Ethnic Ministries Summit: Divinity & Dirt

“The Summit was a reality check. And it wasn’t a reality check that the world is becoming more multi-ethnic, but rather that God’s Kingdom is already multi-ethnic, and what am I going to do about it? How am I going to respond?” 

—Rebekah Kelleher, Student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Boston campus, the Center for Urban Ministerial Education

The questions that Rebekah Kelleher voiced following her participation in the Ethnic Ministries Summit are the questions that have been growing at EGC, not only in the past three years as we focused our energies on preparing for the April 2010 Summit, but for over 40 years as dynamic flows of migration have carried nearly one million people from over 100 nations into Greater Boston. Newcomers from Latin America, Asia, and Africa, where Christianity has grown, have helped fuel dynamic Kingdom growth in our region. Other flows bring tremendous opportunity for Christians to relate to some of the world’s most unreached peoples, including Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and Muslims. We have been asking those questions ever since we became aware of these ethnic streams of spiritual vitality and opportunity. And over the years, EGC has been constantly shaped by our response to these migrations and the way they have profoundly impacted the church, our city, and the region. 

Here are some facts which underscore the ethnic diversity of churches in Boston today: 

  • There are more African American churches than any other ethnic church, including White churches.

  • After African Americans, Whites, and Latinos, the five next most common major ethnic identities of churches are Haitian, other West Indian, multi-ethnic (churches with a broad mix of ethnicities), Asian, and Brazilian. 

  • In the five years between 2001 and 2005, Latinos planted the most new, non-English congregations—approximately one out of every four new congregations.

  • In 1968, there were no Haitian churches in Boston and Cambridge and only two Haitian Bible studies. Between 2001 and 2005, Haitians planted nine new churches, bringing the total to over 50 churches.

  • The churches in Boston and Cambridge are becoming internally more diverse and multicultural. 

(Facts are from EGC’s research from the Boston Church Directory, 2005.)


In our work since the 1970s to understand and nurture spiritual vitality in the city, we have documented that much of the church’s spiritual vitality has come to New England through the doors of immigration. If this is where God is at work, then this is where his children need to be at work, in this relatively new reality, this new way of defining the church in New England. And it’s not just EGC and our urban ministry partners who need to respond. In growing recognition of the changing demographics in our neighborhoods, towns, and cities—with the world at our doorstep—the 21st century church across North America needs to envision and embrace our new reality as well. 

This was the vision behind “A City Without Walls,” the 10th Annual Ethnic Ministries Summit. This vision of a city without walls (from Zech. 2:4-5), a church without division, but united in Christ across cultural and denominational lines, became the uncompromised goal for the Summit. Isn’t this what Jesus was praying for in John 17, when he said of future believers, “so that they may be one as we are one”?

At EGC, we believe that by nurturing authentic connections between the many nations represented in the Body of Christ and the many nations in our own backyard, and by learning from and listening to each other, the resulting love and understanding can tear down walls that hinder unity in the Body of Christ and we will see the Kingdom of God continue to advance in our region. But what does it take to get us to the place where we can be about that work of nurturing?


The place to start is to gain the right perspective of God’s church. Rev. Dr. Gregg Detwiler, director of EGC’s Intercultural Ministries, says that we have to have eyes to see what God is doing in his Kingdom. “And in order to see, we have to make sure we have the capacity to see, to make sure we have the right lenses on.” Wearing “Kingdom lenses,” Gregg explains, means seeing reality as much as possible the way that God sees it and the way the Scripture describes it, rather than through our own limiting mental models (inner assumptions).

To explain what Kingdom lenses are, Gregg first talks about what they are not. He says we don’t want to use our “ethnocentric lenses, when we only see reality through our own ethnic perception or our own ethnic identity.” Neither do we want to use our denominational lenses. “If we only look at what God is doing through our own little narrow denominational lenses, we’re going to miss seeing the complete picture.” Another limiting factor would be what Gregg calls economic reality lenses. “So if we are middle class or upper middle class and we don’t have a connection to a lower economic class, if we are not in touch with that reality, we are going to miss it.” All these lenses are insufficient, he says, and so we have to make sure we have a way of perceiving and communicating with people different from ourselves.

