by Peris Chamberlain
America is often described as a melting pot—a place that encourages the blending of cultures in the hope of providing the best of the world’s customs. But though we live in a melting pot society, our country is still quite distinct in its different cultures, and we have not created one great homogeneous mixture.
Over the past two decades America has become more and more densely populated. Add to this the fact that people move around frequently, and the result is ethnic and cultural lines that are fading in neighborhoods and communities. However, the status of the church does not reflect this demographic change. The church is, in fact, one of the few major community organizations that has yet to mirror the demographic changes of its immediate surroundings.
According to the article “America’s Churches Still Largely Segregated by Race,” written in 2002 by Adelle Banks, only 5.4 percent of American churches are integrated. Why is this? What is causing the church to maintain its cultural and ethnic boundaries? For the most part, people worship where they feel comfortable, and their comfort generally depends on church location and worshiping with others who look and act as they do.
There is another piece of the problem: Churches are often unprepared or unwilling to change their worship styles or settings to encourage others—those used to a different cultural experience in worship—to feel comfortable in joining them. A church that flourished in its community 30 years ago may no longer thrive because it has maintained its cultural identity and ignored the changing demographics around it. But other churches are realizing that though culture is important, it should not hinder individuals who speak the same language from worshiping together.
Starting from the Inside
To reach our multicultural communities for Christ, we must start from the inside. Within our communities, how do others characterize our churches? To the unchurched, unsaved individual, do our churches seem like spiritual hospitals, country clubs, or boxing rings? It seems as though some church members feel they need to go out of their way to help God in striking fear and reverence into nonbelievers. However, the church should be a nonthreatening environment for visitors. That means that when new people come into the church, members should go above and beyond to make those people feel welcome, despite the newcomers’ physical presentation or ethnicity.
Settings for Engaging the Culture
God commands us not to love the world or the things that are in the world (1 John 2:15), but He also tells us to go into the entire world to preach the good news to all of creation (Mark 16:15). A variety of cultural staples—such as recreation, sports, and holidays—can be used to minister one-on-one or corporately.
Start with a plan. Study a yearly calendar, noting the larger cultural activities that can take place during holidays and in different seasons. Also, plan to celebrate holidays specific to different cultures and ethnicities (e.g., Black History Month, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Cinco de Mayo, Chinese New Year). The acknowledgment of different ethnicities is a great way to extend the hand of fellowship. Let’s take a look at some ideas for reaching out to a broader culture in our communities.
I admit that I do not like the video game industry. I believe that obsessively playing video games is one of the big distractions from mankind’s God-given responsibilities of work and family. However, while I was in college, I was part of a Christian organization that used this powerful influence to mingle with and witness to college students. The Christian organization sponsored a video game tournament. As students signed up to compete, they also filled out a questionnaire card asking about God and whether or not they wanted someone to contact them later to talk more about the issue. Most of the participants were unchurched, atheist, or agnostic. Although I was skeptical at first, that ministry turned out to be a positive and fruitful experience, as we were able to have follow-up conversations with 15 percent of the individuals and thus to share the gospel with them.
Going to movies is a favorite pastime in American culture. Movies bring communities together, crossing all lines of ethnicity and social status. The church that my wife and I attend has started hosting outdoor movie nights to reach out to and meet people in our community. We are attempting to reshape our reputation with the community from being exclusive and elitist to being inclusive and ready to serve the community. In preparation for our first outdoor movie night, we rented audio equipment and a big screen, put in orders for the concession food, enlisted volunteers to help with the event, made and passed out flyers in our neighborhoods, and encouraged church members to invite friends. As people started trickling in, they couldn’t believe it was free! We had about 80 to 100 in attendance. Our pastor shared the gospel during intermission, and several people walked out. However, that negative reaction is nothing compared to the 70 to 90 people who heard the gospel.
Sporting events and games easily capture the interest of a community. Recently I inquired about a local church’s flag football league. The organizer made it clear that the league is specifically for those who are trying to grow in their relationship with God. He also stated that he didn’t want any troublemakers in his league and that if I was looking to use his league as a practice league, then I needed to consider playing elsewhere. The cost was $110 per person—which is too high to feel comfortable inviting a neighbor to participate. At one time the league had been inclusive, but it eventually became exclusive because the church leadership had unrealistic expectations for unchurched individuals. God has called us to share the gospel with the unrighteous, not to require them to conform on the outside, nor to invite only the “clean” if evangelism is the goal.
I have been part of church sports leagues that invite nonbelievers to participate, and it is always a fantastic evangelistic opportunity. We get to have fun playing football with these guys and get to know them on a personal level. After each game, we have a short Bible study. By the time the season is over, each person has heard the gospel and been challenged to respond. The leagues also invite wives and girlfriends to attend the games. This has given my wife opportunities to get to know the other women and to witness to them.
A popular Christian sports ministry in churches is Upward: basketball, soccer, flag football, and cheerleading. My wife coached a first-grade girls’ Upward basketball team and shared the gospel with each of the girls on her team. The parents had the opportunity to hear the gospel as the pastor presented it during halftime.
Valentine’s Day provides a great opportunity for a church to host an elegant, entertaining, and safe dinner/program that shows the community how people can have a fun time without drinking alcohol or engaging in other negative conduct.
Pop and chat
During the summer months, set up a table in a park and add a sign saying “Pop and Chat” (or whatever you call carbonated beverages in your region of the country). Have a cooler filled with cold soft drinks and invite people who come to the park to chat with you in exchange for a cold drink. During this time you can either share with them personally what God means to you, or ask them questions about God from a questionnaire to get the conversation going. I have done this many times, and it has proven to be an easy way to start conversations with people. Be prepared to hand out information about your church.
The words “Heaven” and “Hell” are thrown around a great deal in our culture, but the average individual who uses them really doesn’t understand what they mean. Halloween presents a great opportunity to discuss the spiritual realm. People want to talk about the spiritual world, so why not provide a controlled environment to engage them in these conversations about demons and angels and their realities. Open the church doors for a Halloween/spiritual Q&A time.
The church should become the community hub—a place where people from different ethnicities and backgrounds can be accepted and loved just as much as the others. It should be a place where people from different ethnicities and backgrounds infuse their cultures in worship and find ways to engage the present culture for the sake of Christ.
Peris Chamberlain is a member of Bible Baptist Church, Romeoville, Ill. His wife, Andrea, is a children’s ministry consultant for Regular Baptist Press.