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5 Things We’ve Learned as We Transition from an Ethnic to a Multicultural Church

It has been observed that 11 AM on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. We probably wouldn’t go that far here in Canada, but we do face the challenge of reflecting John’s vision of people from every tribe, tongue, people and nation exalting the Lamb (Rev. 7:9-11). Our church has embraced this challenge. We started out in 1998 as a church plant of First Filipino Baptist Church in the west end of Toronto. Made up primarily of immigrants and their kids who had been in Canada for over 20 years, we began with the express desire of becoming a multicultural congregation. We’re not there yet, but, by God’s grace, we’ve made progress toward becoming more diverse. Here are a few lessons we’ve learned so far.

1. Diversity takes intentionality

Ministering in multicultural Toronto, it’s easy to assume that any ethnic church would automatically become culturally diverse, given enough time. However, we realized that various practices we took for granted were getting in the way of reaching non-Filipinos. For example, all our services are in English; but our tendency to converse in Filipino dialects unintentionally excludes even our young adults who had grown up in Canada. This was just the tip of the iceberg. We began to realize that we had unintentionally become what Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop call a “gospel-plus” community, where our relationships were based on the gospel plus being Filipino. So, we are now working to reorient and redefine ourselves by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

2. Becoming multi-ethnic is painful

Ethnic churches form in a place like Toronto because immigrants are longing for home. Moving to a foreign land can be traumatic. You’re starting life from scratch, adrift in a society you don’t fully understand; people don’t understand you and your strange accent; your qualifications are not accepted; people don’t respect your past achievements. So, going to church with people from your home country is like going home without the jet lag or paying $1500 for airfare. You’re in a bubble where you are somebody. Ethnic church is your safe place but if it lets “other people” in, you’re thrust back into the society from which you’re seeking refuge.

However, we recognize that we need to reflect the diversity of heaven if we are to be a faithful outpost of heaven in multicultural Toronto. Through the gospel, we are beginning to learn that our worth comes, not from our accomplishments, cars, houses, or degrees, but from being in Christ. Our union with Christ binds us to other believers as citizens of heaven and members of God’s household, and enables us to embrace them regardless of ethnicity, language and social status. Christ is our unshakeable refuge who gives us joy to endure the pain of losing our safe place.

3. Going multicultural improves church health

When comfort and security is the underlying motive (consciously or unconsciously) for being in church, there is a tendency to be complacent. Refocusing on the gospel has challenged everyone in the church to grow.  Our older members have begun to acknowledge there’s much they still need to learn; our younger members have become more aware of the need to preserve the unity of the body by caring for those outside their peer group.

Part of the growth is demonstrated by the the older members giving up their leadership positions in church to our younger adults, recognizing that our young adults had a better understanding of the changes we needed to make to reach out to people in Toronto and were better equipped to implement the changes. They graciously allowed them to make changes to the way we did things as long as the changes were theologically driven and not merely pragmatic or taste-driven and accepted the discomfort involved. On the other hand, the young adults embraced the responsibility they were given. They led us in critically examining our habits and practices in light of Scripture and helped us recognize the unintended messages we were communicating through them. In everything, they consistently worked for the greater good of the whole body, recognizing that leadership means self-giving service. We’re still discovering more reasons for repentance, but we’re a lot healthier than we used to be.

4. Becoming multi-ethnic is a long-term process demanding wisdom and grace

Stripping ourselves of our ethnocentricity to focus on the gospel might have been the right thing to do, but, according to Blaise Pascal, the heart has reasons of which reason knows nothing. Only the Spirit could reorient people’s hearts and enable them to embrace change and he does it in his time. Leaders need to be patient and compassionate. In hindsight, I was not sensitive to the pain and discomfort our new direction was causing. My arrogance led me to implement necessary changes too quickly with a deplorable lack of charity, causing unnecessary friction and heartache. As a result, we lost about a third of our membership. Leaders need to demonstrate how the gospel enables us to love, even as we work uncompromisingly to bring gospel-driven change in the congregation.

5. Going multicultural isn’t an end in itself

The ultimate goal is faithfulness to the gospel. We’re breaking out of our ethnocentric focus in order to proclaim the gospel to our community. Instead of exploiting the benefits and resources of Canada for our self-centered interests, we are beginning to recognize that we have been sent to Toronto to serve God’s purposes. Thus, just as missionaries to the Philippines adapted themselves to Filipino culture (as best they could) to reach our forebears, we’re doing the same. This doesn’t mean we’re trying to conform the church to North American culture (or any other ethnic culture, for that matter). Rather, we’re trying to understand the people around us so that we can communicate the gospel in forms intelligible to them without compromising the message. We realize that the implications of the death and resurrection of Jesus must transform our communal interactions so that the culture of our church reflects the values of the gospel.

For now, I’m encouraged to see that non-Filipinos who come to our church feel at home and accepted. That’s the grace of God at work, enabling us to embrace the other, reflecting the way God himself has welcomed us into his family. We don’t really know what our church will look like in the coming years. Fallen as we are, we’re likely to take some wrong turns. We take seriously the Reformation slogan “Ecclesia reformata et semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei” (The church reformed and always being reformed according to the word of God). At the same time, we move forward in faith, trusting that the Lord of the church is guiding us by his Word and Spirit, and is shaping us into the church he wants us to be, for our good and for his glory.

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