Dan Sheffield is Director of Global & Intercultural Ministries for The Free Methodist Church in Canada. He has served as a pastor in Canada, an urban church planter in South Africa and theological educator in Egypt. He also teaches courses on leadership in Tyndale's MDiv In-Ministry program.

January 2012

Current Volume 4

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In the 1980s a new church was initiated in the north-west Greater Toronto Area. It was developed as an essentially white, Anglo-European background congregation. Early on, however, people from other cultural backgrounds began to attend largely because of a perceived common denominational heritage. In the mid-90s the congregation went through a leadership hemorrhage that left the group with a largely Caribbean-background membership. For almost a decade they have been led by an Anglo-European background pastor with a degree of intercultural sensitivity. Now their congregation is at a crossroads and the pastor is wondering how to engage his leadership team in a dialogue about becoming an intentionally multicultural community. One leader spelled it out: “we are multi-ethnic in composition, but it’s really only one culture group that influences the decision-making.”

What Kind of Change?

What would lead a congregation to want to consider becoming functionally multicultural rather than just remaining rooted in one particular cultural milieu? There are several directions from which this desire might emerge.

Some congregations may have become gradually aware that their demographic makeup is changing. In practical terms, they are no longer a community of essentially one cultural background. What does it mean to come to terms with their already observable differences, practically? Another congregation, or pastoral leader, may be wrestling with the theological implications of Scripture regarding culture and the Body of Christ, in passages such as 1 Corinthians 12:12-14 and Romans 5:9-10. What does it mean to come to terms with God’s acceptance of all nations, tribes and languages, theologically? Some Christian leaders are also asking how a “missional orientation” to their community will result in engagement with the different cultures already present there – even if people from those cultures are not yet feeling welcome in their church. Does becoming missional change how a Christian community relates to differences in worldview?

What is culture?

Missiologist Paul Hiebert gives a standard description of culture: “The more or less integrated systems of ideas, feelings and values, and their associated patterns of learned behaviour and products shared by a group who organize and regulate what they think, feel, and do.”1 In this case, Latinos from Colombia have a common culture because they have acquired a web of meaning about how to think about life and ways of doing things because they have learned these things from family, friends, school, church, and government.

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz has a slightly different twist: culture is “an inherited system of symbolic forms that operates as a set of control mechanisms – plans, recipes, rules, instructions – for governing behaviours.”2 As an example of this approach, multi-generational Canadians have inherited “hockey” as a symbol of their cultural identity. Canadians have learned the rules, skills and behaviours so that an adult will play the game “intuitively” – without even thinking. But hockey also becomes a metaphor or symbol for how citizens think about themselves as individuals and a nation – rough and tough, at ease with the cold environment; a team game with lots of room for individual attainments.

These two views of culture help the reader to understand what it means when people of diverse cultures come together in a social setting – such as church. Two Christians who have been raised in different cultures will have different “webs of meaning,” or ways of seeing the world, for almost everything. They will have different “symbols” which intuitively mean different things to each person. Christians often end up judging or evaluating people (and their spirituality) based on “our viewpoint” rather than stepping into the shoes of fellow believers and “seeing” from their cultural vantage point.

If Janet suggests that Maryam should release her worldview for the purpose of “fitting in,” she has essentially denied Maryam her connections with her cultural identity. This attempt to minimize difference – perhaps for the sake of “Christian unity” – is a denial of an aspect of her sovereign identity. That is, in God’s providence, Maryam was born and raised in Egypt, so there must be something about Maryam’s cultural identity with which God is well-pleased.

If these cultural differences are valid frameworks for interpreting one’s world, how do Christians function in community when people of diverse cultures come together?

That is the dilemma, because many congregations in urban areas can “look” very diverse but not actually address the issues that develop a multicultural community. It should be noted that there is a difference between multi-ethnic and multicultural. The multi-ethnic, monocultural church has many people of different ethnic/cultural backgrounds present in the congregation, but the leadership processes follow one particular culture’s way of doing things. The multi-ethnic, multicultural church acknowledges differing cultural frameworks and intentionally draws those cultural perspectives into the life and leadership processes of the congregation.

This article, however, is not a discussion regarding the nature and function of multicultural congregations but an examination of the transition process toward becoming a multicultural community.


It may be helpful to pause and comment on the use of ‘multicultural’ and/or ‘intercultural.’ Practitioners in the field of intercultural communications use ‘intercultural’ as a descriptor of a process of dialogue between people of differing cultures. That is, it is possible to acquire skills in passing ideas and information between persons of different worldviews for the sake of finding common meaning. Someone who is interculturally competent is, therefore, able to effectively and appropriately use communication tools to elicit meaning in a specific cultural environment, even if not their own.

‘Multicultural’ is language used by educators and social philosophers as a descriptor of a process for including the perspectives of differing cultures into a collective understanding of the world,  and in particular its diverse communities. That is, the voices of people functioning with differing worldviews should be accepted (not just tolerated) as valid contributions to a community’s identity.

