Written by Andrea Nwabuike
For as long as I can remember, church has been my favourite place. I’m not referring to the physical building, although I could sit for hours in the old sanctuary—soaking in the silence with reverence. I’m not solely referring to the few hours devoted to Sunday worship, either. More than a location or a fixture in our weekly routine, the Church is a diverse community of believers, united by the Holy Spirit and led by Jesus Christ.
The picture of the Church painted throughout Scripture portrays a deeply connected and dynamic community. Thankfully, my experience of the Church has largely reflected this vision. My congregation is filled with aunties, uncles, and grandparents, a few related by blood, but most made family by love. Located in Toronto, my church also reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of the city.
We remix classic hymns with a reggae beat and sing worship songs in Igbo and Swahili. Each Vacation Bible School ends with Culture Night, an evening to enjoy diverse performances displaying the unique cultures represented in our congregation. The night concludes with a multicultural potluck dinner. We have welcomed international students from Japan, South Korea, China, and Brazil, encouraging them to find a home in our midst.
Beyond the fun events and lively music, my multicultural congregation is a direct response to the gospel’s call for unity in diversity. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ not only reconciles us to God, but also reconciles us to each other.
This is evidenced in the first century Church. Ephesians 2 describes the unification of Jews and Gentiles into one household under God. At the time, there was considerable hostility between the Jews and Gentiles. These ethnic groups had different traditions, customs, and ways of life. Yet, God chose to build His Church using this diverse group. Paul explains that through the cross, both Jews and Gentiles were given access to the Spirit of God who would unite them in to one body.
As beautiful as this sounds, it wasn’t an easy process. There were ongoing tensions between the Jews and Gentiles, even after they chose to share a common faith. There were questions about who needed to follow the Mosaic Law and whether circumcision should be required of Gentile believers (Acts 15; Galatians 5). Some in the church showed favouritism due to economic and social status (James 1:1-13).
The gospel does not offer a superficial unity, but deeply rooted transformation. In order for the Jews and Gentiles to be reconciled to one another, the Church endured a painful process of challenging their assumptions, laying down their prejudices, and wading into uncomfortable spaces. The process was messy and challenging.
Despite the difficulties, they did not give up becoming a united Church. It simply wasn’t optional. God is one and His Church must also reflect His oneness. God will not abide among a divided or hostile people. The further we get from each other, the further we get from God.
When I went away for university, I faced a completely different church experience than what I was used to in Toronto. As I searched for a church home in my new environment, I noticed that many of the churches I visited were racially and ethnically homogenous. Even where diversity was present, it was rarely reflected in church leadership. These churches did not reflect the diversity of the city.
The gospel songs that had been an important part of my spiritual formation were nowhere to be found. The literature discussed among my Christian friends were all written by people that didn’t look like me and didn’t reflect my own experiences. When I tried to discuss race or ethnicity, the conversations were usually shut down as a distraction to the gospel. The underlying message communicated was that there was only one way to do church and that way was through a largely white, Western lens.
Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, in his book The Next Evangelicalism, offers a similar lament:
“In the Western, white captivity of the church, a danger exists that all people of colour will strive for ‘honorary white people status.’ We will strive to be recognized by whites, oftentimes by mirroring or mimicking white approaches to theology and white standards of ministry. In our quest to become ‘honorary white people,’ we end up loathing the unique way that God has created us in our cultural context. This self-loathing yields a denial to the church of a fuller understanding of the gospel message from all different angles and perspectives.”
Although Rah writes from an American context, his description is not foreign to a Canadian audience. The church in Canada has an ugly history of colonialism and exclusion, including participation in the horrors of the residential school system and the exclusion of Black settlers from mainstream church congregations.
The echoes of this history resound in modern church experiences. I have grieved with racialized friends over racist comments hurled by brothers and sisters in the faith. We have felt the stares and uncomfortable glances in mainly white congregations. We have been silenced and ignored when attempting to address our concerns. Despite these frustrations, our hope for the future of the Canadian Church and our belief in her potential have not been diminished.
God’s plan for reconciling Jews and Gentiles was not to assimilate the Gentiles into Jewish culture. Gentiles did not need to become like Jews in order to enter the family of God. The only requirement for membership was belief in Jesus Christ and obedience to His word. Outside of this, there was room for a diversity of cultural practices and approaches to worship. There was space for believers of different traditions and languages to exercise their gifts and serve alongside each other.
My suggestion for moving towards this picture of unified diversity is not to create racial or ethnic quotas in every church. I do not think it is bad for a church to be predominantly white nor do I think we need to get rid of ethnic minority churches. However, we should earnestly seek opportunities to embrace and partner with believers from various contexts, not only in terms of ethnicity and race, but also in regard to age, physical ability, and economic status.
We can accept the leadership of ethnic minority pastors and listen to diverse stories through literature, music, and other forms of communication. We can welcome immigrants with open arms, befriend strangers, and celebrate the talents of foreigners. It will be uncomfortable. It will be tedious. But, in a world filled with hostility and hatred, God has chosen His Church to be an example of the peace and unity found only through Him. Under the guidance of His Spirit, this is a task we are more than capable of accomplishing.