Why is vision important? Gregg says, “God is doing a divine thing, but a lot of us have not been perceptive of the work of the Lord in our midst. And part of his divine working is all these various streams that did not exist three or four decades ago.” As EGC’s research department has worked to identify these streams, we helped to host gatherings of leaders from many cultures to explore and celebrate New England’s ethnic church diversity and vitality. In 2002, we convened a gathering of Boston’s church leaders. Then in 2007, we hosted the Intercultural Leadership Consultation, where 400 diverse leaders gathered to explore the many cultural expressions of the church in the New England region. New England’s Book of Acts is a collection of reports and articles on these New England ethnic streams, produced by EGC for the 2007 Intercultural Leadership Consultation, available online at


Part of seeing reality is also to see that all is not well. Diversity, in and of itself, is not the goal. Gregg says, “It isn’t enough just to get diverse people in the same proximity. That in and of itself does nothing. As a matter of fact, it can actually make things degenerate. But if you can work on the element of trust in a diverse community, then that community can have new innovation and new breakthrough and even multicultural teams working at fostering trust and mutuality and respect and listening to one another. Then those communities and those organizations can excel. We have to build that level of trust.” 

Trust is hard work. Gregg found this to be true in the journey of the past three years as he met with a dozen leaders from many cultures to plan the Summit. “The journey involved both celebration and repentance, joy and pain, divinity and dirt. Therefore, it required a willingness to navigate in a state of tension between these things as we related to all these different streams in the Body of Christ.” This willingness to operate in the middle of tension became one of the primary takeaways from the Summit journey. “While there is divinity flowing in all these ethnic streams, there are also problems—there’s dirt and boulders and barriers that are impeding the flow as God has intended,” Gregg says. While we celebrate the work of God flowing in these streams, we also want to create an environment where, he says, “we can confess and acknowledge and understand and deal with the dirt and the boulders and the barriers.”


How does EGC’s Intercultural Ministries deal with the dirt that comes up between and within cultures? “The first thing is that we have to provide good leadership to try to create the necessary environment, a safe environment where we actually are able to model acknowledging the dirt, acknowledging our brokenness, our fallenness, where we are missing the mark of God’s intention.” Gregg says leaders must intentionally model humility and an ability to repent, while we also set up an environment where people feel safer to begin to share some of their brokenness. 

Gregg uses the analogy of a family reunion when he is coaching a group to create a safe place to work through differences. While some people love a family reunion and come ready to rejoice and celebrate and enter in, some people really hate family reunions because it shows them all their brokenness. “We are not going to ignore the fact that there is pain and brokenness and fallenness and not everything is perfect in the family, even the family of God on earth, and so we just begin to acknowledge that and model it from the front, and encourage people to share that part of the story.” 


The best way to deal with the barriers is not in isolation, but in community. Our responsibility is to discern and understand “the trajectory that the Lord is on,” as Gregg says. “In order to understand that, we need to read Scripture, and read it together, as even our understanding of Scripture is culturally bound and formed because of who you are reading Scripture with, and who you are praying with,” he says. “And so my conviction is that if we are reading and praying the Scripture with a diverse community that is coming from different backgrounds and different realities, and we create a listening environment where we are really learning and listening together, we will better perceive what it is that God is headed toward.” 

Not surprisingly, the final goal is described in the Bible, Gregg points out. “Almost all of us would agree, as you look at the end of the story in Revelation, the picture of the consummation of the Kingdom where there will be people there from every tongue, tribe, and nation, is the goal. So our hypothesis is that the more that we can reflect that on the earth, without forcing it through our own human manipulations, then the more reflection of the glory of God on the earth will be seen. And unless we move toward that, we will be off track, and we will probably find ourselves having a lot of problems and counterproductivity.”


