Mutual Empowerment of Christian Leadership Across Culture

A City Without Walls, the April 2010 Ethnic Ministries Summit in Boston, was a big and joyful event. The seminars and plenary sessions were encouraging for some and challenging for others. But overall, it was a powerful celebration of the diversity and beauty of the Body of Christ. Many people felt that worshipping together was like a glimpse of heaven, a taste of how it will be when all people come together before the throne of God from the North and South, the East and West. 

Such experiences and conferences are indeed important for reminding us of the beauty and power of the Body of Christ, as the reality of everyday relationships is too often far from united or powerful. Cultural misunderstandings, theological controversies, and power issues influence our relationships and encounters between churches of different ethnic backgrounds and denominations.

Having studied and been part of the developing relationships between immigrant and mainline churches in Germany for the past five years, two questions are always in my mind when I am in an intercultural church setting, such as the Summit. First, how can Christians overcome the ethnic segregation in our countries and be role models in living out unity in diversity? And second, how can relationships among cultural groups and churches be transformed from conflict or oppression to equal partnerships?

There are no simple and clear answers to these questions. The relationships are complex. Oppression and conflicts are passed down from history. For that reason, I am not in a position to provide answers, but I want to share my observations and thoughts. Needless to say, these are limited to my own white-Western perspective and so I am open to any disagreement and discussion.

During the Summit, I became aware of a challenge I never saw so clearly before.

There are two kinds of realities in our society, our universities, and our churches. The first reality is that we are in the midst of sweeping demographic changes. North America—but also Western Europe—is becoming more colorful. It is a fact that white, Anglo Americans have been the majority culture for the longest part of America’s history. In just a few decades, the whites will be a minority. This will be true for the society as a whole, but also for the churches. Over the past years, there has been a constant decrease in white Christianity and a continuing increase in the number of churches of people of color and various immigrant churches, the very churches in Boston that have led the Quiet Revival. Additionally, some of the larger suburban churches are rapidly diversifying ethnically.

The second reality is that while white Christians are numerically not a majority anymore, especially in urban areas, they hold disproportionally key leadership roles. Moreover, Anglo American churches have never spent as much money on their buildings, ministries, or staff as nowadays. So far, none of this is new to me, but in my analysis of the situation, I was somehow only focusing on how the dominating culture needs to create space for other cultural expressions of faith and leadership, how we need to foster equal partnerships, to empower leaders among people of color, and to share economic resources and access to power. All of this I am still convinced is crucial. But there is another challenge to it. As the demographic reality shows, there will be a natural change so that in a few years, white Christians will be the minority. It is hard to predict the future, but I sense a danger that there is little shift from oppressive to equal relationships, but our roles are only being interchanged.

Having an isolated white Christian minority in a few years would be really counterproductive as the painful segregation of the Body of Christ might only increase. There is a need for mutual empowerment. As a white Christian, I need to be empowered to be a witness to my people, who are less and less interested in the Gospel. But at the same time, I need to empower non-white Christian leaders, as they have been marginalized and oppressed economically and spiritually for so long. In fighting for equal partnerships instead of only power shifts, we all need to make sure that mistakes and oppressive patterns are never repeated. There is a need in the church for secure space to be able to give constructive criticism and to empower without being oppressive and without being perceived as oppressive. And, moreover, we need to overcome the dichotomized thinking of “them and us,” as we are all one Body, baptized with one Spirit, and we all believe in the one God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

As I said, there is no simple answer to these challenges. But there is a key, and that key is redemption, reconciliation, and forgiveness. Every member of the Body of Christ must honestly question his or her motivation, and must reflect on how his or her culture has given or denied access to resources and power. We have to ask for forgiveness, but we also need to forgive, as we are already forgiven through the Cross.

Bianca Duemling worked at EGC with Rev. Gregg Detwiler to help prepare for the Ethnic Ministries Summit. After she returns to Germany in May, she will defend her Ph.D. dissertation on “Ethnic Churches in Germany and Integration” at the University of Heidelberg’s Institute for the Study of Christian Social Service. She was introduced to EGC through Together for Berlin, a citywide organization with networking ties to EGC. Besides her involvement in intercultural ministries, she is a founding member of “Stiftung Himmelsfels,” a foundation which fosters cooperation between ethnic churches and trains in the area of second generation youth ministry in Germany.

Guest editorial by Bianca Duemling, Intercultural Ministries Intern, Spring 2010