CULTURE DEFINITION & Multicultural or Multiethic – What is the Difference? (a List of Cultures)

by Bob Whitesel Ph.D., 7/16/15.

CHAPTER 4: The Church as a mosaic … Exercises for Cultural Diversity

We do not want the westernization of the universal Church. On the other hand we don’t want the ecumenical cooks to throw all the cultural traditions on which they can lay their hands into one bowl and stir them to a hash of indeterminate colour. – John V. Taylor, statesman, Africanist and Bishop of Winchester [i]

A Church of Many Colors (and Multiple Cultures)

Culture. Though the term multiethnic church is often used today, researchers prefer the term “multicultural,” because culture is a more accurate way to describe people who share similar behaviors, ideas, fashion, literature, music, etc. Christian anthropologist Paul Hiebert defined culture as people who join together because of “shared patterns of behavior, ideas and products.”[ii]

  • Behaviors are the way we act,
  • Ideas are the way we think, and
  • Products are the things we create such as fashion, literature, music, etc.

Therefore, people of a culture can tell who is in their group and who is out of their group by the way they talk, the way they think and the way they act.

Ethnicity. Ethnicity is a type of culture, often based on biological connections to a geographic area of origin, such as Sri Lankans (from the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka), Yemenis (from the Republic of Yemen) or Chinese (from the People’s Republic of China). But the term ethnicity is very imprecise, because there may be dozens of different ethnic groups that hail from the same area of origin (and thus the term ethnicity is not without controversy[iii]). For instance, China has 50+ recognized ethnic groups but they all originate from the same country.[iv] While all are Chinese, so too are all 50+ different cultures.[v] Since ethnicity is so imprecise, culture is usually preferred.

Multicultural or Multiethnic Church? So, what should we call a church that reaches multiple groups of people? And what should we call a neighborhood that has Guatemalan Hispanics, Mexican Hispanics, aging Lutherans and a growing base of young Anglo professional? The accurate answer is a multicultural neighborhood. And, such a mosaic of cultures should give rise to a multicultural church.

Below are examples of groups that have been identified as justifiable cultures:

Affinity cultures (these are cultures that are based upon a shared fondness or affinity):

  • Motorcycle riders
  • Country music fans
  • The NASCAR nation
  • Heavy metal music fans
  • Contemporary Christian music fans
  • Surfers

Ethnic cultures:

  • Latin American,
  • Hispanic American
  • African American,
  • Asian American
  • Native American, etc..

Socio-economic cultures[vi]

  • Upper Socio-economic Level[vii]
  • Upper Middle socio-economic Level[viii]
  • Lower Middle Socio-economic Level[ix]
  • Lower Working Socio-economic Level[x]
  • Lower Socio-economic Level[xi]

Generational cultures:[xii]

  • Builder[xiii] (or the Silent[xiv] or Greatest[xv]) Generation, b. 1945 and before
  • Boomer Generation, b. 1946-1964
  • Leading-edge Generation X, b. 1965-1974
  • Post-modern Generation X, b. 1975-1983
  • Generation Y, b. 1984-2002

Therefore, to help our churches grow in the most ways possible while recognizing the broadest variety of cultures, it is good to speak of multicultural churches. These are churches where people from several cultures (e.g. ethnic, affinity, socio-economic, etc.) learn to work together in one church.

Avoiding the Creator Complex

The Creator Complex. Sociologists have long known that people of a dominant culture will try, sometimes even subconsciously, to make over people from an emerging culture into their own image.[xvi] One missiologist called this the “creator complex” and said, “Deep in the heart of man, even in missionaries, lurks that ‘creator complex’ by which he delights in making other people over in his own image.”[xvii] And so, when humans encounter different customs, the creator complex in us wants us to view their customs as abnormal and change them to be more in keeping with our traditions.[xviii]

Cultural Filters and Firewalls. The creator complex arises because it seems easier and quicker to assimilate a culture and make it look like us, than to try and sift out any impurities that run counter to the message of Christ. But in the words of missiologist Charles Kraft, every culture is “corrupt, but convertible.”[xix] To convert any culture thus entails sifting out elements that run counter to Christ’s Good News while retaining elements that affirm it. Eddie Gibbs calls this “sifting a culture,” drawing from the image of a colander or strainer that sifts out impurities in food.[xx] But, purifying processes in factories instead of in the kitchen may today rob this metaphor of some familiarity. Thus, a more contemporary idiom may be helpful.

Terms such as “firewall” and “spam filter” are broadly used today to describe how computer networks sift out malicious computer viruses and unwelcomed (i.e. spam) email. A cultural filter and firewall may serve as a better image to depict a community of faith that is analyzing a culture, noting which elements run counter to the teachings of Christ, and openly filtering out perverse elements.

A Goal: Spiritual and Cultural Reconciliation

So what then is the goal for our filtering of cultures? Let us return to Charles Kraft’s reminder, that every culture is “corrupt, but convertible.” Our purpose thus becomes to assist God in His quest to convert or transform a culture. Such transformation begins by reconnecting people to their loving heavenly father. This has been called the ministry of reconciliation, which Paul described this way:

So we try to persuade people, since we know what it means to fear the Lord. … So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived! All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation. (2 Cor. 5:11, 17-18)

But John Perkins suggested that today’s divided world needs churches that will foster both spiritual reconciliation and physical reconciliation. This would fulfill Jesus’ prayer that His children would be united as the Father and Son are united (John 17:20). To describe this goal, Perkins employed 3 Rs:

  • Redistribution (sharing money from wealthier cultures with struggling cultures),
  • Relocation (relocating ministry to needy areas) and
  • Reconciliation (physical and spiritual reconciliation, first between humans and their heavenly Father, and then between humans).

