New Church Growth Strategy: Intentional Ethnic Diversity

How some traditionally white churches and denominations are staving off attendance decline through diversification strategies.

At First Covenant Church (FCC) in St. Paul, Minnesota, a church with longstanding roots in the city’s East Side neighborhood, you can still find families with ties to the original Swedish immigrants who planted the church 140 years ago. But by 2002, the congregation had arrived at a critical juncture. “It was an aging congregation filled with fear, fear of dying, fear of change,” says pastor Anne Vining. The largely Caucasian church decided that it needed to face those fears and pray for direction on its next steps.

What emerged from the crucible of self-examination for FCC and its leaders was the realization that although its neighborhood had remained blue-collar socioeconomically, the racial and ethnic composition of the East Side had diversified far from its Swedish origins. To keep pace with these changes, the church had to begin doing the same. Steve Benson, a lay leader whose daughter represents the sixth generation of his family to attend FCC, recalls, “The landscape of our community had changed, and we needed to re-envision ourselves given what was already right at our doorstep.”

Given its location in close proximity to three local public schools, FCC decided that it would focus its ministry efforts on children and youth in the community. Today, if you were to visit the church, you would find that a racial transformation has taken place. On Wednesdays, FCC opens its doors to children and youth in the community for tutoring, rehearsals in one of the many musicals the church produces in conjunction with the local public schools, and a free hot meal. Eighty percent of the people present in these mid-week ministries are non-Anglo.

Mark DeYmaz believes that all churches are called to become multiethnic entities — and that churches ignore the coming demographic shifts at their own peril.

The church’s decision to reach out to children and youth in the community has also meant reaching the parents of the young people. Ana Matos is a mother of three who followed her children into the ministry of the church. “What kept me going was the feeling that I had when I was there,” Matos says. “I felt part of something. Like I belonged and everyone welcomed me.”

Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts is another church gradually making the shift from being a largely Caucasian congregation to becoming a more multiethnic community. In 2005, this Boston suburban megachurch began asking itself and its members, “How should Grace Chapel respond to the changing demographics in our church and the region in a biblical way?”

As a result of the responses they received from a diverse cross-section of people, the church leaders worked to foster a multicultural environment, including translating the services into several languages (Mandarin Chinese, Korean, and Spanish) and intentionally pursuing diversity in the composition of the elder board. Today, more than 30 percent of Grace Chapel’s congregants are people of color.

“Compared to where we were 15 to 20 years ago, if you walked into Grace on a Sunday now, you would be blown away by the diversity you see,” says Dana Baker, Pastor of Multicultural Ministries, who was given the responsibility of leading the church through the recommended initiatives. “People will come and say, ‘It is like a taste of heaven, with the diversity that is here.’ But we know we still have a long way to go.”

Mark DeYmaz, pastor of Mosaic Church in Central Arkansas and founder of the Mosaix Global Network, believes that all churches are called to become multiethnic entities — and that churches ignore the coming demographic shifts at their own peril. “Revelation 7:9, where every tongue, tribe, and nation are at the feet of Jesus worshipping together, is our destination,” he said. “Pursuing racial and economic diversity in our congregations is rooted in exegetically sound ecclesiology right out of the New Testament. Our continued segregation in the local church undermines the credibility of our message.”

Ten years ago, the Evangelical Covenant Church had no people of color in their senior leadership positions; today, nearly a quarter of those positions are filled with minorities.

Robyn Afrik is a consultant and speaker on the topics of diversity and multiculturalism, and she has assisted numerous churches and institutions who desire to become more multiethnic. “You need to have your eyes wide open as you begin the process,” she cautions. “There will be costs, sacrifices, hard conversations that will emerge, and changes to your church or organization. Becoming multiethnic sounds great on paper, but is it something your church truly feels called to and wants?”

Afrik has created a six-stage process for churches that are moving in this direction, in which becoming aware of diversity issues and having an “open door” to welcome those outside the dominant culture is just one of the early stages of the process. “Oftentimes, the dominant culture is saying to those in the minority culture, ‘You are welcome here, but you have to fit into our cultural norms and values,’” Afrik says. “If you pursue this path as a church, you have to be prepared to address the issues of power and privilege. And is the dominant culture willing to release power to those people of color who are coming in to the church? These are huge questions to process.”

