“Beyond Multiethnic” Church – and Christian Colleges?

If we haven’t learned how to be a healing station for the people who are racially similar, then we’re never going to learn how to be a healing station for the people who are racially dissimilar. (Christena Cleveland)

Cleveland, Disunity in ChristEven if it means that I don’t catch up on the reading in European and diplomatic history that I should have done this past summer, I’m going to spend at least part of my Christmas break reading social psychologist Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart. A book that can bring praise from evangelicals as dissimilar as Greg Boyd and Thabiti Anyabwile deserves attention, particularly from someone who repeatedly complains about Christian disunity in his lectures on the theological, denominational, and political legacies of the Reformations but has little real understanding of the psychological, sociological, and other factors that tend to splinter the Body of Christ.

But what really moved Cleveland’s book to the head of my queue was her recent series of blog posts entitled “Beyond Multiethnic,” since it addressed one of my central reservations about the way we tend to approach reconciliation in evangelical institutions like the Christian college where I work and the congregation to which I belong:

Even though this blog has focused a lot on race/ethnicity issues in the church, anyone who has read Disunity in Christ knows that I’m passionate about loving well across all cultural differences in the church…not just the racial/ethnic ones….

…pastors ultimately admit that the spaces near the margins of their church are crowded, that there are plenty of cultural minority
groups within their racially homogenous church that are ignored, silenced and even shunned.  So I ask them, “Why are you interested in attracting racially diverse people if you haven’t demonstrated that you can love the racially similar but culturally different people that are already in your midst?”  The pursuit of racial diversity while marginalizing other forms of diversity makes no sense to me.

Multiethnic/multiracial church is in vogue, it’s sexy, it’s all the rage these days. I don’t say that to diminish the movement (because I really do believe that the Holy Spirit is behind it). I say it to simply point out that it’s easy to jump on the multiracial/ multiethnic bandwagon while ignoring the many other divisions in the body of Christ that also break God’s heart.

Subsequent posts focused on three groups often marginalized within evangelical (and probably other) churches: low-income people; undocumented immigrants (a guest post from Matthew Soerens of the Evangelical Immigration Roundtable); and unmarried adults. Some key observations from the series:

Christena ClevelandIt seems as though many Christians have succumbed to society’s pattern of class segregation, so much so that many well-meaning people lack the cross-cultural tools to love well across class differences. Many Christians have also forgotten about how much our leader Jesus went out of his way to value and embrace people from lower economic classes….

More often than not, the low-income people who attend predominantly middle-class churches are marginalized as “recipients” rather than invited in as “irreplaceable participants.” They’re directed to apply for benevolence fund money, but they’re rarely seen as individuals (with insight, perspective and skills) that can contribute to the central life of the church. As a result, they aren’t seen as “influencers” and are often overlooked for leadership positions in the church.

* * * * *

…beyond the biblical reality that each undocumented immigrant is, like all human beings, made in God’s image with inherent dignity (Genesis 1:27)—most are also our Christian brothers and sisters.  Though many native-born Christians probably do not realize it, immigrant congregations account for the fastest growth in the American Church today….

That reality is a surprise to many native-born believers, because meaningful interaction between native-born and undocumented believers is actually pretty limited: immigrants often worship in separate congregations, out of sight of their native-born brethren.

* * * * *

I talk regularly with a white pastor who got married when he was 21. Most of the time, we talk about our racial differences and how we can build bridges across them. But recently we struck up a conversation about how my experience as a single person in the church differs from his experience as a married person. As I was sharing my experiences, it occurred to him that my singleness is just as foreign to him as my blackness is.  He said, “Wow! Our conversation about singleness and marriage is just as cross-cultural as our conversations about being black and white.”


While I read all of this with one eye to my role as a chairperson of a suburban evangelical church that is as racially and socioeconomically homogenous as it is theologically and politically diverse, I also could see clear implications for Christian colleges like the one I serve and study, Bethel University.

