10 Reasons a Multicultural Ministry Works
By Doug Brouwer
Congregation-to-congregation resourcing from the Association of International Churches in Europe and the Middle East
Unlike some of you, I had no previous international experience when I started my work at in Zürich three years ago. I remember telling the search committee, in response to a question about previous international experience, that “I traveled a lot.” There was no laughter, but, as you all know, traveling is not the same thing as living and working in a new culture.
My first months in Zürich were interesting but challenging. As with most people starting an expat assignment, I felt the stress of living in a new culture. As lovely as Switzerland is, and as much as I heard the English language around me, I was aware every day that I was in a new and in many ways alien culture.
And then of course there was the church. With more than two dozen nationalities present every Sunday in worship, I was both awed and overwhelmed by the cultural diversity. Previously I had served U.S. churches in wealthy, white suburbs. When I moved to the International Protestant Church of Zürich, there was only one other person on my leadership team - the Council - who had a U.S. passport. My previous experience as a pastor served me well in some ways but not in all.
For most of my life, when faced with a problem or a situation I did not understand, I would write it out. Writing has always been my way of making sense of things. And I desperately needed to make sense of ministry in a multicultural setting.
So, I started to write, and I also convinced the publisher of my previous books (Eerdmans) that I had a story to tell – one that would be timely and helpful, especially for a U.S. audience. That story has now been written, I understand multicultural ministry a little better, and the book will be available (Lord willing) in June 2017.
To give a little preview, here’s what I wrote – 10 reasons a multicultural ministry works (or doesn’t):
- Where is home? Or, where are you from? This is a question I soon learned not to ask of the people I met. A multicultural church that thrives will find a way to be home for its people.
- What’s in a name? The people who founded IPC more than 50 years ago had the good sense to call their new church the International Protestant Church. I struggle sometimes with the second word in that name, but I like the first one. I think about all the First Presbyterian Churches I have served over the years, and I wonder about the unintended messages we sent.
- Is theological generosity possible? Here’s the biggest hurdle and most challenging issue I face. How does a group as theologically diverse as this ever come together? The answer is, we are a work in progress, trying our best to arrive at a generous orthodoxy. Frankly, I sometimes despair over this one.
- Learn to lead (differently). Some of the leadership lessons I learned over the years had to be unlearned here in this setting. That was painful. Multicultural ministry requires an entirely different set of skills.
- Seek to understand. I thought I was a good listener. I even took classes and seminars in listening. I have trained other people to listen. But – oops – it turns out that there was much more to learn.
- Learn the language. My German is still nicht so gut, and no one wants to hear me preach in German. But lots of people are happy that their pastor is making a heroic effort to learn their language. Why? Well, let me put it this way: it goes deeper than the language.
- Cultural stereotyping is fun (until it isn’t). I’ve got some great jokes about the Swiss, which I thought were really funny, until I started hearing jokes about Americans, and then I realized that cultural stereotyping is fun…until it isn’t. A big no-no for multicultural ministry.
- Hang the flag? American-style patriotism doesn’t work here. But national pride is a tricky thing, and it’s hard to say what role, if any, it plays in multicultural ministry. Churches in the U.S. that want to attract a more diverse congregation might want to dial it back.
- It’s not the music. People from around the world prefer a worship style that includes guitars and drums and praise music, right? Not always. A variety of academic studies – including a fascinating study from South Africa – suggests that music/worship style is at best a secondary issue in a thriving multicultural setting.
- It’s the meal. I surprised myself, by the end of my research, because I concluded that it’s in the sacrament where we come together. The congregation I serve in Zürich may never find much unity in theology – or in musical preferences – but we are one when we come to the Lord’s Table. I did not grow up in a sacramental tradition, but I have been converted to its logic. It’s in the bread and cup when we become wonderfully, mysteriously, obviously one people of God.
Obviously this is the short version of what I wrote, but I would welcome a conversation with anyone else in our little association who has given thought to this subject.
A similar book I found is by an old friend who has spent the last 17 years as pastor of the Rabat International Church in Rabat, Morocco – A Guide to International Church Ministry: Pastoring a Parade. I recommend it.
The Rev. Douglas Brouwer is the senior pastor of the International Protestant Church in Zurich, Switzerland since January 2014. A pastor and writer Doug has 35 years of experience serving congregations in the U.S. states of New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan, and Florida. He has published five books including "What Am I Supposed to Do with My Life?: Asking the Right Questions" and "Remembering the Faith: What Christians Believe". Doug is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).