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Multicultural churches offer lessons in discipleship

3/19/2003 News media contact: Linda Green (615) 742-5470 Nashville, Tenn

NOTE: Two sidebars, UMNS stories #150 and #151, are available.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) - Christian disciples are made, not born, and becoming one is a lifelong process of discipline and spiritual formation.

The Rev. Bryan Stone, professor of evangelism at United Methodist-related Boston University, discussed the politics of discipleship and growing multicultural congregations during the March 12-15 meeting of the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.

"The politics that discipleship embodies does not come naturally," he said. The shape of this politics is "revealed" in Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. "To be made into a disciple is to be formed into disciplines and practices that provide us the resources to resist rival powers and heretical forms of social imagination, such as the nation-state or the market that would rule our lives and render us incapable of truly worshipping God."

Politics also impacts the birth, growth and sustainability of multicultural congregations, he said.

Stone said the church is both for and against culture. "Just because a congregation contains a gathering of diverse cultures, doing a lot of diverse things and singing diverse songs and eating diverse food, is no guarantee that what is happening there should be thought of as discipleship."

Baptism, he said, is the central tenet of making disciples. The theology of baptism was not born in a seminary but in the living context of multicultural congregational life, as missionaries and church leaders sought to determine how Christians are "called to pull off interethnic inclusion before a watching world."

The politics of baptism shapes several callings, all working toward the ministry of reconciliation, Stone said. The apostle Paul focused on religious and ethnic diversity, while today's Christians talk about culture, a word used as a "catch-all place-holder for just about every imaginable difference in gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and age." The use of the term "culture" muddles the distinction of "multicultural" and "multiculturalism," he said, making it unclear what is being talked about.

People have been operating for some time with a neutral understanding of culture as a diverse, but universal feature of human existence, he said. In reality, the thought of culture as a self-contained way of life is being challenged, and the lines between cultures are increasingly being blurred so that the meaning of culture is becoming less absolute and cohesive, he said.

Immigration, ethnic patterns, technology and mobility have affected culture tremendously in the last 50 years, producing changes in sources of diversity. "Probably the biggest cultural change for the United States in the last 30 years is the extent of diversity," Stone said.

Multicultural congregations are those that noticed changes in the community around the church and adapted - instead of dying. "Necessity is not only the mother of invention; it can be the mother of mission," he said. He added that some congregations become multicultural by accident.

Multicultural congregations vary, and Stone said they are worth examining and learning from. One congregation calls itself multicultural but worships in separate cultural or language groups, coming together monthly for a multicultural worship service. Another congregation is multicultural because the members are of different races, ethnicities and cultures. In most cases, the worship services are traditional euro-American and the multicultural representation adapts to that style. In other cases, the church attempts to blend styles to embrace the diversity in the congregation.

"Issues of reconciliation are more likely to be confronted and dealt with in these types of congregations," Stone said.

The fastest-growing multicultural congregations are "neo-Pentecostal in style" and something about that style has been successful in uniting people from across cultures. Pentecostal and charismatic churches have been the most multicultural, Stone said.

He provided 10 of the most important practices he has discovered about multicultural congregations that take Christian disciple-making seriously today. These congregations:
· Practice inclusion. This goes beyond having a mission statement that touts inclusiveness but engages in inclusive worship, cross-cultural understanding - the ability to speak, work, play, and interact across cultures - and inclusive preaching.
· Are proactive in practicing inclusion. They have adopted a mindset where "their very existence is not only to serve the diverse group of people who make up the congregation, but to be a church (that) exists for those who are not even there yet."
· Tolerate ambiguity. The leaders work in the margins where there are cultural blunders and misunderstanding, racism, few established rules for how things are done and little denominational guidance. They employ hope as a strategy.
· "Work rhythmically" with unity and diversity in establishing and constantly renegotiating the identity of the church. Such a congregation successfully moves back and forth between the particular stories of its groups and the story of the church as a whole.
· Are unambiguous in the way they affirm the centrality of cultural diversity to their identity and mission. They do more than assimilate minority or immigrant cultures into the dominant culture. They understand their mission and work toward interethnic and intercultural reconciliation - the mission at the heart of the gospel.
· See education as an event, take seriously the voices from the margins, and educate in and through a restructure of power dynamics. "In other words, education is not imagined as transmission but processes of reconciliation. Education is what happens in the encounter between two groups who have been included into one social reality. Both groups have to learn new rhythms."
· Know that faith formation happens in encounters with the other.
· Employ and develop leaders who have a distinctive set of multicultural skills. The leadership is shared and is intergenerational, the leaders practice hospitality and have the ability to embrace strangers and are gifted at practices of "gathering" the church.
· Practice a diversity of giftedness within a common ministry of reconciliation. The congregations emphasize forgiveness.
· Eat together. "This practice is one of the most interesting features of multicultural congregations." The centrality of food is not just about fellowship but about inclusion and reconciliation.

One of the greatest challenges facing the church today is to find ways of practicing evangelism and making disciples without playing by the rules of the "post-Christendom culture," Stone said.

During the meeting, the Board of Discipleship also:
· Awarded grants for ethnic local church projects and programs focused on youth and young adults. (See sidebars.)
· Received an update from the Holy Communion Study Committee about its continuing work in preparing "This Holy Mystery," an understanding of the theology and practice of Holy Communion, for the 2004 General Conference for adoption. The work of the 19-member committee is available at www.gbod.org/worship. The final version of the study will be considered at the board's August meeting.
· Approved a July 26-29, 2005, Focus Event, a gathering of children's ministry leaders, at Brentwood (Tenn.) United Methodist Church.
· Approved a Jan. 28-Feb. 2, 2005, National Camp/Retreat Leaders Training Event.

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