When our church began considering a multi-site strategy, as Executive Pastor I was the point man in the research and implementation. One of the initial steps was to hire a religious researcher and statistician. He expertly provided insights into where to locate our campuses using a sophisticated demographic mapping tool.
His contention was that “like reaches like.” His research showed that successful churches were able to determine a demographic niche they were best at reaching and built their strategies around the needs and preferences of that narrow demographic. The theory was that we could best insure the success of additional sites by targeting areas in our community that had demographics similar to those our church was currently reaching.
Sure enough, where we launched sites similar to our birthing church demographics, the campuses flourished. Yet, when we tried campus sites outside our demographic sweet spot the results were at best, mixed.
Looking through a strategic lens, this culturally specific approach makes a lot of sense. As a culturally homogenous church we became adept at targeting and attracting a certain type of person and establishing a strong group identity. But, at what cost? What is the shadow side of a homogenous church? Was that Jesus’ approach?
Mono-Cultural or Cross-Cultural?
No doubt, most Christians came to know and love God and Jesus through the familiar…..family, friends, and church members who were like us. There is a comfort in being around people who have similar beliefs, values, and experiences. Clearly, there are times and places when we need to gather with people who are like us.
But, extensive travel experiences and living in different parts of the country has taught me that if that’s all we’re doing, we’re not growing, and there is a strong chance that God’s love isn’t growing in the world either. Some of my greatest insights and understandings have come from engagement with people of different cultures. And, my inclusiveness, compassion, openness, and acceptance has grown as well.
Culturally homogenous churches are at a higher risk of creating overly simplistic and divisive labels, and are more susceptible to “group think” that leads to inaccurate perceptions. And, at its worst, creates hostility and conflict. What begins as an effective culturally specific way to reach people for Christ, ends up distorting and inhibiting Christ followership.
Christena Cleveland, a social psychologist, theologian, and professor at Duke University’s Divinity School, offers this profound insight: “People can meet God within their cultural context but in order to follow God, they must cross into other cultures because that’s what Jesus did in the incarnation and on the cross.”
Jesus was adept at knowing his audience, understanding their needs, and speaking to their hearts. It’s hard to miss how he regularly crossed over into different cultures and talked sheep to shepherds, fish to fisherman, and heady theology to intellectual scribes and Pharisees. For Jesus, discipleship was deeply cross-cultural. And, like Paul, he strove to be all things to all people.
When we come to know Jesus around people just like us and then continue to worship, serve, and follow Jesus with people who are just like us, we stunt our growth in Christ, and inhibit our ability to appreciate, reach, and disciple people who aren’t like us. However, when we are in relationship with people who are different from us, we create learning opportunities, break down barriers of resistance and walls of divisiveness, and become more like Jesus.
These are sufficient reasons for churches to strive for cultural diversity, even if the evidence supports the effectiveness of homogenous congregations. Today, regardless of ethnic demographics, every community is multicultural to some degree, especially when you consider the various cultures of age, gender, economic status, education level, and political preference. Every congregation should represent, express, welcome, and embrace the diversity of its local community….seeing culturally different others as a gift from God.
Every one of us….every human being, every drop of water, every molecule, every bird, each grain of sand, and each mountain, is a distinct manifestation of Divine Love. The universe thrives upon, and cannot exist without, diversity. The very differences that we shun, avoid, or even destroy are necessary for life to continue in a multitude of magnificent forms–Joan Brown
Posted on June 25, 2019