NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Cultural exclusivity in the church represents neither the power of the Gospel nor American society, and change is needed for the church to maintain relevance and vibrancy in the coming decades, Damian Emetuche and fellow professors tell students at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
Emetuche, a Nigerian who came to NOBTS in early 2010, admits he is a relative newcomer to American culture, but that’s not necessarily a disadvantage.
“I see things, at least for now, as an outsider,” Emetuche said.
And as someone who still has an outsider’s point of view, Emetuche offers a major critique of the American church: In a time when North America is becoming more and more multicultural, North American churches tend to be culturally exclusive. Members too often share the same race, nationality or socioeconomic background.
That’s a problem, Emetuche said, first because it goes against the message of the Gospel.
Emetuche, national missionary for the North American Mission Board and Nehemiah Church Planting assistant professor at New Orleans Seminary, also directs the seminary’s Cecil B. Day Center for Church Planting as he and other NOBTS profs prepare students for ministry in the 21st century.
The Nigerian-born husband and father of five got his start in ministry by serving as a pastor and church planter in his home country in the early 1990s. In 1995, he was sent as a missionary of the Nigerian Baptist Convention to nearby Ivory Coast to do church planting. He served in Ivory Coast through 2003.
In 2004, Emetuche moved to the United States to pursue a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. While studying there, he served as a North American Mission Board church planter in Hamilton, Ohio, near Cincinnati. And from 2007-10, he ministered in the Seattle area as a chaplain, pastor and church planter.
THE BIBLICAL PRECEDENT
The New Testament paints a clear picture of the church as diverse and multicultural, said Emetuche, beginning with the Pentecost experience in Acts 2 and the church at Antioch to the Apostle Paul’s calls for unity in Ephesians 3 and Galatians 3.
“I believe there was no New Testament church that was a homogeneous church,” Emetuche said. “Every New Testament church was multiethnic.”
But achieving diversity wasn’t always easy for the early church.
Gerald Stevens, professor of New Testament and Greek at NOBTS, said the early church grappled with whether Christianity, like Judaism, should carry ethnic prerequisites.
“Is Christianity ethnically defined? That was the question before the church. And that’s what Acts 15 is about,” Stevens said.
In Acts 15, Paul, Barnabas, Peter and the Jerusalem church leaders met to debate whether the new Gentile Christians had to follow only Jesus or both the teachings of Jesus and the social customs of Judaism. Stevens said that, at the heart of the debate, was a battle over ethnicity.
“The Apostles were the ones that were helping break that mold of ethnicity as definitive of the people of God,” Stevens said of the Jerusalem debate. “And we begin to perceive it’s not our ethnicity that makes us the people of God but our obedience and our faith, regardless of ethnicity.”
Stevens admitted that, both in Jesus’ day and today, embracing diversity can be difficult and even threatening. It requires a healthy dose of humility, which gets to the heart of Jesus’ command to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” Stevens said.
“In a cosmopolitan setting, we cannot claim success of the Gospel unless we are multiethnic and multicultural in our visible expression of Christianity,” Stevens said. “The groups we show — the Bible study groups, the mission groups, any group in which we present ourselves to the public — if it’s not multiethnic, it’s not Gospel.”
Emetuche echoed that imperative.
“In the Kingdom of God, we’re going to ultimately be together, so we better learn to be together here,” Emetuche said. “If the church is divided, we have little or no message to give the world.”
THE DEMOGRAPHIC MANDATE
For the North American church, though, the biblical case for diversity in the church is matched with demographic demands. Statistics indicate that, over the next four decades, the complexion and cultural background of the United States will become much more diverse.
The Pew Research Center released a study titled “U.S. Population Projections: 2005–2050” in early 2008 that detailed the estimated demographic trends in America through the midpoint of the 21st century.
With regard to race, the next 40 years will see dramatic change. The Pew Center projected that white Americans, who now make up more than 60 percent of the population, will account for about 47 percent in 2050. The Hispanic population will see the greatest numerical and percentage increase, from 14 percent in 2005 (41 million) to 29 percent in 2050 (127 million). Black Americans will remain about 13 percent of the population, and the Asian community will increase from about 5 percent to 9 percent of the population.
But by far, the most remarkable demographic shift will occur among immigrants. The Pew Center estimated that, of the total population increase between 2005 and 2050, a full 82 percent of the growth will be from immigrants and their descendants. Between 2005 and 2050, about 120 million people will be added due to immigration — 67 million immigrants, 47 million children born to immigrants and about 3 million grandchildren.
