INTERCULTURAL MINISTRY: Hope for a Changing World. Edited by Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Jann Aldredge-Clanton. Foreword by Dwight N. Hopkins. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2017. Xviii + 208 pages.
Most churches in North America, including my own, are mono-cultural. We are evidence of Martin Luther King’s observation that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. Many of us would like our congregations to be more diverse, but getting there has proven difficult. We seem to like the cultural accouterments of our congregations. We like our music, liturgy, instrumentation just the way they are. To move toward a more inclusive experience of worship, one that reflects the vision of the heavenly court in Revelation will require great sacrifice. While we might want diversity, the cost seems too steep. It would probably be easier to do this if you were starting from scratch, but for existing churches it remains a seemingly impossible dream.
While not widespread, there are congregations out there that are not only racially/ethnically diverse, but intentionally inclusive. Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Jann Aldredge-Clanton, two theologians, one Korean-American and the other Euro-American, have gathered essays written by pioneers in intercultural ministry. In the gathered essays, the writers share their experiences with intercultural ministry and worship, along words of wisdom and some practical advice regarding something that Dwight Hopkins, in his foreword to the book, suggests “might be the defining theological line of the twenty-first century—how to be curious about, have sympathy for, and develop long term friendships in the mixing of the world’s cultures” (p. vi). We may be witnessing, at this moment, pushback against globalization, but the mixing of cultures isn’t going away. Younger Christians seem more adept at welcoming diversity and inclusion, but we all have a ways to go before we reach the point where intercultural ministry will be the norm not the exception.
So, what is this intercultural ministry that this book explores? The editors define intercultural in terms of the "interaction of people across races, ethnicities, and nationalities to learn to value and celebrate each group's traditions" (p. ix). In other words, we're not just talking about diversity in congregational makeup. We’re also talking about the ways in which we value the various traditions and cultures that make up our communities. What we’re talking about here is not assimilating people into normative Christianity, that is white Euro-American forms of Christian worship, whether traditional or contemporary. These churches are also marked by a commitment to "justice, mutuality, respect, equality, understanding, acceptance, freedom, peacemaking, and celebration" (p. x). Therefore, worship in these communities will be marked by differences of style and leadership will be shared across ethnic, racial, gender, cultural lines.
The editors bring their own experiences to this conversation. Grace Ji-Sun Kim is Korean-born, Canadian-raised, now she is a citizen of the United States. She is an ordained Presbyterian minister and theology professor. She grew up in Korean churches, but more recently she has sought out more diverse experiences of worship and church life. Therefore, she understands to attraction of both monocultural and intercultural worship experiences and church life. Her co-editor, Jann Aldredge-Clanton, is a white, straight, female, Baptist minister, who has chosen to be involved in inclusive intercultural ministry. Having their own experiences with intercultural ministry, they have invited others who share their vision and concerns to bear witness to the possibilities and challenges of intercultural ministry.
The book is divided into three sections, each with five chapters. Part 1 is titled "Building Theological Foundations for Intercultural Churches and Ministries.” Each of the authors in this section wrestles with the theological vision necessary to moving toward inclusive intercultural ministry. They remind us that any movement forward will be relational. It will also include disrupting the status quo. They address the felt need for reconciliation, but remind us that too often we don't have a shared understanding of the past, which makes the path forward difficult. The heart of the problem is that too often the way forward means making whites comfortable at the expense of communities of color. Thus, Brandon Green puts it: “Reconciliation without a clear understanding of the needed reciprocity destines those in the pursuit of reconciliation to do so on preexisting constructs of power, ultimately rendering this endeavor toward reconciliation to be nothing more than a nuanced and complicated captivity for people of color” (p. 17). Thus, we have diversity without inclusion.
Part two invites us to explore "Strategies for Building Intercultural Churches and Ministries.” The authors of the chapters in this section offer us some examples of how this has been pursued. One of most principal issues in this quest for a more diverse and inclusive vision of church is that power. As Brad Braxton notes, "until issues of power are addressed, congregations interested in intercultural ministry often confuse representation for diversity." He goes on to say that "diversity genuinely surfaces when minority groups are represented in sufficient numbers to organize and thus challenge and change power structures in a community" (p. 87). Christine Smith notes that getting there requires open and honest conversations, for "even if it is difficult and uncomfortable, it is better to flesh out differences and concerns at the beginning than to wear masks and pretend that all is well when people really want to scream" (p. 108). As we consider this question, we're reminded that this is not simply a black and white issue. The people at the Table are much more diverse than this, and some, as is true from the experience of Asian Americans is that they are often seen as white and thus not discriminated against. Such is not the truth. What we learn from these expressions is that the path forward is not easy. There are significant challenges, but there are also resources, including biblical resources, to be considered.
Part 3 invites us to consider "Future Possibilities of Intercultural Churches and Ministries." The way forward may not be easy, but benefits of taking the risks to get to the other side of the river are promising. It may involve creating new wineskins. Again, it requires us to address issues of power. As Karen Hernandez-Granzen, a Puerto Rican-born/ New York raised Presbyterian Pastor reminds us: "Over the years we have learned that radical transformation takes kairos (God's time) and chronos (chronological time), genuine compassion, open and ongoing communication, and mucho patience" (p. 191).
As the editors remind us: "Founded on the theology of people of all cultures created equally in the divine image (Genesis 1:27), intercultural faith communities give equal value to people of all cultures so that they can share power and empower others." The essays in this book, which represent diversity in gender, sexual orientation, color, ethnicity, theology, offer us an opportunity to reflect on the present and the future of the church. There is an honesty present in these essays that open up the conversation, which will be needed in the days to come, because our communities are becoming more diverse. I live in a relatively affluent suburban community. From one vantage point, we don’t look all the different from a typical predominantly white suburb. But if you dig deeper you discover that Troy is the most ethnically diverse city in Michigan. It also has the highest number of foreign born residents of any city in the state. This may not have translated into city council seats, but if you go to the library or to the schools or the grocery stores you see the diversity that marks our city. But, even though we are diverse, we’re still working on that inclusion issue. Nonetheless, the diversity that marks this city is making itself felt across the country, so how will the church respond?
If the church is to respond to the needs of our communities, it will take more than turning from traditional worship to “contemporary” worship. It will require creativity and openness to God’s Spirit. Reading these essays will be a good start for those willing and able to consider a new future for the church. After all, as the editors write: “The possibilities for intercultural churches are great because they are God’s ideal as represented in Scripture” (p. 205). If this true, and I think it is, then we must thank the editors for bringing this book together so we might see a path forward.