A Place of Worship for All
Balancing cultural and ethnic congregational life
By Don W. McFarlane
Our cultural preferences can be used by God for
Thirty years ago the word “diversity” was not used much within the Seventh-day Adventist Church community in the British Isles. The one cultural distinction, often highlighted, was the difference between those referred to as Anglos and those referred to as Caribbeans. Whenever that subject was discussed, various negative motives were often attributed to one group for not wanting to worship with another.
Much of the behavior that was blamed on prejudice and intolerance was largely the result of cultural preferences. Some underestimate the importance of culture, holding to the view that all people, if they are children of God, should worship together. If they choose not to, the conclusion is clear: They are not truly children of God. But the truth may be more complex.
Worship is most meaningful within the context of one’s own culture. And reluctance on the part of members of one population to fellowship with another may be nothing more than a desire to worship in circumstances with which they were familiar.
Several Adventist churches in the British Isles have been loosely described as Caribbean churches. However, in numerous cases, these churches are made up largely of members from a particular country, a particular parish, even a particular village. So that just as Caribbean people coalesce according to their particular mores and folkways, it is reasonable that people from other cultures may also wish to do the same, and worship with people who sing like them, eat like them, pray like them, preach like them, and understand their way of life.
The Ghanaian Example
In 1992 a group of Ghanaians asked the South England Conference to recognize a Ghanaian fellowship, and organize the fellowship into a church for the purpose of nurturing Ghanaian Adventists and evangelizing the wider Ghanaian community. So was born the era of what are generally called “ethnic churches.”
Since the London Ghana Adventist Church was established in London in 1992, several other ethnic churches have been set up; among them are congregations that have services in Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, Bulgarian, and Romanian, not to mention congregations from other African nations and the Philippines.
The conference recognized that if the church was to be even mildly effective in London, it would need to shift from being monocultural to multicultural. It needed to broaden its appeal and provide different congregations for different kinds of people.
It would have been ideal for existing churches to become multicultural churches, not merely in membership but in the manner in which things were done. But that was easier said than done. In nearly all the churches, a long pattern of worship and witness was already established. Changing that to accommodate the needs of multiple cultures was a tall order.
Further, forcing different cultural or ethnic groups to worship together, even regardless of color, could result in an approach to worship that would frustrate many. Many would cease attending church, as many had before the advent of the ethnic churches.
Some might say that having ethnic churches is religious apartheid, but the facts do not support it. In the British Union, people are free to worship where they wish. People worship where they prefer the style of worship they encounter, where they are treated with love and warmth. In fact, worshippers from all ethnic groups can be found in congregations of other cultural groups. Ethnic congregations provide a wider choice to worshippers and would-be worshippers. They provide a bigger platform for presenting the gospel in a diverse and sophisticated community. Ethnic churches are among the fastest-growing congregations in the British Union.
Since the year 2000 thousands of Adventists have arrived from Southern Africa and Eastern Europe, seemingly overnight. The arrival of these new members, the greatest number being from Southern Africa, has brought several visible benefits to the British Union: small churches that were struggling have been revived; the musical ability of the new members has enhanced many a service, and their commitment to the mission of the church has been refreshing; their warm and friendly disposition is also a particular blessing.
When I first entered church administration, leaders were concerned primarily about nurturing members of the church’s majority population. Today its concern is to minister to a wide spectrum of members, without being partial to any particular cultural group. The church will never be the same again. Nor should it be. We are still very much concerned with reaching the majority population with the gospel, in that they compose more than 90 percent of the people who live in the British Isles.
The church in the British Isles has become much more conservative, particularly with respect to other forms of diversity. One that comes easily to mind is gender diversity. What was once a growing acceptance of the equality of men and women in ministry has slowed down.
The task of reaching the majority population with the gospel has become more challenging. The British Union is one of the few places in the world in which the composition of the church is in reverse proportion to the composition of the general population. In most other countries witnessing comes naturally, as people share their faith with others like themselves, while in Great Britain sharing faith involves more cultural bridging.
Additionally, the traditional evangelistic approaches emphasized do not appear to be the most ideal methods for reaching the majority population.
Managing growing diversity requires that:
n all newcomers be warmly welcomed, and everyone made to feel part of the family.
n ongoing diversity seminars provide opportunities for leaders of various culture groups to dialogue so as to understand one another.
n ministers be employed to meet the needs of different culture groups—most pastors taken on in the past 10 years are originally from Africa, Eastern Europe, India, and South America.
Local churches have been asked to involve new members in the life of the church to heighten their sense of belonging.
The Adventist Church in the British Isles has become irreversibly multicultural. In this new context, all cultures represented in the church share the responsibility for caring for all other cultures. By way of example, no more than 20 percent of Seventh-day Adventists in the British Isles are British. In the same way that Portuguese, Russians, Bulgarians, and Ghanaians are now able to, the British also care about worshipping in a manner they find comfortable and appropriate to their culture.
For the church to have its most significant impact on its society, emphasis must be placed on cross-cultural evangelism and outreach. Pastors and members have to be trained and encouraged to witness outside their own cultures.
The church has to be sensitive in its appointment of leaders, and ensure that the broad cultural makeup of the church is considered, as well as the makeup of society.
As we celebrate the richness and variety that people from nearly every country in the world bring to our spiritual table, we may also explore and appreciate the complex interplay between people of different cultures and marvel at the wisdom of God that makes us all so different and yet all one in Him. n
Don W. McFarlane is pastor of administration for Sligo church in Takoma Park, Maryland, United States. Before that, he was president of the British Union Conference.