A faith community will mutually adjust its practices, so that different values and expressions find their way into shaping the ethos of that community. To put it another way, a functional, accepting, adapting, multicultural congregation is made up of individuals who are interculturally competent. In fact, interculturally competent leaders are required, or necessary, to mutually sort out those cultural values which do not find their source in biblical, kingdom values – in both the dominant and minority cultures.3

How does change happen
in an organizational culture?

Churches are, in fact, micro-cultures of their own. That is, particular congregations have beliefs, values, and symbols that organize the way they think and act – they determine congregational roles and behaviours. These beliefs, values, symbols and behaviours are passed from one generation to another, so that churches maintain certain ways of understanding and doing things. Some of these things are good and right, if rooted in biblical theology. Some of these things are just “the way we have always done it” and may have cultural meaning rather biblical. And that’s not wrong either, if those cultural values and practices don’t steer the congregation away from biblical values and practices. When someone “from another culture,” however, enters such a congregation with their own set of values and practices – some biblical and some cultural – then the culture-shapers have to decide how they will respond.

Organizational culture, or “the way that our church does things,” is rooted in a set of beliefs about how members of the community think the world operates. Christians believe in a living God who is at work in the affairs of human beings – a belief which sets Christians apart from a lot of other social and even religious organizations. They also have beliefs about what it means to “be a Christian,” some of which are rooted in Scripture and some of which are not. Some of those “beliefs” at the centre of a Christian community are shaped by the dominant culture’s way of understanding things, rather than Scripture or biblical theology. This mixed-bag can be viewed as an “operational theology” – that is, the things the congregation really believes. Built upon these systems of beliefs and values, congregations develop ways of organizing themselves. Churches develop assumptions and expectations for how things should happen and how their members should conduct themselves, based on their beliefs and worldview. Often these behaviours or activities no longer have a meaning that is understood, they are just acted out.

Change happens in organizational cultures when leadership begins to ask the hard questions, challenging their assumptions: What are we doing? What results are we having? Why are we doing this? Is this really what we believe? This is the beginning of organizational change. To explore a congregation’s development toward becoming an intentional, functional, multicultural congregation, leadership must become more culturally self-aware. This involves becoming aware of how culture impacts what they do, in one way or another. Culture must be brought to the table, not left parked outside the door of the church board room.

The development of intercultural sensitivity comes via an increasing capacity to perceive differences. This capacity is built upon actual experience combined with reflection on that experience. Cultural knowledge is not the same thing as intercultural sensitivity. Intercultural competence requires increasing experience of difference coupled with reflection and integration of insights.4 Thus the transition toward an intentionally multicultural church can only happen as leadership becomes increasingly more self-aware regarding their experiences of cultural difference.

A Dialectical Model
for Congregational Transition

This glimpse at the place of intercultural self-awareness and organizational culture aids understanding of the process for transitioning to a multicultural congregation. It should also be noted that as “change” happens around a congregation, “transition” is the meandering path through the time of disorientation toward desired, missional outcomes..”5

In April 2008 a group of ministry practitioners and educators from Canada and the United States gathered in St Louis (USA) to look at best practices in developing multi-ethnic/multicultural congregations. From that dialogue emerged the development of a dialectical format for understanding transition to a multicultural congregation..”6 The dialectical model suggests that each move forward is precipitated by an encounter or disturbance to the status quo. The following outline gives an introduction to this process of meandering, ongoing engagement, reflection and development.

Cycle One: Become Conscious

The process of change normally begins with some sort of crisis. It may be a gradual decline in attendance or perhaps a change in who is actually attending services. Either situation may cause long-time members to wake up and become conscious that something has changed. This moment of awakening must be used as an opportunity to exegete the change or crisis. Explore what has been happening to produce this point of self-awareness. Are we concerned about this situation because there is no one left to teach Sunday School? Are we concerned because we are uncomfortable with “those” people, or are we concerned because we have lost our sense of mission?

This will undoubtedly lead to a need to exegete the community surrounding the church. Explore what is actually going on: demographic changes, social needs, physical, town-planning changes in the neighbourhood. Who is living in the neighbourhood these days? What are the needs that no one is responding to? What long-term plans does the city have for this area?

The final exploration in this stage is to exegete the congregation – what have we been doing that led us to be oblivious to the changes around us? What have we become that has produced such disconnection between ourselves and our neighbours? What is really important to us? What do we believe? What do we value? This exercise is crucial for examining the organizational culture of the congregation as well as the intercultural self-awareness of the leadership core.

Cycle Two: Develop Consensus

The next transitional cycle of dialogue requires the development of congregational consensus about the direction of unfolding ministry. Does the congregation want to do the work to become a multicultural church, engaged in mission in their diverse neighbourhood? As a congregation seeks to develop a new consensus, the disorienting encounter is with Scripture – a re-examination of familiar passages and themes in light of new realities. In essence the congregation needs to hear a new story, rooted in Scripture, of God’s engagement with all cultures in the course of developing a new humanity centered around Jesus.

The encounter with the God of Scripture must then lead into listening prayer and spiritual discernment. God, what are you saying to us? These things that we have become conscious of in our community, are they of concern to you? Please God, give us insight and discernment as we seek your presence and activity in our neighbourhood.

