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Most churches in North America, including my own, are monocultural. Even those of us who would love to see our congregations become more diverse in color, culture, ethnicity, and worship find it difficult to move into this mode of existence. Even if we affirm that when we gather in the heavenly court as envisioned in Revelation worship will embrace the fullness of human experience, we seem satisfied with the status quo. Letting go of what we find to be spiritually uplifting in order to make room for other expressions has proven to be difficult.
In this book edited by Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Jann Aldredge-Clanton a group of pioneers in intercultural ministry share their experiences, words of wisdom, and some practical advice. The question is, what is intercultural ministry? The editors define intercultural in terms of the “interaction of people across races, ethnicities, and nationalities to learn to value and celebrate each group’s traditions” (p. ix). In other words, we’re not just talking about diversity in congregational makeup, but also a valuing of the traditions and cultures that make up that community. This isn’t assimilating people into what is often considered normative Christianity, that European-American/White forms of Christian worship experience, whether traditional or contemporary. These churches are marked by a commitment to “justice, mutuality, respect, equality, understanding, acceptance, freedom, peacemaking, and celebration” (p. x). Worship in these communities will be marked by differences of style.
The editors bring their own experiences to this conversation. Grace is Korean-born, Canadian-raised, now a citizen of the United States. She is Presbyterian and ordained. She grew up in Korean churches, but has sought out more diverse experiences in recent years. Jann is a white, straight, female, Baptist minister, who has chosen to be involved in inclusive worship experiences. With these backgrounds, they have invited others who share their concerns to bear witness to the possibilities and challenges of intercultural ministry.
The book is divided into three sections, each with five chapters. Part 1 is titled “Building Theological Foundations for Intercultural Churches and Ministries. Each of the authors wrestles with the theological vision necessary to moving toward inclusive intercultural ministry. They remind us that this will include disrupting the status quo. They address the felt need for reconciliation, but remind us that too often we don’t have a shared understanding of the past, which makes the path forward difficult. That’s because ultimately the expectation is that reconciliation will occur on white terms. That brings with it trauma for those expected to fit in.
Part two invites us to explore “Strategies for Building Intercultural Churches and Ministries. The authors of the chapters in this section offer us some examples of how this has been pursued. One of most important issues in this quest for a more diverse and inclusive vision of church is that power. As Brad Braxton notes, “until issues of power are addressed, congregations interested in intercultural ministry often confuse representation for diversity.” He goes on to say that “diversity genuinely surfaces when minority groups are represented in sufficient numbers to organize and thus challenge and change power structures in a community” (p. 87). As Christine Smith notes, getting there requires open and honest conversations, for “even if it is difficult and uncomfortable, it is better to flesh out differences and concerns at the beginning than to wear masks and prtend that all is well when people really want to scream” (p. 108). As we consider this question, we’re reminded that this is not simply a black and white issue. The people at the Table are much more diverse than this, and some, as is true from the experience of Asian Americans is that they are often seen as white and thus not discriminated against. Such is not the truth. What we learn from these expressions is that the path forward is not easy. There are significant challenges, but there are also resources, including biblical resources, to be considered.
Part 3 invites us to consider “Future Possibilities of Intercultural Churches and Ministries.” The way forward may not be easy, but there is promise of a new future. It may involve creating new wineskins. Again, it requires us to address issues of power. As Karen Hernandez-Granzen, a Puerto Rican-born/ New York raised Presbyterian Pastor reminds us: “Over the years we have learned that radical transformation takes aairos (God’s time) and chronos (chronological time), genuine compassion, open and ongoing communication, and mucho patience” (p. 191).
As the editors remind us: “Founded on the theology of people of all cultures created equally in the divine image (Genesis 1:27), intercultural faith communities give equal value to people of all cultures so that they can share power and empower others.” The essays in this book, which represent diversity in gender, sexual orientation, color, ethnicity, theology, offer us an opportunity to reflect on the present and the future of the church. This is an important book, for which we must thank the editors, as they have gathered together a community of people committed to pursuing a future that fairly represents the whole people of God.