Sometimes, in a sincere effort to be welcoming, well-intended words that do the opposite and put up barriers of which we are unaware. If we always stay at the level of a "welcome" we can in fact keep people at a polite distance from "us". People can find themselves on the peripheral of church relationships for many years even in churches that are "friendly". One of the ways in which we can improve our multicultural relationships in churches is to pay more attention to the language we are using when we speak about culture.
I'd like to share a few real-life examples (with names and details altered for anonymity) in the hope that they will stimulate further thought about how we can be inclusive. In most of these cases, people made well-meaning assumptions which resulted in some cultural clangers. Take a statement like the following:
“When we look at our church today it is very multicultural – well, there’s William and his family who are from Africa, and Jane who comes from Asia – and they have joined us here.”
What’s wrong with a statement like this being made in a church service? It's obviously well-meant and it's unlikely to be offensive. But is it inclusive? Well, that depends on the situation of the people listening.
Notice firstly that there is an “us” that William and Jane have joined (which makes them by extension “not us”). William and Jane, if they are new to Australia or only here for the short term, might feel touched that they are being welcomed. However, if they have already been in the congregation for a number of years, or are long-term residents of Australia, they might not feel comfortable being singled out from the front as examples of people who are not “us” but who are welcome to join “us”. Just how long does a person have to be in a congregation to become part of the “us”?
Note too that William is from Africa and Jane is from Asia. That might be okay if you don’t know them very well (but in that case why are you singling them out in the middle of a service?) but by the time you know them a bit, you should know that Asia and Africa have a range of wildly different cultures. A person from the Philippines does not have the same culture as someone from South Korea. Life is different in South Sudan than South Africa. Australians are different to Americans. If you are going to “shout out” cultures, don’t give the impression that they all seem the same to you.
A possible alternative along the same theme might be: “We rejoice that God’s family is not bound by one type of background or country or language. We know that God has called us from many different backgrounds and that we worship together with one Lord and Saviour.” Emphasise the togetherness, not the difference. Work on the “we” not the “you” and the “us”.
A visitor spoke to our congregation and said, “I’ve met a man here today from Africa and another man from the Philippines.” And then went on to talk about how great it was that people from other cultures were now attending our church. The man “from Africa” had been at this church longer than my family had. The man “from the Philippines” was born in Australia, whereas I was born in the Philippines. It was a case of their outside appearances determining which cultural box they “belonged” in.
Another visiting speaker was talking about how missionaries were called to go out to the ends of the earth but “now” the ends of the earth had come to Australia. For example, they gestured to a family near the front and said, “Are you from Burma?” No, they weren’t. “Vietnam?” No, they weren’t. The family didn’t answer immediately because it’s a long story (their parents are from different countries and they have each lived in several). Finally, someone else in the congregation called out one of their previous countries of residence and we could move on. This family have been in Australia around 20 years. Their teen-aged children have lived all their lives in Australia and only been overseas on a holiday once. But this day, they were treated as newcomers again because they looked different. It was awkward. The take-away point is don’t make assumptions about people’s nationality or cultural identity based on how they look. If you don’t know, ask privately in a genuine conversation.
I have also heard it announced at a particular church that the next lunch would be a “multicultural one” and we should bring food from our own cultural background instead of “normal food” (an exact quote). Um. Were all our previous dinners not multicultural? And what exactly is “normal food”? And what if I was born in Australia but I look Chinese and like to cook falafel? Specifically designating a dinner as a multicultural feast is not a bad idea per sea – if fact they can be wonderful occasions. Just be careful how you market them or you’ll end up sounding like you are giving permission for people to bring strange food that you will enjoy as a novelty instead of sharing a meal together.
One last example: a girlfriend of mine was born overseas but came to Australia as a very young child. She has the typical appearance of a person from that region of the world. She is married to an Anglo-Aussie and they are in church ministry. She told me she still frequently finds that people will approach her to have a conversation and, when they realize that she speaks English with an Australian accent, they are visibly relieved and some even comment, “Ohhhhh, you’re Australian!” It’s an understandable reaction and she glides on through it. But when it happens to you over and over and over again, it’s not helpful. She's also been asked when visiting other congregations how she is adjusting to "strange Australian ways". She politely explained that they were her "strange ways too".
So how can you foster diversity and inclusiveness in your congregation? Start with hospitality. I think whether people are eating together in their own homes is a real touch-stone for how meshed together a congregation is. If the cultures in your congregation only sit side-by-side in the pew and never side-by-side at the table or the BBQ, you have a church with multiple cultures not a multicultural church.
So, invite people to your house. Invite people who are recent immigrants and can barely speak English. Invite people who have been here 40 years or whose families go back six generations. Invite people of all shapes and sizes and backgrounds and get to know them. Don’t worry about what food you like to cook. They’ll survive. Just share yourself. And be brave and invite just them. It is a frequent experience of people from non-Australian backgrounds that they primarily get invited to Anglo-background houses only when there is a group invite, possibly because it feels less daunting for the hosts. Last year, each time we invited people to our house whose background was a country other than Australia, we were asked, “Who else is coming?” When I replied, “Oh, no one! We just asked you guys,” they were surprised. One family told us months later that it had made a real impact on them that we were eager to ask just them. I don’t think it had happened before even though they have worshiped at our church for many years.
I hope the above doesn’t sound like a rant. I know when I read articles about what not to say to a cancer patient or someone who’s grieving, I get terribly anxious about saying anything at all because I’m sure I’m going to go and make a complete mess of it. There’s no way I want to give anyone the same anxiety about cultural matters in the church. And I am far from a model of wonderfulness either – I’m sure I’ve put my foot in it in this area as much as anyone else. But we do need to be conscious of what we say because the Bible directs us to speak in a manner that encourages and builds each other up (1 Thess 5:11). So let’s remember that it’s not your church, their church or my church. Jesus owns all cultures. We should by all means welcome newcomers to church, but then we should seek to move beyond welcomes and grow into talking about how we belong together.