Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A House of Prayer for All Nations

The church I attended as a teenager was a sharp contrast to the city that surrounded it. Miami in the 70’s was a mix of African-Americans, Haitians, Cubans, Jews, Anglos and other groups that usually kept to themselves and were often at odds. That was what the world looked like. My church was different.

Although we were small, we represented a cross section of the transitional neighborhood we worshipped in. Smiling faces of different shades sang of the love of Jesus in a mixture of accents. When we hosted a Haitian group that was starting a new church we became bilingual. During the week English as a second language was taught to recent immigrants seeking to improve their lives.

It was much later that I learned that the church could be as racially and ethnically divided as the world. Nevertheless, the local church is God’s answer to racial and ethnic strife. It should be an agent of healing and an example to the world. After all wasn’t the church born in the multicultural milieu of Jerusalem where God-fearing Jews of many nations heard Peter’s message each in his own native language (Acts 2)? Didn’t Jesus pray for the unity of all believers (John 17:20-23)?

Unity is not easily achieved even when people share the same language and culture. Sometimes, churches share a building but not ministries. This was the case in one church I served where Korean and Filipino congregations also met. There was bickering between groups, misunderstandings and prejudice on all sides. Eventually the two language groups moved on.

The economic reasons for multicongregational churches are obvious but the spiritual reasons are more important.

The people of God are not to be barrier builders, but barrier breakers through Jesus who makes us one (Eph. 2:14-15, 19). In the face of negative church perceptions, a multicultural church can serve as a gracious apologetic to the unbelieving world.

The multicultural church prepares us for a picture of eternity. “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.” Revelation 7:9 NIV

While we cannot ignore the cultural heritage of those who we are trying to reach we must heed God’s call to unity. Two major barriers are that people who speak different languages also tend to have differing worldviews and every cultural group tends to consider itself superior to others.

Christians from different cultures can work together if the spiritual needs of people take precedence over cultural differences and the Bible is viewed as superior to cultural differences. One other factor must be that the building and grounds must be viewed as owned by God; a place for worship and ministry to people, rather than an economic investment.

This was the case in New Orleans where I was called to start a Spanish language church. Although we were very small, we felt a call to start an English-language mission to share our building. The two groups worshipped in different languages but we were united during the week with children and youth ministries and a variety of events. Our children’s ministries led to an apartment ministry among African-Americans.

My fondest memories of that church revolve around Christmas Eve, when we shared a meal and some bilingual caroling. It was fun to watch the faces of the Anglos as the roast pig was brought in, whole, with the head attached. One year the joke was on me as I bit into a Nicaraguan meat pastry and found a very hot pepper.

I can already envision Grace Chapel with multiple services, multiple languages and a church open every day reaching out to EVERYONE in the community. It won’t be easy but it certainly will be worthwhile.

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