“In order to get anything done that is bigger than yourself you have to work with a team,” Gregg says. “In any team development there is the friction that can happen within a team. But when you are trying to do a task that is really bigger than your team, it really requires that you broaden your team and you bring new people to the team that maybe you do not typically relate to …. Inevitably, misunderstandings and conflicts will come up. We all have our cultural practices of the way things are done, our expectations through our ethnicity, through our denomination, through the culture of our local church and the way our local church operates, through our reality of whether we are from the city or the suburbs—all of those dictate the way we want to operate in a team, and so now you are bringing this very diverse team together to try to get things done, and what happens is inevitable. You go into that place and you are not real secure with one another. And so, for the Summit planning team, that was a breeding ground for a lot of tentativeness, insecurity, misunderstanding, not knowing where the other person was coming from. And the way we got through that was that we made it very, very clear up front what the mission was and that we were committed to the mission. And we normalized the fact that we were probably going to have many bumps along the way in this journey. We tried to normalize it so that when it happened none of us would be caught off guard.

“We also have a commitment to the long term, and so it wasn’t just that we were going to push this through to the end as a team for the purpose of getting through the Summit, but we really wanted to learn through the journey so that when we came out of the Summit our relationships were in a different place.” 


Gregg believes that the work of building a multicultural team greatly magnifies the expected difficulties in team building. Psychologist Bruce Tuckman first came up with the words “forming, storming, norming and performing” to describe the team-building process. “And a good team will continue to do that,” Gregg says, speaking of the Summit planning team. “But in this task of bringing parts of the Body of Christ together the process was magnified. The ‘storming’ part was magnified because folks just don’t work together. They have their own way of doing things.” The differences between all the stakeholders from culture to culture, from the suburbs to the cities, and the different ways all these organizations see things, created what Gregg says can only be described as a journey of 1000 misunderstandings. “Therefore, it required walking and leading with reconciliation in mind, for the whole three years, knowing that things were going to come up that were going to be conflicts. You just go in knowing that and leading with that in your mind.”

How do you keep moving in such an environment? Gregg says you have to keep the mission central. Jeff Bass, executive director of EGC, agrees. “Without that missional approach, it would have been easy to give up, saying, ‘This is too hard.’ ‘This is too crazy.’  Gregg is not overstating it when he says this was a journey of 1000 misunderstandings and magnified storming …. Stubbornness is a real important quality in working through these kinds of things. And I think that is something Gregg is particularly gifted with, staying in the middle of this chaos, and stubbornly, quietly moving everyone forward together, even though it is really hard along the way. That is part of the lesson that I have taken away from this, that this takes really hard work.” 

Gregg says, “Without question this has been the most intense season of ministry in my life. The demands related to the Summit are sizeable, but even more weighing on me is the greater goal: the long-term impact the Summit journey will have on the church in Boston and New England, and to the degree that we have influence, on the church in the U.S. and Canada.”


“Through the Summit, we wanted to create strength of intercultural relationships that weren’t there. Coming out of the Summit we have the strength of both a new depth and intercultural relationships among leaders and organizations, and we also have some new infrastructure that was created at the Summit. Both of these make possible new things on the horizons. What those new things are … we don’t fully comprehend at the moment, because we feel that a lot of those things are happening organically, that happened in the flow of doing the journey together so things have shifted and there are things that we may not be able to know or perceive yet.” Gregg is working now to survey participants, reflect with his team on lessons learned, and ask God what is ahead.

“Part of what I mean by things have shifted is that where we were relationally as a church is not the same place as where we are now,” Gregg points out. “I have had some debriefing with many leaders and they have just unloaded on me on how impactful this journey has been on their learning and their understanding of broadening their horizons and their categories and their thinking.

“I think a lot of the lessons we learned in the last three years are lessons that have application in our ongoing work in Intercultural Ministries,” Gregg says. “The idea of letting the mission drive everything we do, that was a lesson we learned.” The Summit journey “has opened up deeper conversations,” Gregg says. “An ongoing part of our work is to have these deeper conversations where we understand one another’s realities on a much deeper level so that the Body of Christ can work in an interrelated way …. It has increased our capacity to work together across all these different lines, so we have developed a more functional team for getting things done. And what we want to do in Intercultural Ministries is to encourage that and to nurture it. These lessons learned are just really underscoring more clearly those things that we are doing in Intercultural Ministries at EGC and that we want to continue to do.” 

by Steve Daman

[published in Inside EGC, May-June, 2010]