And, among today’s emerging generations I am seeing young people more attune to this need for reconciliation between people of different cultures. Today’s young people have been born into a very divided world of politics, economics and cultural clashes. Yet, across the nation I have observed churches lead by these young leaders that refuse to limit themselves to just spiritual reconciliation, but also see maturity in Christ as advancing cultural reconciliation. I agree with Brenda Salter McNeil who sees the emergence of a reconciliation generation, who in addition to a spiritual reconciliation, sees “a host of people from various tribes, nations, and ethnicities who are Kingdom people called to do the work of racial reconciliation.”[xxi]

And so, to bring about both spiritual and cultural reconciliation, we need churches where people of differing cultures are not only reconnecting with their heavenly Father, but also who reconnecting with one another. A multicultural church may provide the best locale. Let’s look at five types of multicultural churches to discover which type might be right for your church.

(Excerpted with permission from The Healthy Church: Practical Ways to strengthen a Church’s Heart, Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2013).

Endnotes:

[i] John V. Taylor, “Cultural Ecumenism,” Church Missionary Society Newsletter, Nov. 1974, p. 3, see also John V. Taylor, The Theological Basis of Interfaith Dialogue, in Faith Meets Faith, ed. Gerald M. Anderson and Thomas F. Stansky, Mission Trends, no. 5 (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), pp. 93ff.

[ii] Paul Hiebert, Cultural Anthropology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1976), p. 25.

[iii] The United Kingdom created controversy when its 2001 census divided ethnicity into the following; White: British, White: Irish, White: Other; Mixed: White and Black Caribbean, Mixed: White and Black African, Mixed: White and Asian, Mixed: Other; Asian: Indian, Asian: Sri Lankan, Asian: Pakistani, Asian: Bangladeshi, Asian: Other; Black or Black British: Black Caribbean, Black or Black British: Black African, Black or Black British: Other, Chinese or Other: Chinese, Chinese or Other: and Other. These designations were still too imprecise for many British residents.

[iv] The World Factbook: CIA Edition (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books; Rev Ed, 2006, CIA 2005 Edition).

[v] The term ethnicity, while unwieldy and imprecise, is still employed by church leadership writers to describe various cultural heritages, when the more precise term culture would be more appropriate, c.f. Kathleen Graces-Foley, Crossing the Ethnic Divide: The Multiethnic Church on a Mission (XXX), Mark DeYmaz, Building a Healthy Multiethnic Church (XXX), Gary McIntosh, Being the Church in a Multi-Ethnic Community: Why It Matters and How It Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012).

[vi] Joseph V. Hickey and William E. Thompson, Society in Focus: An Introduction to Sociology (Boston, Mass.: Allyn & Bacon, 5th ed. 2004).

[vii] They are approximately 1-5% of the No. American population and are characterized by power over economic, business and political organizations and institutions.

[viii] They represent approximately 15% of the North American population and are usually white-collar workers who hold graduate degrees, possessing a significant degree of flexibility and autonomy in their work.

[ix] They are approximately 33% of the North American population and are usually white-collar workers with some college education. Subsequently, they have a degree of flexibility and autonomy at work, though not as much as those of the Upper Middle Socio-economic strata.

[x] They are approximately 30% of the North American population). Both white- and blue-collar workers, their jobs are characterized by minimum job security, inadequate pay and worries about losing health insurance.

[xi] They represent 15% of the North American population and often go through cycles of part-time and full-time jobs. Many times they must work more than one job to provide for their needs.

[xii] For a chart depicting the different age ranges for each generation see Bob Whitesel Preparing the Change Reaction: How to Introduce Change in Your Church (Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2007), p 53.

[xiii] Gary McIntosh, One Church, Four Generations: Understanding and Reaching All Ages in Your Church [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2002] and Bob Whitesel and Kent R. Hunter, A House Divided: Bridging the Generation Gaps in Your Church [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000).

[xiv] This generation has been labeled various ways, for instance as the “silent generation” by William Strauss and Neil Howe in Generations: The History of American’s Future, 1954-2069 (New York: Quill, 1992).

[xv] They are labeled the “greatest generation” by Tom Brokaw in The Greatest Generation (New York: Random House, 2004).

[xvi] Robert Jenson, “White Privilege Shapes the U.S.,” White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism (New York: Worth Publishers, 2002), p. 103-106

[xvii] C. Peter Wagner, Frontiers in Missionary Strategy, (XXX) p. 96

[xviii] Regardless of the label, this practice often comes from veiled if not subconscious, desires to make over people to look like us. Jesus faced a similar creator complex where he jousted with the Pharisees and Sadducees who tried to make people over in their particular dress, social laws, etc. Jesus criticized them for their creator complex by saying:

  • “The legal experts and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. Therefore, you must take care to do everything they say. But don’t do what they do. For they tie together heavy packs that are impossible to carry. They put them on the shoulders of others, but are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” ( 23:2-4)
  • “You do away with God’s word in favor of the rules handed down to you, which you pass on to others” (Mark 7:13).
  • Jesus said, “How terrible for you legal experts too! You load people down with impossible burdens and you refuse to lift a single finger to help them.” (Luke 11:46)

[xix] Charles Kraft, Christianity in Culture: A Study of Dynamic Biblical Theologizing in Cross-Cultural Perspective (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1979), p. 113.

[xx] Eddie Gibbs, I Believe in Church Growth, 120.

[xxi] Quoted by Kathleen Garces-Foley, Crossing the Ethnic Divide: The Multiethnic Church on a Mission (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 64.