Mixed Up Church
It is not uncommon, after six days of miring through a worldly workweek, that one should retreat to the neutral corners of a church, safely cushioned in their cultural boundaries.
However, there is a growing movement across the country to have "church" just as Jesus intended, rejoicing in the colorful hues of every race-while worshipping together.
Mega-churches like Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, with 20,000 members, and Christian organizations like the Billy Graham Crusade, which have ministered to millions around the world, have stretched the cultural comfort zone (and made it comfortable) for many years now.
Lakewood has been around since 1959 and having a multicultural church body has always been the case. "This is nothing new for us," said Ruth Parkinson, pastoral assistant to Pastor Joel Osteen. "That's all we've ever known," Parkinson said. "Our congregation is remarkably mixed with 40 percent white, 30 percent black, and 30 percent Hispanic," she added.
"From the moment this church was founded by my father [John Osteen] many years ago, being open to all races and cultural backgrounds was our number one priority," said Osteen. He became Lakewood's pastor in January, about a year after his father's death.
Lakewood, situated in the heart of a multicultural city, draws people from all backgrounds to its physical location and to its television broadcasts aired on the Fox Family Channel, the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), and on other local and international television stations. Osteen said, "we preach a message of unconditional love." He added that, "When Jesus called us to reach all nations that wasn't a 'request' it was a 'command'."
What also helps is Lakewood's civic efforts throughout Houston. Its ministries to singles, married couples, youth, seniors and others, plus its family-centered facilities and recreational activities, all promote the cause. "We have outreaches to schools, colleges, businesses, and other places where the people are," Osteen said. Meeting the needs of the community draws people in, regardless of cultural and racial background.
To coin a phrase from the 1989 movie titled, Field of Dreams, "If you build it, they will come." And if you invite them, they will come.
The Billy Graham Crusade, based in Minneapolis, has spread the gospel throughout the world for 60 years. Back in 1949, during a crusade in Los Angeles Graham had to declare, "There's no racial distinction here.
Here are white and black alike, standing before the cross of Christ. The ground is level at the foot of the cross." In 1999, during his crusade held in St. Louis, Christian artists Kirk Franklin and dc Talk drew one of the largest racially diverse crowds ever. Seating arrangements were not an issue.
Whenever the crusade is invited to come into a community, it makes special efforts to reach out to the diversity of that community said Scott Lenning, crusade director.
The crusade works with all of the host church leaders in the area, to form language committees. During the event, the committee provides spiritual counselors who can speak various languages and radios are set up to broadcast the sermon in up to six different languages.
"And if a person comes up to make a commitment to Christ, then what happens is they have trained counselors (and materials in their language) to help [the counselors] feed them back into the local churches that invited them to come," Lenning said.
The next Billy Graham Crusade will take place in Jacksonville, Florida, November 2-5 at the Alltel Stadium, during which many ministries will take place.
"There will be a 5,000-voice choir. We'll have a ministry to the deaf and disabled. We'll have a ministry to those who are homeless. They'll be a lot of things going on trying to draw [all] people to the facility," said Lenning. And Graham, 81, will preach four sermons.
To succeed at multicultural ministries, there first needs to be a meeting of the "mindful ministry," explained Russell West, a scholar and director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at the Regent University's School of Divinity in Virginia Beach, VA.
West served as a facilitator at a forum addressing cross-racial clergy appointments, hosted by the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church in Columbia, Maryland.
Mindful ministry, West explained, is the act of thoughtfully considering the nuances, traditions, and views of a culturally mixed congregation instead of acting (and reacting) on auto-pilot because the pastor and congregation are of the same ethnic background. West calls such churches as "bird of a feather" ministries.
Cross-racial clergy appointments are hard work because you have to throw out your mind-script of preaching to people all of one culture. And it is rewarding, especially in smaller churches because the challenges and victories are up close and personal.
Rev. Vance Ross, senior pastor of the First United Methodist church (UMC) in Hyattsville, Maryland, has preached to a mixed congregation that has grown steadily since his pastoral appointment about 2 years ago. Each Sunday, his congregation, totaling almost 500 regular attending members, flock to First UMC from a diverse community of whites, blacks (including Africans and Caribbean descent), Hispanics, East Indians, and Asians.
Ross said a key point is to, "remember to invite people to church. Every Sunday, we thank our folk for the number of people. We always say to them, 'they only come because you invite them."
Ross also said, "We try to show who we are every Sunday. When you look at the pulpit leadership you will see an African-American pastor (Ross), a white [female] assistant associate, a woman from Sierra Leone, a Jamaican student pastor, a guest Liberian Elder, and you will see two white diaconal ministers."
He said that the leaders of the church, "represent the culture and the wonderful matrix that is our congregation."
At First UMC, bible study plays a big role in feeding a multicultural message to the congregation. "It is absolutely essential," Ross said. "Since we've been here, we've had eight new adult studies created. We feed the mission in those bible studies." The church's mission statement, already in place before Ross' arrival, pledges commitment to diversity and is strongly promoted, said Ross.
First UMC has been around 208 years. History records a time when it was illegal for blacks and whites to worship together. That was Pre-Civil War days, south of the Mason-Dixon Line, which encompasses Maryland. The first black family joined First UMC in the sixties, launching its gradual process of creating a multicultural ministry.
"Racism is too much the fabric of who we are (as a nation)," commented Ross. However, he conveyed, that racism is a factor that true believers can overcome by using godly principles.
"The Great Commission says to go into all ethnic groups. Christ, Himself, had a cross-racial appointment," West said.
Multicultural ministry is God's inevitable plan and, "if we follow the model of Christ's church, there really is no way around it," said Ross. "Go deeper," he added, to find the spiritual gifts that others have to offer.
Alas, not all differences are heavy laden with a cloak of racism, some are lighthearted and just a fact of life. For instance, in some cultures Sunday service is sweet, short and to the point. In other cultures, a Hallelujah time can last all day long. Culture can also determine whether or not the preacher expects an enthusiastic "Amen" shouted from the congregation or a simple polite nod. And then there are differences in praise-and-worship styles, music genres and even in the sheer volume of music.
Whatever, said Ross, he tells his pulpit staff to be themselves. Because, "I'm going to be who I am," he said. And how does he make out?
"I will elicit response [during a sermon] because it is something that I need. But because I know people do not say amen all the time, I will look to the congregates and say to them, 'are we together? And I know you don't say amen, that's cool. That's fine. If you'll just nod your head if you're with me and shake your head if you're not, then we can try to get all together,'" said Ross. His request always draws a laugh, he said, and a meeting of the minds.