In some congregations, the phrase “multiethnic kingdom culture” will probably earn an “Amen.” If said with the right intonation, you might hear, “Preach!”
A multiethnic church represents the socioeconomic diversity of its location. It’s a church with a culture that encourages “a deeper understanding of differing colors, cultures, and socioeconomic situations” (5–6).
Jamaal Williams and Timothy Paul Jones’s new book In Church as It Is in Heaven: Cultivating a Multiethnic Kingdom Culture argues that a multiethnic church is an apologetic for the power of the gospel and the truthfulness of God’s Word.
The authors practice what they preach. Williams is lead pastor of the multiethnic Sojourn Church Midtown in Louisville, Kentucky. Jones serves with him as a preaching pastor while working as vice president for doctoral studies and professor of Christian family ministry at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
The book is structured to mimic an order of service. It has a call to worship, a welcome, communion, and a benediction. Each element states a problem, offers a liturgy of response, and identifies the ideal result of that liturgy. The authors recognize the tragic racial history in the U.S. but identify the gospel as the primary antidote in patiently building a culture that moves beyond that history.
In Church as It Is in Heaven: Cultivating a Multiethnic Kingdom Culture
Jamaal Williams and Timothy Paul Jones
The Bible tells us that the congregation gathered around God’s heavenly throne will be “a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language,” all singing the praises of the Lamb. God’s intention has always been to delight for all eternity in a redeemed community of ethnic diversity.
But this diverse community shouldn’t have to wait until eternity to begin! It can be a reality in our own local churches here and now. Patterned after a worship service, In Church as It Is in Heaven gives biblical warrant for such a community and shows how multiethnic churches provide a unique apologetic for the gospel.
Changing a congregation’s culture isn’t a quick task. In Church as It Is in Heaven encourages churches to do a few basic things to create a multiethnic culture, trusting God for the results.
When rushed, a well-meant pursuit of multiethnicity may result in tokenism. Leaders find a person who “looks right” to help their church pass the multiethnic sniff test. But quick-fix solutions ignore how the consistent pressure of sin breaks in and deforms cultures. Any solution needs to be applied consistently through time.
Cultivation begins by breaking the ground. In the case of racial reconciliation, we need to identify the real problems in the past and the present. For the U.S., this includes recognizing the sanctioned oppression of African Americans that lasted late into the 20th century, with effects that continue today.
Once a problem is identified, transformation can begin. Transforming a culture requires developing patterns of behavior, which the book calls liturgies. These are habits, such as lament and generous sacrifice, which are embodied in congregations to enable change.
Lean into Lament
Williams and Jones don’t call for Christians to repent for the sins of their ancestors. They do argue we should lament the way some Christians have historically abused the faith to justify racial sins. We should have a godly sorrow over those abuses and the enduring divisions that remain.
The way a congregation responds to sorrow both shapes and reveals a church’s culture.
Lament goes beyond responses to racialized events in the latest news cycle. It is “for those who struggle daily through the shadowlands of depression” (37); it’s a fitting response to couples struggling with infertility or to any sort of tragedy in our world. But lament does include sorrow over the ethnic segregation that continues to dominate our churches.
In Church as It Is in Heaven encourages us to slow down in the face of sorrow and ask, “How did it come to this?” We should be unwilling to accept easy or dismissive answers.
Sorrows run deeper than data. It does no good to tell a childless couple that most people of a certain age can conceive. Similarly, news of racial tensions can’t be silenced with an appeal to statistics that seem to minimize the problem.
Sitting with our sadness shapes us into people who feel as we carefully think. As a pastor of a multiethnic church, I’ve seen firsthand how lament softens the heart and primes the soul to cry out to God.
Lament is the honest cry of a hurting heart wrestling with the paradox of pain and the promise of God’s goodness. Until we’ve learned to lament evils in this world, we haven’t truly learned to love. Practically, this involves churches encouraging prayer within their worship services to mourn with those who mourn.
Until we’ve learned to lament evils in this world, we haven’t truly learned to love.
Pursuing a multiethnic kingdom culture also requires generous sacrifice, especially by the congregation’s majority culture. The gospel encourages us to lay down our preferences for the good of others. Those from the majority culture should consider ways their preferences differ from others. Majority cultures have the privilege of assuming their stylistic preferences are normal.
A “colorblind” approach to ethnic unity typically assumes the majority culture’s perspective and expects others to join in. In contrast, a multiethnic kingdom culture recognizes and celebrates “the cultural stories that history has entwined with our ethnicities” (104). It’s a way to affirm God’s goodness across cultures.
Williams and Jones argue that Jesus’s poverty (2 Cor. 8:9) came mainly by laying down his divine privilege. As people in the majority yield their privilege of preference for the good of others, it gives evidence of the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:3–8).
For example, music in African American churches is frequently structured to encourage the oppressed to cast their cares on a caring God. A predominately white church including songs that reflect this theme can be a generous sacrifice.
Williams and Jones make the case that inflexibility in worship can signal that different subcultures aren’t truly welcome in a congregation. It’s not enough to say people are welcome; they need to be made to feel welcome. For a multiethnic kingdom culture to take root, we must value and champion multiple expressions of worship.
Kingdom Diversity as Apologetic
This book avoids common traps in the conversation by focusing on the right sources. It rejects approaches that seek to “solve spiritual issues based on un-Christian and even anti-Christian ideas” (21). The authors build their understanding of a multiethnic kingdom culture on Scripture, with help from theologians like Augustine. This approach begins with the gospel and seeks to create a culture that puts God’s love on display.
Inflexibility in worship can signal that different subcultures aren’t truly welcome in a congregation.
Jones and Williams recognize that “diversity itself should never be our ultimate goal” (20). Instead, “diversity is an implication and a result of gospel-driven love. . . . The goal is faithfulness that embraces the unity God has already accomplished in Christ through the power of the gospel” (21).
Diversity within a congregation can be a powerful apologetic for the power of the gospel. Christian love is challenging, even for those who share every demographic with us. However, “multiethnic and multi-socioeconomic churches present the world with unique evidence for the truth of the gospel. . . . There is a glory glimpsed when God’s people gather in all their diversity that’s hidden when we remain apart” (13).
As the church seeks to grow into the vision of the diverse multitude before the throne in Revelation 7, books like In Church as it Is In Heaven offer a meaningful way forward. For church members and church leaders looking to expand their congregation’s vision for a diverse body, this book will be an excellent resource.
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