At First Covenant Church (FCC) in St. Paul, Minnesota, a church with longstanding roots in the city’s East Side neighborhood, you can still find families with ties to the original Swedish immigrants who planted the church 140 years ago. But by 2002, the congregation had arrived at a critical juncture. “It was an aging congregation filled with fear, fear of dying, fear of change,” says pastor Anne Vining. The largely Caucasian church decided that it needed to face those fears and pray for direction on its next steps.
What emerged from the crucible of self-examination for FCC and its leaders was the realization that although its neighborhood had remained blue-collar socioeconomically, the racial and ethnic composition of the East Side had diversified far from its Swedish origins. To keep pace with these changes, the church had to begin doing the same. Steve Benson, a lay leader whose daughter represents the sixth generation of his family to attend FCC, recalls, “The landscape of our community had changed, and we needed to re-envision ourselves given what was already right at our doorstep.”
Given its location in close proximity to three local public schools, FCC decided that it would focus its ministry efforts on children and youth in the community. Today, if you were to visit the church, you would find that a racial transformation has taken place. On Wednesdays, FCC opens its doors to children and youth in the community for tutoring, rehearsals in one of the many musicals the church produces in conjunction with the local public schools, and a free hot meal. Eighty percent of the people present in these mid-week ministries are non-Anglo.
Mark DeYmaz believes that all churches are called to become multiethnic entities — and that churches ignore the coming demographic shifts at their own peril.
The church’s decision to reach out to children and youth in the community has also meant reaching the parents of the young people. Ana Matos is a mother of three who followed her children into the ministry of the church. “What kept me going was the feeling that I had when I was there,” Matos says. “I felt part of something. Like I belonged and everyone welcomed me.”
Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts is another church gradually making the shift from being a largely Caucasian congregation to becoming a more multiethnic community. In 2005, this Boston suburban megachurch began asking itself and its members, “How should Grace Chapel respond to the changing demographics in our church and the region in a biblical way?”
As a result of the responses they received from a diverse cross-section of people, the church leaders worked to foster a multicultural environment, including translating the services into several languages (Mandarin Chinese, Korean, and Spanish) and intentionally pursuing diversity in the composition of the elder board. Today, more than 30 percent of Grace Chapel’s congregants are people of color.
“Compared to where we were 15 to 20 years ago, if you walked into Grace on a Sunday now, you would be blown away by the diversity you see,” says Dana Baker, Pastor of Multicultural Ministries, who was given the responsibility of leading the church through the recommended initiatives. “People will come and say, ‘It is like a taste of heaven, with the diversity that is here.’ But we know we still have a long way to go.”
Mark DeYmaz, pastor of Mosaic Church in Central Arkansas and founder of the Mosaix Global Network, believes that all churches are called to become multiethnic entities — and that churches ignore the coming demographic shifts at their own peril. “Revelation 7:9, where every tongue, tribe, and nation are at the feet of Jesus worshipping together, is our destination,” he said. “Pursuing racial and economic diversity in our congregations is rooted in exegetically sound ecclesiology right out of the New Testament. Our continued segregation in the local church undermines the credibility of our message.”
Ten years ago, the Evangelical Covenant Church had no people of color in their senior leadership positions; today, nearly a quarter of those positions are filled with minorities.
Robyn Afrik is a consultant and speaker on the topics of diversity and multiculturalism, and she has assisted numerous churches and institutions who desire to become more multiethnic. “You need to have your eyes wide open as you begin the process,” she cautions. “There will be costs, sacrifices, hard conversations that will emerge, and changes to your church or organization. Becoming multiethnic sounds great on paper, but is it something your church truly feels called to and wants?”
Afrik has created a six-stage process for churches that are moving in this direction, in which becoming aware of diversity issues and having an “open door” to welcome those outside the dominant culture is just one of the early stages of the process. “Oftentimes, the dominant culture is saying to those in the minority culture, ‘You are welcome here, but you have to fit into our cultural norms and values,’” Afrik says. “If you pursue this path as a church, you have to be prepared to address the issues of power and privilege. And is the dominant culture willing to release power to those people of color who are coming in to the church? These are huge questions to process.”
One entity that has taken seriously these questions of increasing power and influence amongst people of color is the FCC’s parent denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC). President Gary Walter describes the denomination’s decision 20 years ago to increase diversity in this historically Swedish organization as a “come to Jesus” moment. Ten years ago, the denomination had no people of color in their senior leadership positions; today, nearly a quarter of those positions are filled with minorities. Every board in the ECC has to reflect diversity, and leadership demographics are watched closely from every aspect of the denomination. The end result is that the denomination has been moving away from its Euro-American roots — nearly 30 percent of all its congregations are among populations of color or are intentionally multiethnic.
However, numbers only tell a part of the story, and Walters understands the importance of the relational aspects of these transitions that are not often reflected in the changing statistics. “Should this be an exercise in mechanics and technical adjustments, we will fare no better than other groups, secular and religious, that have embarked on similar efforts,” Walter says.
FCC’s Vining agrees. “God is calling us to something more challenging than just being with people who look like us, and talk like us, and act like us. But to get beyond tokenism, it’s about building deep relationships. We don’t just want to be multiethnic; we want to create a community that is intercultural, where we are intentionally melding and doing life together. That is our ultimate goal.”