle with these issues, many of whom have far greater experience than most of us. It is an exciting, if challenging, time to be about our Lord’s mission, and the distinctions — and tension — between theology and culture are, in my opinion, the key questions of the 21st century (actually, the last half of the 20th), and I like your “load bearing” analogy. Thanks, too, for the good suggestions for further study!

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