Scripture suggests that God hears these kinds of prayers and will not leave a discerning leadership community without wisdom. Wisdom developed through collaborative engagement with the people of God will lead to Spirit-guided direction. A draft, preliminary, conceptual plan about where to start will emerge.

Cycle Three: Engage Culture – Build Trust

As soon as a leadership core begins to move from research, listening, and development to action, disequilibrium will automatically reappear. They are talking about, and taking action, to reorient their congregational culture. The most common initial reaction to change and difference is defense of the existing culture. Leaders seeking to help a church transition to a functionally multicultural congregation must prepare for personal and corporate sacrifice. Leaders will be criticized for this – they are seen to be taking more interest in “the other,” than “us.” The congregation will lose people who cannot, or will not, make this transition.

As a congregation seeks to engage with people of other cultures, trust and rapport must be built – this is only done through developing authentic intercultural relationships. Transition to a multicultural congregation will only happen to the degree that a leadership community has relationships of friendship, understanding, trust and mutual critique with people whose culture and worldview they do not fully comprehend. These relationships are built upon the development of intercultural competence – acquiring skill in intercultural dialogue. Intercultural competence requires coming to understand how a person of a particular culture thinks and behaves; to understand the values, customs, norms and behaviours of a friend’s culture – from her perspective.7 And she must understand yours. Then a leadership community has the grounds for dialogue and mutual critique. With these elements in place, and increasing, the transitioning congregation starts to have an “all-by-itself” environment.

Cycle Four: Employ Critique

This fourth cycle may seem counter-intuitive – if everything is moving along as it should, why evaluate? A congregation, however, should be evaluating what they are doing. It was likely a lack of regular evaluation for years, perhaps decades, that required this intervention in the first place. And it must be reiterated that when an organization embarks on a process of evaluation, disequilibrium will emerge again, because human beings naturally resist having performance evaluated.

The first area to assess and evaluate is intercultural competence. How are we doing in the development of relationship, experience, understanding, acceptance and adjustment? There are several useful tools for conducting this kind of self-awareness assessment. Honestly examine how far the leadership core, and the congregation, has come, identify where the community is at presently, and discern forward direction for growth in intercultural competence.

Results from this kind of assessment may lead to the need to adapt and reformulate the conceptual plan. Now that the congregation has more intercultural experience and competence it is quite possible that many of the preliminary notions of how to develop a multicultural congregation need to be reworked – as other voices are actually being listened to and perspectives incorporated! This in turn will lead to the need to adjust ministry practices and intercultural communication patterns.

Potential Barriers and Hindrances

This outline of a process for transition to a multicultural congregation comes out of the hearts and minds of a group of experienced practitioners – leaders who have been working at this kind of ministry, in some cases, for decades. What these practitioners know is that this work is not as simple as a diagram or an outline in some article. In particular, a lack of commitment or priority placed on this movement toward becoming more intentionally multicultural can slow down the process for years. Congregation members will see that your leadership doesn’t ‘walk the talk’ and may opt to leave. In some cases ethnocentrism or fear will rear up, often from unexpected directions. This should push leadership back to examine the basics of where prejudice comes from, as well as intercultural communication and developing trust. Conflicts between different culture groups may emerge in a congregation that is rooted in decades – or centuries – of history in another land, for which pastoral leaders have no skills or understanding. Even with the best of intentions logistical barriers may work against relationship building, preventing congregation members of differing cultural backgrounds from actively engaging with one another. And it is more than possible that scarcity of the fruit of the Spirit, such as patience, kindness and self-control may affect the development of a healthy multicultural congregation as well.

The congregation mentioned at the beginning of the article has a leadership team desiring to begin this transition journey, to engage more proactively with their changing cultural context. They need to initiate the process of becoming conscious – exegeting their community and congregation, by starting to understand what they are feeling – about being ‘out of place’ somehow. Exegeting their crisis requires looking at themselves – becoming more aware of how their own experiences of cultural difference have prepared or hindered them from going any further.

Organizational change and transition always begins with leadership becoming more aware of who they are and how they function; that is, coming to understand their own culture. Then they are able start to envisioning becoming something different.


    1 Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), p.30.

    2 Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York 1973), p.44.

    3 cf. William Kymlicka, “Multicultural State and Intercultural Citizen,” Theory and Research in Education (2003), Vol 1 (2): 147-169.

    4 For a fuller discussion of intercultural development see, Dan Sheffield, “Assessing Intercultural Sensitivity in Mission Candidates and Personnel,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 2007, 43 (1), 22-28.

    5 Alan Roxburgh, The Sky is Falling: leaders lost in transition (Eagle, ID: USA, 2005), pp. 38-51.

    6 I want to acknowledge the particular input of Brian Seim (SIM Canada), Howard Olver (Free Methodist Church,Canada), Ken Baker (SIMUSA), Dana Roberts (Grace Chapel, Mass,USA) and Donna Millar (Salvation Army,Canada).

    7 G. Chen & W. Starosta. Foundations of Intercultural Communication.London: Allyn and Bacon, 1998.

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  1. Alicia

    Topic on how multicultural churches function

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