Monday, July 31, 2017

How to Become a Multicultural Church (Douglas J. Brouwer) -- A Review

HOW TO BECOME AMULTICULTURAL CHURCH. By Douglas J. Brouwer. Foreword by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017. Xi + 177 pages.

If I have a dream for the church local is that it would reflect the cultural diversity of our community (and the world). It is a tall order, one that many have contemplated, but few have pulled off. So, for the most part, our churches remain as segregated today as they were when Martin Luther King opined about the most segregated hour of the week. While I would love to see multicultural churches (and not just multi-racial churches) become the norm, I’m not sure how to pull it off. Despite the challenges, I will continue to dream that dream. 

There are, of course, congregations that are, at least to some degree, multicultural. One of those Congregations is the International Protestant Church of Zurich, Switzerland. The pastor of that congregation is Douglas Brouwer, a Presbyterian pastor and author of the book under consideration. In many respects this book is a personal reflection on Brouwer’s experience as pastor of this multicultural church, with the hope that we the readers might glean something helpful. There are some important words of wisdom to be heard and helpful suggestions that might ease a congregation’s move into a more multicultural space, though the style at times is a bit too chatty. In other words, he spent a bit more time talking about himself in ways that distracted from the core message. Of course, this is my observation and you as a reader might get a different impression. So, on that score, it's a personal thing.


One of the key takeaways from this book is the reminder that there is a difference between being multi-racial and multi-cultural. One can have an ethnically diverse church that is still monocultural. That it is, many multiracial or multiethnic churches continue to reflect the liturgical and governing style of the dominant culture (and to be sure, most congregations will have a dominant culture). It is rare that a congregation will be equally divided among several cultural components. While one might choose a congregation that reflects a particular cultural dynamic without regard to ethnicity or race, this form of diversity is not what we’re talking about here.

Brouwer's congregation may have an advantage over most American churches. Even though it was planted as a congregation to serve American expats and advertises itself as an English-speaking congregation, it also seeks to be international in its ethos. It appears that people choose this church in order to engage people from different cultural backgrounds. As to why American churches find it difficult to capture the ethos of this congregation is difficult to ascertain. Perhaps the answer is that we have little interest in diversity. We’re comfortable with our cultural context as it is.

So, what are some of the ways in which we could, if we choose, pursue becoming truly multicultural. We might start with how we name our congregations. He suggests that the word international has proven useful in his case. So, if we want to be intentional about this vision, how might we name ourselves to reflect that desire? How might our name communicate multi-cultural welcome?  Another issue that needs to be addressed is leadership styles, which are often culturally defined and can create problems. He notes that he came to the Zurich church from a highly structured Presbyterian church, where he served as chair of the session (ruling board). The church in Zurich, however, is congregational in orientation, which means he has a seat on the board but doesn’t have a vote nor does he chair the meetings. Being that I serve in a tradition where the pastor isn't the chair, that’s not a problem, however leadership style remains cultural relevant. What he learned, however, is an important lesson. That lesson is that efficiency may not be the top goal for the church decision making process.

He suggests that a successful multi-cultural church is going to be theologically generous. Success will require freedom (again a value of my own tradition). While I do agree with him on this, to a degree, I do know that some of the most diverse congregations have rather narrow theological views. It seems to me, from the outside, that a clearly defined theology could provide the necessary glue to bring a diverse community together. Nonetheless, even if that might have practical benefit, I still prefer a theologically generous context.

The next area of concern is communication. Moving successfully to a multicultural community requires highly developed communication skills, especially listening skills. Here is where that issue of dominant and secondary cultures comes into play. He notes that the dominant culture may not be "aware of or sensitive to the control they exert, but their control is nevertheless pervasive, extending to every area of life" (p. 85).

Having explored some of the challenges, Brouwer moves to a discussion of models for multi-cultural churches, which range from bi-cultural (only two cultural groups) to nesting churches, in which a congregation of one culture is provided space by the existing congregation. The problem here is that there isn’t any real ongoing engagement. Of course, perhaps the “easiest” way to get to multi-cultural status is to plant a new church that is intentionally multi-cultural. To get there might benefit from knowing the language of the community. As he makes this suggestion he confesses that he is essentially monolingual (English) though he has begun to learn German. While learning the language spoken in the community is helpful, it’s not the only kind of language learning we’ll need. There is also the matter of the spiritual language of the church and its people. He invites us to move beyond cultural stereotypes, even though we may find them helpful. He suggests that we not try to treat others as we want to be treated, but to treat them as they want to be treated!

One of the chapters that caught my attention has to do with the flag. He no tes that they're pervasive in American churches, but not in Swiss churches, even though most of the churches are state-churches. The Swiss love their flag, which features a cross, but would never think of having it in their church. It's a good reminder to consider the message flags send, especially when you want to be multi-cultural. Another thing I found helpful and interesting is that when it comes to multicultural churches music and worship style seems to have nothing to do with success. It's not the music, it's the food and the fellowship that is the glue!!

While there are elements of the book that prove distracting, and it doesn’t provide answers to all our questions, this does get the conversation going. The fact that many of the challenges came from his own denominational background, we will need to look at our denominational affiliations and discern whether there are any cultural elements that get in the way of moving toward multi-cultural context. Perhaps the most important lesson here has to do with the vision, and finding ways of moving toward its fulfillment. This doesn’t offer all the answers, but it is a start. And we need to start if we’re going to get there. My sense is that if I read the younger generations right, they have already become multicultural. If we want to have a future, we should start having that conversation.  

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