Why We Still Need (Some) Monocultural Churches

Immigrant children at Ellis Island. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Multicultural churches are all the rage these days. Conferences are packed with pastors learning how to start multicultural churches, or how to turn the churches they pastor into one. That long-overdue trend is welcomed because God is the God of diversity. In light of God’s call to reconciliation, churches ought to reflect the diversity of their neighborhoods.

But, we still need monocultural churches, particularly among newly-arrived immigrant populations. Here are six reasons why.

1. Monocultural churches can provide a safe haven for minorities within a dominant majority culture. After the Civil War ended in 1865, emancipated African Americans left their former white masters’ churches to form black congregations. The rich history of the American black church is one not only of worship, but as the hub of the African American community. For minority populations, especially newly-arrived immigrant populations, monocultural churches can provide this same safe haven today.

2. Monocultural churches allow for minority perspectives to develop and be heard. On a national scale, American Christianity was shocked into reality with the publication of Dr. Soong-Chan Rah’s book, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. The subtitle should have been Freeing the Church from White Cultural Captivity, because Professor Rah writes compellingly of the “white captivity of the church.” Dr. Rah’s advocacy for other voices — voices of minorities — to be heard and respected could be realized if white churches and leaders recognize and listen to the voices from Korean, Laotian, West African, African American, and other churches whose members are in the minority in American cultural life.

3. Monocultural churches can provide a connection to home, customs, language, ritual and power structures that generations of immigrants wish to retain. The myth of the American melting pot has been debunked as Americans of all ethnicities have attempted to connect with their ancestral roots. For those in the minority, the identity fostered by language, dress, ritual, and customs is difficult to retain, but important to remember.

4. Monocultural churches can become points of transition, assisting newcomers to America as they navigate their new culture. When I traveled in China, I was always interested in talking to Americans who had lived and worked in China to find out what restaurants they frequented, where they shopped, and how they learned the Chinese language. The same need exists in new immigrants to this country. Those from their own countries can help new immigrants negotiate the meaning and pace of American life.

5. Monocultural churches help resist the marginalization of minority groups. The danger any minority faces is not only being assimilated into their new culture, but being absorbed and marginalized by it. Monocultural churches, like the black church, have given rise to a unique expression of the Christian faith, and established a unique place for its people in American church life. White churches and denominations must reject outreach to minority populations because they are the answer to white church or denominational decline.

6. Finally, monocultural churches do not confirm the notorious church growth teaching called the “homogeneous unit principle.” Church growth studies advocated that because people (usually white) found it easier to be with people like them, it followed that homogeneous churches would grow more quickly and easily. However, monocultural churches are not excluders, but incubators that allow potentially fragile populations to establish themselves, grow, develop a unique witness, and thrive in the rich diversity of American church life.

Of course, none of these reasons is intended to sanction prejudice, discrimination, or exclusion in any church. In the Book of Acts, the church in Jerusalem cared for its Jewish widows and its Greek widows as well.

However, before you jump on the bandwagon of exclusive multiculturalism, remember that historically monocultural churches like German Lutherans, English Baptists, Scottish Presbyterian, British Anglican, and others established themselves in colonial America. These monocultural churches became incubators for those who came to these shores seeking freedom, which included the freedom to add their past to a new American future.

18 thoughts on “Why We Still Need (Some) Monocultural Churches”

  1. Although I understand where you are trying to go with this, I feel I must at least in part, disagree. I don’t support the notion of “forced” or “imposed” anything churches, whether mono- or multi-cultural. The danger of a “melting pot” approach is that minorities can lose their roots; the danger of monocultural churches is segregation, whether imposed or chosen. And a chosen segregation can be as damaging to society as an imposed one.

    As Christians, this should be solely God’s work. We should go about the business of praise and worship and allow God to place whomever He wants wherever He wants. Congregation building in the new century is a reality, as many congregations age and die off. I submit that rather than working with a multi- or mono-cultural ideal in mind, we need to work together as one body spread Christ’s love and let the chips fall where they may. If we all did that, then somebody outreached by a Lutheran or Catholic who finds the service too staid for him may want to express his worship with waving hands and dancing. That’s OK. Or conversely, somebody reached by a Pentecostal or Charismatic church who thinks the whole speaking in tongues thing is just too much for her can feel comfortable going to a Baptist or Anglican church. Because we are all equal parts of the same one. If I were to not worry about building my own congregation, but spend more time on building Christ’s church here on earth – and every other Christian did the same – then my own church would grow as well. Jesus loved and spoke to everybody, seeking to include everyone in His ministry where they were. And so should we.

    1. Patrick, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said. I am simply offering a counterpoint to the rush to embrace multiculturalism as the only faithful expression of church form in American church experience. Theologically, I think you’re correct. Practically, there are complexities to multiculturalism that get glossed over. I’ll write more on that in future posts. Thanks.

  2. I live in Toronto where the population is incredibly diverse. We have one of the most multicultural cities in the planet. We’re also sorely lacking in multicultural churches. The next generation has come up with friends and co-workers from various backgrounds and yet are unable to really bring them to their single-cultured church. As you said, “that long-overdue trend is welcomed”. I also agree that there’s still a vast need for monocultural churches. The language barrier in itself point out the need for this.

  3. I live an hour east of Toronto, Canada; considered among the most racially diverse urban areas in the world, and have friends who work in a denomination (Christian & Missionary Alliance) that figures largely into ethnic church plants in that city.