One entity that has taken seriously these questions of increasing power and influence amongst people of color is the FCC’s parent denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC). President Gary Walter describes the denomination’s decision 20 years ago to increase diversity in this historically Swedish organization as a “come to Jesus” moment. Ten years ago, the denomination had no people of color in their senior leadership positions; today, nearly a quarter of those positions are filled with minorities. Every board in the ECC has to reflect diversity, and leadership demographics are watched closely from every aspect of the denomination. The end result is that the denomination has been moving away from its Euro-American roots — nearly 30 percent of all its congregations are among populations of color or are intentionally multiethnic.

However, numbers only tell a part of the story, and Walters understands the importance of the relational aspects of these transitions that are not often reflected in the changing statistics. “Should this be an exercise in mechanics and technical adjustments, we will fare no better than other groups, secular and religious, that have embarked on similar efforts,” Walter says.

FCC’s Vining agrees. “God is calling us to something more challenging than just being with people who look like us, and talk like us, and act like us. But to get beyond tokenism, it’s about building deep relationships. We don’t just want to be multiethnic; we want to create a community that is intercultural, where we are intentionally melding and doing life together. That is our ultimate goal.”

Helen Lee
Written by
  • http://www.lapastor.com Tim Yee

    I am in an interesting situation taking an all-Japanese church and opening it up to the changing demographics in downtown LA (multi-Asian and white professionals). The issues of power are complex as an all-Japanese church wrestles with the gentrification of the neighborhood and its implications for the future of Japanese specific ministry.

  • http://www.lapastor.com Tim Yee

    I am in an interesting situation taking an all-Japanese church and opening it up to the changing demographics in downtown LA (multi-Asian and white professionals). The issues of power are complex as an all-Japanese church wrestles with the gentrification of the neighborhood and its implications for the future of Japanese specific ministry.

  • http://www.lapastor.com Tim Yee

    I am in an interesting situation taking an all-Japanese church and opening it up to the changing demographics in downtown LA (multi-Asian and white professionals). The issues of power are complex as an all-Japanese church wrestles with the gentrification of the neighborhood and its implications for the future of Japanese specific ministry.

    • http://www.churchhistorytimelines.com/ www.churchhistorytimelines.com

      It seems to me that most Japanese in Southern California are second-, third-, or even fourth-generation and are quite distant from their roots. What would the purpose be of “an all-Japanese church” if not to simply divide?

  • kenfong

    As one who earned his DMIN in Church Growth during the 80s at Fuller amidst all the emphasis on “Homogeneous Units,” I know full well how to twist the gospel’s redemptive message to validate churches that aren’t interested in pursuing diversity. Today, however, I’ve helped lead the same church (that began in 1925 as a Japanese-speaking mission in East LA) to become one that has one of the most diverse API populations (nearly a dozen different API groups here, with Chinese Americans now far outnumbering the Japanese Americans) plus White, Black, Latino, and Mixed. To the non-discerning eye, I’m sure EvergreenLA doesn’t look that diverse, but ask any East Asian, SE Asian, S Asian or Pacific Islander, and they’ll tell you that there’s a whole lot of diversity happening @ EBCLA these days. That being so, a much more vexing aspect of diversity is socio-economic-educational diversity. In spite of all that’s happened racially and culturally, I believe it’s still quite daunting for someone who isn’t that educated or at least middle-class to feel completely at home among us.

    One Major Caution for Those of Us Who Believe That the Gospel Should Be Moving Our Churches Towards Redemptive-Diversity: today’s immmigrant/language-based churches are in an earlier stage of life than many or most White or Black churches. The latter, having been part of this country for more than 200 years, are rightly challenged to confront ongoing segregationist tendencies in most of their churches. While they don’t share the exact same cultures and there’s been clear past and present injustices fomented by many Whites against Blacks, nevertheless, the challenge coming after the Civil Rights Movement lands directly at their feet.

    On the other hand, most 1Gen immigrant-Americans have yet to integrate and assimilate, and many don’t speak English or at least speak it fluently. Being part of a churches that provide respite and relief from the daily reminders that they are “perpetual foreigners” is still necessary for many. At the same time, even with these limitations, they still need to allow the light of the gospel to shine on the portions of their hearts and minds that harbor racist and prejudicial thoughts.