The United States in 40 years will, undoubtedly, undergo a dramatic demographic makeover.
But The Pew Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life has found that evangelical churches have a long way to go with regard to diversity. In the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, it found that about 81 percent of all members of evangelical Protestant churches identify themselves as “white.” Seven percent consider themselves “Hispanic,” followed by 6 percent who identify themselves as “black.” Four percent identified themselves as “other,” while 2 percent were “Asian.”
And in Southern Baptist life, the statistics are even more concerning. According to an internal study titled “Evangelism and Church Planting in North America” published by the North American Mission Board, about 93 percent of members of Southern Baptist churches in 2008 considered themselves to be “Anglo American,” or white.
The study drew three sobering conclusions.
“First, the growth of the population of North America is quickly outpacing the growth of Southern Baptists. Second, North America is much more diverse than the SBC. Third, Southern Baptists will have to cross many cultural and language barriers to evangelize and disciple the 255 million lost people of North America,” the study said.
Emetuche summed it up this way: “The truth is this: North America as a whole is becoming much more diverse. We can’t escape that. That will affect culture and everything else. We have to understand that.”
WHERE TO NOW
Emetuche said that, for him at least, the easiest way to pursue and embrace diversity in church life is to start a new church.
“For me, it’s easier just to go start a church,” he said. “Generally, when starting a new church, you’re starting from a clean slate. With an existing church it’s like an adult person, so it’s hard to change their behavior.”
The Evangelism and Church Planting in North America study supports that argument. Churches started between 1998 and 2008 were remarkably more ethnically diverse than older congregations.
But existing churches also can become more multiethnic. One key way for existing churches to become more diverse, Emetuche said, is by diversifying their leadership.
“With a multiethnic church, the leadership has to be diverse. You have to intentionally have diverse leaders,” he said.
Ken Taylor, professor of urban missions at NOBTS and a pastor in New Orleans’ Gentilly neighborhood for 27 years, echoed that call to leadership diversity. Until Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Taylor served as pastor of Elysian Fields Baptist Church. Afterward, both Elysian Fields and Gentilly Baptist churches worshipped together and later merged.
Taylor said Gentilly Baptist Church is about half African American and half white. To reflect that racial diversity, Taylor said he has pursued a similar diversity among the church’s leaders.
“It’s helped people see that we’re not just a diverse church, but we’re willing to have diversity in leadership too,” Taylor said.
That was a strategy the early church followed as well, Stevens said, when the apostles appointed a group of Greek believers to oversee the food distribution to Greeks in the church.
“That had to have been uncomfortable for them. Who wants to give up power? That wasn’t necessarily pleasant, but they knew it was the right thing to do,” Stevens said. “For everyone to have ownership in this ministry, we have to empower others.”
Taylor also encouraged pastors to understand and acknowledge their church’s history with regard to race and social class in the surrounding community. In the case of Elysian Fields and Gentilly Baptist churches, both congregations had a history of racial exclusivity that had to be overcome with years of love and ministry.
And as a church achieves greater diversity, Taylor said members and leaders alike must approach worship — and worship styles — with an extra helping of grace.
“It just takes a lot of grace, but I think there’s some enjoyment there too,” Taylor said of combining various worship styles. “The joy is to just be able to look out and think, ‘This is a little bit like how heaven will be.’ That’s a great thing.”
Ultimately, Stevens said, diversity can take hold when people look past outward differences to see the wealth of human commonalities just below the surface. He said that was one positive effect Hurricane Katrina had on the New Orleans community.
“Katrina shook us up and shaved us of our cultural identity [that we have] through our homes, our cars and our possessions. Once all of our culture was stripped away, we found that we were all human beings,” he said. “The trappings of all our culture went down the river, and all that was left was just one human hand reaching out to another human hand, asking, ‘Can I help you?'”
Frank Michael McCormack writes for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, New Orleans, La. The Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee has adopted recommendations to be presented during the SBC’s June 14-15 annual meeting in Phoenix “to foster conscious awareness of the need to be proactive and intentional in the inclusion of individuals from all ethnic and racial identities within Southern Baptist life.” For the Baptist Press story, go to http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=34708. To access the “Evangelism and Church Planting in North America” report referenced in this story, go to www.namb.net/cmr. To see The Pew Research Center’s demographic projections, go to www.pewresearch.org.