What makes a multiethnic church?
From early 2002, when i became bishop for the Georges River region, my prayers and thoughts have centred on this multiethnic heart of Sydney.
Over the years since, parish after parish in our region have been coming to grips with what it means to be God’s people seeking to make Christ known in the multiethnic heart of Sydney. We have learnt we needed to pray that the Lord of the harvest would raise up the labourers needed for this particular part of his harvest field. We praise the Lord that he has been doing this.
However, of late I have been, with others, assessing how we as a Diocese think of, speak about and minister in our increasingly multiethnic society. As humans we all tend think of “us” and “them” whether in regard to race, country or even families. We think me first, and then other people. I believe that the Bible refers to this way of thinking as sin! Our first thought is “How does this work for me?” We are happy for people of other cultures to join us as long as they are prepared to become like us!
If we are in Christ shouldn’t our thinking and behaviour be more as Paul expresses in 1 Corinthians 9:22? He says, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel that I may share in its blessings”.
Many of our congregations reflect multiethnic. However, I want to suggest they tend to be a church for multiethnic. Our form of worship is grounded in an Anglo mindset.
You go a church and they will say, “Oh, we’ve got people from X number of countries worshipping here”. Sound familiar? There might be multiethnic people in the congregations, but overwhelmingly the minister, the wardens and so on will be Anglos. But this, I believe, will run out of steam.
After World War II most immigrants believed they were migrating to a Christian country. Churches were on every street corner and most found their particular denomination or church was already here. Over many years, the greatest percentage of immigrants was from Commonwealth countries. English language and culture was a known way of doing church and secular life generally. Many found it easy to join our parishes and enhance our spiritual life together. Those from European countries had a Christian background and found ways to fit into the Australia they found.
However, last month an article I read in The Sydney Morning Herald highlighted that another change is already with us. It said that one in three Sydney residents speaks a non-English language at home, and a total of 237 languages are spoken in Sydney! When I read the list of languages it was clear the majority of people no longer come from Commonwealth countries or Europe with that knowledge of English and English culture – or even Christian culture. Christian churches are few in the places the majority of migrants are now coming from, and it cannot be assumed that many have ever heard of Jesus.
In the regular diocesan bishops Bible study a few days after I read this article we were looking at Acts 14. Its message is a profound one to which I believe we need to give careful thought.
When Paul and Barnabas arrive in Iconium they find and attend the Jewish synagogue, where they open the Old Testament Scriptures and proceed to explain how Jesus is the Christ. When they then went on to Lystra there was no synagogue – no knowledge of God as revealed in the Scriptures. Where do you start to share the gospel in this situation?
Paul started by saying: “we are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. Yet he has not left himself without testimony”.
As we look at suburbs like Bankstown today I believe we are looking at Lystra! Many of our suburbs are quickly becoming like Bankstown. Yes, we need to pastorally care for the church members who have lived all their lives here. We also need to care for those from Commonwealth countries. However, we need to look to the Lord as to how we now reach out with the gospel to the ever-growing number of people from countries where the Christ is not known. Places like Lystra.
We are now praying the Lord of the harvest to raise up these new labourers. When people ask me “What are you looking for?” I give as an example that I am looking for people who go to Town Hall railway station and just see people. They don’t see Chinese or Middle Eastern – they just see people. What do you see when you look around Sydney? Or your church?
We’ve got to start working through how it looks to plant a multiethnic church where its DNA is multiethnic– not simply Anglo welcoming multiethnic. And we need to pray that those of us in established churches can see more clearly that we are, indeed, all one in Christ Jesus – and that the field is ready for harvest.
Feature photo: Chris Lewis