This post is the first in a three-part series. Dr. Um preached this sermon at the MTW West Coast Missions Conference 2015 held at Redeemer San Diego. Listen to the audio recording here.
Now there are experts, church experts out there, who evaluate what a multi-ethnic church is like. So one individual by the name of Manny Ortiz has said that you need to have two distinct ethic groups represented for a church to be considered multiethnic. And so they will say you need to have two dominant cultures, at least 35% representing one racial culture, in order for you to be considered multiethnic. Because if you have one dominant culture that’s 80%, 85%, 90% and you have a minority or subdominant culture represented by 10-15%, that’s not a multiethnic church. Why? Because the minority culture will automatically have to assimilate to the dominant culture and the dominant culture will always assume you need to understand our culture, that’s why we’re dominant, we’re in charge, even though they might not be thinking that explicitly.
And so the beautiful thing about this church, and I know a little bit about the history, is that you are a multiethnic church. You have essentially two dominant cultures. I’m sure you have a little bit of everything like Southern California, but you have two dominant cultures. You have the white Anglo and you have the pan-Asian. (Pan-Asian just means one of every kind.) And the beauty of this is that the racial diversity also needs to be represented in leadership in order for it to be a multiethnic church. And you have that here at this church, as well.
Now that’s God intention for diversity, but here’s the problem. Our inclination, our propensity, our bent is not towards diversity, but towards uniformity. In other words, we are comfortable with people who are like us. And again, I don’t think you need to apologize for that. And again, the Bible is not saying that we ought to eradicate all the unique distinctives, all of our racial cultures. That’s not what the Bible teaches.
That’s actually what the culture teaches – multiculturalism. Be colorblind. That’s so culturally unsophisticated. Because what it’s saying is that you have all these unique differences, which is pretty clear and obvious when I look at you and you’re of a particular racial culture, but we just have to be part of this one group and be colorblind and pursue multiculturalism. How terrible is that? It’s just essentially flattening out all of the unique perspectives of all of the beautiful racial cultures. That’s what the world tells us we need to do. That’s naïve at best. But what we need to understand is that you can be sitting here saying, “Yeah, but we understand God’s intention for diversity, we are part of a multiethnic church here at Redeemer San Diego,” and that’s great. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you are being intentional about being integrated. You can be sitting here saying, “I’m part of a multiethnic church,” but still there can be segregation that’s happening where there’s racial separation here.
Let me just speak directly to the Asians, because I can. The beauty of this church is that the racial breakup or the demographics are very, very similar to our church. And what I found, and I always speak to the Asians a little bit more directly and I’ll do so here, some of you have only Asian friends. To complicate the situation, some of you have only Asian, Christian friends. How can you live out the call to be missional? I would like to encourage you to spend more time developing friendships with your non-Christian neighbors. I’d actually like to encourage you to spend time with people who are from different racial cultures.
Now I’ll speak more narrowly to the Korean-Americans. I understand there is a K-pop culture, you love watching your K-drama, you like to do what you want to do. For those of you who are not aware of this, just go ask them what this is. You know Gangnam style, at least. But what ends up happening is that when you are so engulfed by your own racial culture, you can potentially be alienating others who are not also part of the racial culture and marginalizing them by default. They’re like, “Oh, they’re doing their own thing. I don’t understand.”
It is possible for you not to engage in active marginalization and exclusion, but it can potentially happen by default. And if you’re called to be a gospel community, then what you’re being called to do is to know that it is our inclination to be in a situation that is very homogeneous. Now this also happens generationally, but we’re not addressing that here. And I’m very, very encouraged to see that there is even generational diversity. So if you are a single person of a particular racial culture and you only have friends of a similar generation, similar age, also single, from the same social economic, the same educational, the same cultural background, you can’t get any more homogenous than that. And you see, the comfort level – I understand. I understand it’s comfortable for you.
But the Biblical vision is towards this sort of diversity. And if this is God’s design and intention, he wants to pull you away. Not that you wholly eradicate and completely dismiss the uniqueness of your culture, again we’re not moving towards multiculturalism. For you to appreciate it, but that you would not become ethnocentric in the way you live your life. We’re supposed to be gospel-centric, that speaks into all the different ethnic and racial cultures. So that is our inclination.
Now let me give you one simple example of how this gets played out before I get to my final point. Now speaking to you as a fellow American, we have a strict, rigid view of time. And the closer you are the East Coast, the more rigid that view becomes of time. Right? It’s not accidental that I’m here with a bunch of Californians wearing a suit, because I’m that uptight rigid Easterner from a city in the Northeast. So we represent our culture, and we as Americans have a rigid view of time. But you might have a positive spin on this and say, “That’s not a rigid view of time. That’s why we have time. We have watches.” When I say I’m going to meet someone at 11:00, I expect that person to be there at 10:55. Now I might arrive at 11:01 depending on my status and my position in relationship to the other person as I try to rank my position and that person’s value, but the point is that that’s why we have time, and we’re supposed to be there and that’s a reasonable way to look at it. I agree with you – I’m very rigid about time as an American.
So I’m officiating a wedding – an American and there’s somebody from a non-Western culture (you can fill in the blank whatever that is). So if the wedding is at 11:00, the people who are from this side, whether the groom or the bride, Western Americans are going to be there at 10:45. They want to be polite. They want to show they were aware just in case there’s traffic, we don’t want to walk in late, that’s not respectful, so got to get there at 10:45. So this one side of the hall is full. But over here, there’s nobody here on the other side. And the potential in-laws are getting a little nervous, saying did someone change his or her mind? But they are represented by a different racial culture.
So we’re getting all nervous, and I’m getting uptight, it’s 10:59, and then around 11:10, 11:15 a handful of people start strolling in. And what are you doing? Over here you’re kind of judging those people? You’re saying, well that was very undisciplined of them to show up a little late. Very disrespectful. They could have been a little bit more responsible, like ourselves. You see how this sort of moral righteousness gets ratcheted up in a situation like that? And the reason why this happens is this: It’s because you’re placing a moral significance on a cultural preference or a custom difference that leads to cultural prejudice. In other words, if you place a moral significance, a heavy, ultimate, moral value in the way we view time, even though these two cultures have very different perspectives on time, you’re going to ultimately end up becoming imperialistic and sectarian. And the way you view the cultural preference will ultimately lead to a cultural prejudice.
Whereas, I’ll go over into this camp and how do they view those people? Us Americans? In terms of our rigidity towards time? They’re going to say, oh boy, these people are very uptight. This is a wedding, not a funeral. We’re happy, we’re smiling, we’re talking with people over there. We’re not uptight and saying, oh please, we’ve got to finish by 11:49 and 32 seconds. Just enjoy, just relax. By the way, we weren’t being disrespectful, we’re so grateful for you! Give me a hug.
And because of our inclination towards uniformity, it is very, very difficult for us to move beyond, being humble and willing to listen, and willing to be taught by somebody from a different racial culture.
Dr. Stephen Um is the senior pastor at Citylife Presbyterian Church in Boston, MA. He is an associate training director for Redeemer City to City and is involved with The Gospel Coalition in New England. Dr. Um is a graduate of Boston University and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He completed his doctoral studies at the University of St. Andrews.