    Recently (Oct. 25) the Calgary Herald published a business and marketing story that suggests that as the next generation (born and raised here in Canada, and having English as a first language) emerges, we enter into a period of post-Multiculturalism, or beyond-Multiculturalism. These kids and teens read, speak and think in English. The ethnic churches here, in order to keep their youth, have to have English pastors on staff, some of whom don’t speak the church’s founding language.

    1. Yes, in order to keep the youth, an English pastor (or English youth pastor) would certainly help. We’ll keep the youth in church. But it won’t make it multicultural. Even with an English pastor on board, the church can still stay very monocultural.

      At the church that I’m serving at, we have 2 Caucasian pastors at our downtown location. However, the congregation is still predominantly Chinese (because the group started that way and grew in numbers that way). It’ll take more than shifting pastors to make a church multicultural (if they desire to be so).

  4. I think I disagree. I pastor a church that began as an immigrant church, which grew on the foundation of shared language, good, customs, etc. Frankly, that was it’s foundation far more than Jesus, in my opinion. In ending generations, as the kids and then grandkids became assimilated into American culture, it stopped being about ethnicity and became a family church, as in, we’re all related and that’s why we’re here. In the next generation that didn’t matter, and they stopped coming. Only now are we building a shared culture of people who are here because they love and want to serve Jesus! Now we share space with a church made up of a newer immigrant group, and I see how it happens. Many who come, and even the leaders, are more devoted to the culture and memory (and even the politics!) of the old country. Their kids grow up and go away, becoming assimilated into something else. I have come to think that an immigrant foundation is a very hard thing for a church to outgrow.

    1. I can see what your church evolved to “now,” but it must have served a good purpose “then.” I’m wondering if the problem in the Christian Church in general is that we don’t have a good protocol for shuttering churches and parachurch organizations when they are no longer meeting the same needs?

  5. Hey Chuck,

    Hope this finds you well. Thanks for the post. I believe that if you are arguing against multi-cultural churches being the only faith expression of church in America, then you’re completely correct. Who are we to judge faithfulness? How can we even begin to truly quantify faithfulness??

    Nevertheless, I do disagree with some of your main points. For example, the African-American church that emerged out of the dominant culture was a result of God working in spite of man. We were not allowed to worship with, and in some cases were forced out or invited to go worship somewhere else. The safe haven was created in spite of unfaithfulness to love God and to love one another. Do mono-cultural churches allow for minority voices to be heard?? Sure. But only if the dominant culture chooses or makes space to listen. The longer we are separate, the longer we will perpetuate “us” and “them”. And the longer we remain “us” and “them”, the longer we both can choose to listen to the ones…all the way over there.

    For new immigrants, you’re absolutely correct. The safe haven is a commonplace necessity. However, I’m afraid that most of your argument is grounded in yesterday’s past modernity. In modernity, we commonly grouped with those who most look like us; we put our flags down, made our marks in the sand, and grouped together with those who were mostly like us. Post-modernity has already or will shatter these boxes. The question is now not only creating these safe havens for new immigrants, but creating them within our own churches. This is because they live in a diverse country and world that is growing more and more diverse by the day. A safe haven without any “outsiders” to help teach, hold hands, and guide through the world outside is not a safe haven but a prison.

    Lastly, the God’s people have always been diverse. The nation of Israelite was never just “Israel” in the sense of mono-cultural or one ethnicity. It was a nation of everyone who believed and joined the community. The church of Christ was never mono-cultural or one ethnicity, it was all who believed and joined the community. Mono-cultural church is a result of modernity and our inventing church in our own image. Antioch should have always been our guide, but we have held on to our Jerusalems. The post-modern reality will be a tool to us. A tool that can aid is in being the church as Christ designed – a family of every nation, tribe, and tongue. Our culture is heaven on earth, not the ones we personally define here on earth. In the west we’re gifted with diversity in our families, workplaces, and everyday scenes?? So why not our churches?

    1. I would not disagree with what you are saying. My point, which I’m sure I could have made clearly, is that in this broken world in which there are significant power imbalances monoculture churches still can serve legitimate purposes. In a more faithful environment, I agree, multicultural congregations can reflect God’s kingdom visibly. I’m just trying to slow the stampede toward multicultural congregations as the answer to the white church’s decline.

    2. Andrew Walls makes a great argument that multi-cultural churches have always saved the church. This was true as we emerged from being entirely Jewish to welcoming Gentiles, from being Jews and Gentiles to welcoming Greco-Roman culture, from being Greco-Roman to welcoming the supposed “Barbarians” (Celts, Franks, Anglos, etc.), from being Barbarian to essentially Western European, and from being Western European to now essentially a church centered in the global south. The center of the church has always shifted, and God has always used His church going across cultural lines in order to continue on. I don’t bemoan the “white” church’s decline because the center of Christianity has always historically moved. This is one of the reasons I believe in multi-cultural churches. it is not simply where we’re going in the sense of what I believe heaven will be like…but it is where we in the West can try to be now…in preparation for that future and as a response to our everyday scenes.

  6. You forget that the early Christians seeking freedom, actually tyrannized and committed genocide against the North American Natives. Still a skeleton in the closet. And where should Aboriginal Christians attend Church? There are Churches for every ethnic group in the world, but Aboriginals are still expected to assimilate. Visible minorities are clearly oppressed in America, but they are still settlers here. Let’s not ever forget that. It’s a privilege to worship in your own culture, as Natives to North America have had their culture yanked away and destroyed by settlers. Are visible minorities going to be part of the rebuilding of Native American cultures, or will they further participate in the spirit of colonialism?

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