MULTICULTURAL & Multiethnic: Are They The Same Thing? Yes & No

by Bob Whitesel D.Min., Ph.D., 12/11/15

A student once asked “Is multicultural and multigenerational the same thing?” Well in some ways they are, but in other important ways they are not.  Let me explain.

Multicultural is a broad term that can be an over-arching description for organizations with many varieties of culture within it (for more on this click here).

For instance, both multiethnic and multigenerational are sub-sets of a multicultural organization.  Thus …

  • An ethnicity can be a culture, but
    • Though an ethnicity also has many cultures within it.
    • Because ethnicity is usually tied to your historical geographic area, some ethnicities if they come from a small area can be cultures but those that come from large geographic areas are usually not cultures.
      • So a tribal group in Papua New Guinea might have a unique culture tied to their small geographic area from which they came.
      • But it is often not accurate to say there is any such thing as a Chinese culture.  Here is how I stated this in The Healthy Church: “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.”
  • A generation can be a culture, but
    • A generation can have many cultures within it too.
      • You can call my generation the Boomer Generation and we have some generally common characteristics, e.g. we were born to parents that had endured two World Wars and a world-wide economic depression. That gave us generally and world-wide some similar cultural traits.
      • Within the Boomer culture you have cultures, such as
        • Yuppies, now the 2 percenters,
        • Eternal Hippies
        • Jesus Freaks (now Evangelicals)
        • Nostalgia “Old Guys Rule” Clan
        • Still-think-they-are-30 grandparents, etc.
    • Thus using the term “multicultural” can be a meta-term that creates a general picture but tries not to offend by becoming too specific.  (For ideas for when to use multicultural or another term, keep reading below).
  • And, an organization could even be multicultural and not be multigenerational.

The key is to describe as accurately as possible type of culture you are addressing.

To understand what a culture is and the differences see:

  • Cultures & A Cumulative List of Cultures from My Books, excerpted from my books with page numbers and footnotes.
  • And here are Exercises for Cultural Diversity from my book The Healthy Church: Practical Ways to strengthen a Church’s Heart, Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2013.
  • Plus you will find a list of the variety of cultures just in No. America in “The No. American Cultural Mix” in Preparing for Change Reaction (2007, pp. 50-60).

So, let me give some examples of when to say multigenerational and multiethnic.

So, if your organization needs to be multigenerational, then use multigenerational terminology when writing/discussing your organization.

But, maybe your church (or for instance a church in a denominational district) might need to reach out to a growing Hispanic community. Then that church might need to become a multi-ethnic organization.

One student might refer to their denominational district as “becoming multicultural” because some churches are becoming multi-ethnic and others are becoming multi-generational.

But another student might refer to his ministry as becoming more multi-generational, because it needs to create a partnership between several generations

Thus, one student might use “multicultural” in their discussion (and title of a paper) if they were dealing with an organization of several different cultures, and another student might use “multigenerational” in their discussion (and title of a paper) because they are focusing on reaching out to one specific new culture.  Now, every church is made up of multiple cultures, so don’t try to get too specific.

Capture how your organization will reach out to another culture. Thus, use the terms that most precisely describe what you are doing to expand the evangelistic footprint of your ministry.