Bethel's new logo
Here’s our new logo, by the way – just a few weeks old…

I’ve already written my own multi-part series on social class at such institutions: e.g., “…I have no doubt that Bethel — a private university that charges rather high tuition and recently built a $30 million university commons featuring a lavish cafeteria, expensive grill, and coffee shop with on-staff baker — could be an unsettling place for lower-income students…. Subtly and not-so-subtly, I fear that we’re communicating that you need to be of (or act like you come from) a certain social background and level of prosperity to fit in at Bethel.” But the subjects of Cleveland’s third and fourth posts are also highly relevant for Bethel — which struggles to recruit, retain, and do right by immigrant students, and where the culture of “MRS degrees” and “Ring by Spring” has receded hardly at all in the ten-plus years I’ve been around — and I need to devote more thought to those challenges than I have.

But both as a Christian college professor and an evangelical church lay leader, I’m most struck by the thesis at the center of Cleveland’s series:

If we haven’t learned how to be a healing station for the people who are racially similar, then we’re never going to learn how to be a healing station for the people who are racially dissimilar. You can’t really enjoy multiracial unity without learning how to truly see all people who exist on society’s margins and learning how to listen to them, empathize with them, honor them, and work with God and others to restore dignity to them. First things first.

First things first. We’ve been working on racial reconciliation at Bethel for years now — while I think that’s an important goal for lots of reasons (and I don’t mean what follows to suggest that race be boxed up and left to wait its turn), it’s worth asking whether a Christian community that remains predominantly white can make serious progress on race if it barely pays attention to the ways that it marginalizes racially similar people on the basis of class or gender.

What do you think? Can a church or Christian college be a “healing station” on race if it hasn’t learned how to do that “for the people that are racially similar”?

3 thoughts on ““Beyond Multiethnic” Church – and Christian Colleges?

  1. Most churches appear to be clubs for parents who want their kids to receive moral grounding and perhaps basic Christian doctrine. Why would this attract a single person?

    Also, I don’t really see the need for a diversity that includes every possible group as a full member unless we assume churches must be large. Since the large church is on the wane (with prominent exceptions, of course), the real problem is how the formation of small groups can be fostered in which individuals are fully accepting of each other.

    1. I don’t think that “every possible group” is the standard she’s setting, Jim. (Though in another post at her blog she talks about a conversation with a pastor of a small church in rural Maine who wondered if ethnic diversity was really something he should strive for.) But I can’t imagine how a church of any size can duck the issue of social class.

      I think you’re right that, to a degree, we need to learn to be “fully accepting of each other” via more intimate experiences like those fostered in small groups. (To play with Cleveland’s thesis a bit: can a congregation be a “healing station” if the smaller communities within it aren’t performing that function?) But isn’t the danger of small groups that you seek out the company of those most similar to you: age/stage of life, educational level, politics, theology, to say nothing of race, ethnicity, social class, etc.? It’s one reason I find the Pietist tradition valuable: imperfectly, those conventicles did seek to bridge such divides.

  2. Social stratification at Bethel and in Conference churches since 1950. That would be a good research paper topic. Bethel College was established primarily for undergraduate education of candidates for the Seminary.

    Since that beginning the social classes of the congregations and the college have broadened. The majority of members of congregations in 1950 would be working poor. The majority in 2013 would be professionals, business owners, and skilled labor. Evangelizing neighborhoods where churches are located has been increasely hard to do for churces established by 1960 in the Metro area.

    Bethel has expanded by “marketing” itself beyond the Conference pool of students. These students will most likely be from households of the middle to upper classes that desire a college education. Whether the problem is “keeping up with MIAC” or establishing schools of education, nursing, etc to become a university – the student body today is markidly different from the student that attended even in the 1980s. Also the fact that tuition costs have risen almost as fast as other private schools showes that maybe we are just going where the money is.

    The decreasing congregational giving since the early 1990s matches Bethels decreasing mission to the Conference.

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