    My point here is that it’s far too sweeping of a generalization to say that all Christ-following churches need to embrace racial/ethnic diversity today. The challenge for some of these 1Gen churches today might have less to do with that and much more to do with pursuing socio-economic-educational diversity. For example, if a Taiwanese 1Gen church is populated by highly educated middle- and upper-middle class suburbanites, maybe the gospel is prompting them to love their Mandarin-speaking neighbors who toil in restaurants and other lower-paying jobs.

    For some more good food for thought about the issue of more ethnically diverse churches, check out Branson and Martinez’ “Churches, Cultures, and Leadership”.

  • Helen Lee

    A helpful comment, Ken! Without fail, all the people I spoke to in these churches mentioned that their challenge was not just to diversify culturally, but socioeconomically as well. It was an angle I didn’t have the space to pursue, but it was definitely was an issue that came up several times in my conversations. And your point about the role that immigrant congregations play particularly in the lives of more recent immigrant groups is also well taken. In my discussion with Mark DeYmaz, he affirmed the very important role that these ethnic immigrant congregations play in their communities, not only to provide spiritual nourishment but also real and valuable social support. At the same time, he would even encourage those congregations to be open to ways they can keep partnering with other cultural groups, such as having occasional joint services with sister congregations of different cultural backgrounds (as often these congregations are sharing a building and could easily find ways to build connections for joint worship or service). I think your suggestion that these immigrant churches could maintain their ethnic emphases while still finding ways to diversify, such as socioeconomically, is an excellent one. We all have a tendency, whether we are recent immigrants or not, to gravitate towards those contexts and people that make us the most comfortable. I think the underlying message in this whole discussion is that we have been called to radically love our “neighbor”, to disciple all the nations, and to follow Christ’s example in reaching those who would be considered the most marginalized in our society. How each church lives out those Kingdom callings will look different from congregation to congregation. But if we are pursuing those callings, in time our congregations will certainly diversify, whether socioeconomically, culturally, or in other ways. And that, I believe, is good news for us all. Thanks so much for weighing in, Ken!

  • Guest

    my previous comment didn’t show up. I wonder what happened.

  • http://AAPastor.com/ Daniel K. Eng

    Thanks for posting this! I’m really encouraged that these churches are pursuing diversity in the name of the gospel. This is definitely one reflection of the power of the gospel, and I’m looking forward to hearing more about how they are developing.

    I agree with Pastor Ken’s comment, that ethnicity isn’t the only way to be diverse. In fact, I’m seeing a growing movement of voices saying that multi-ethnic is not the same as multicultural. In fact, some of the advantages of ethnic-specific churches is the opportunity for people to engage cross-culturally. This can happen between the immigrant generation and the American-raised generation, or between old and young, or even as Pastor Ken mentions, across the socioeconomic or education level lines. Furthermore, we often see churches that show different skin colors but are mono-cultural in terms of income level, political leanings, or even commitment to a cause.

    I’d like to add something to this conversation, and I hope it might cause some helpful consideration. I openly question the hermeneutics used with the passage of the multitude in Revelation 7 to make the statement that all churches must be multi-ethnic. First, there is no command for a local church body in this passage. John reports to us what his vision is, but there is no prescription for a local church (unlike Jesus’ messages to churches in the earlier portions of Revelation). Second, this crowd comes after the Church Age, as the church has been raptured–these people have come out of the Great Tribulation. So, for those who adhere to a pre-tribulation return of Christ, the church is gone from the earth. Third, we have to be consistent with our application. If we are going to apply the words “every people” to a local church body, we have to also apply “every tongue” and “every nation.” Also, this passage is adjacent to a vision of an ethnic-specific group, the 144,000 Jews. If one is going to use this Revelation 7 passage to claim that there is a mandate for local churches, what about this group that precedes it?

    Anyway, thanks for writing an encouraging post, and for putting out the “Growing Healthy Asian American Churches” book!

  • Eugene

    Great article! I am a leader and preacher at a Slavic church. Almost two years ago we launched English speaking service and now by God’s grace we have members from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds. I love our church! I write about my experiences on my blog.