Engaging Diversity: Take a long look at how we act

One of the most poignant experiences I had with the interaction of culture and organizational culture occurred in my third pastorate. In the mid-nineties, California was abuzz with debate on a bill that sat before the United States Congress designating English as the federal government’s sole language of official business. There was talk of an initiative to make English the official language of the state and to cease production of state documents in all other languages.

The “English only” campaign caught on in many white evangelical churches as a popular way to deal with their own cultural disequilibrium. People promoting the campaign felt infringed upon culturally and supplanted from their familiar social landmarks. They were uncomfortable in encounters with ethnicities, languages, and cultures they did not understand. In a time of disequilibrium a culture suffers a loss or diminished capacity to psychologically reinforce its members. Its ability to interpret and explain reality or maintain its adaptation capability then diminishes.

I was new in my third pastorate during this time. I had arrived in my city after leading our denomination’s short-term missions department. I wanted to see a congregation emerge as a multiethnic and multicultural church. The cultural changes in our neighborhood in the ten years preceding my arrival had been rapid. The old neighborhoods suffered from white-flight (or economic flight as the case may be) as people moved to escape having to cope with change.

Because the demographics of our community had changed so radically, I suggested that we purchase Bibles for use on Sunday mornings that contained Spanish and English. Uproar of objection and anxiety to my suggestion brought out the less-loving parts of my congregation. People are not fully rational when they experience a situation that causes cultural disequilibrium—they are angry, fearful, and suspicious. My suggestion had undermined the trust that I had built up to that point with a significant part of the congregation. These emotions threatened to undo the work that we had accomplished in reaching the neighborhood around us.

The majority culture group in the congregation openly expressed disgust at smells, food, clothing, work habits that were not classic 1950s, white suburban America. I watched the other half of my congregation begin to pull back in their participation.

One of the most active and evangelistic leaders we had told me he was afraid of what was occurring socially and was disheartened that the wider social unrest had made its way into his family’s daily experience. His children had overheard disparaging and biased social commentary about their family’s cultural background at church. This professional and his family had recently bought a new home in one of the new subdivisions. He told me that one day he pulled into the driveway of his new home to inspect the progress of the landscaping.

One of his neighbors yelled from across the street, “Hey, you can’t park there.”

“What,” he said, “not in my driveway? Why?”

“Gardeners are required to park down the street at the guest parking,” the neighbor reportedly said with disgust.

“Great,” my friend replied, “I will let my gardener know. It’s good to meet you I am Juan Garcia your new neighbor.” At that, Juan reported that his neighbor turned his back and hastily retreated into his house.

“Pastor Ray,” Juan said, “this is not right.” I agreed. I called together some of our house church leaders. By that point, we had started house churches in English, Spanish, Tagalog, Arabic, and Mandarin—the languages of the neighborhood. I asked them to pray with me about how to address this issue with the congregation. I felt that I needed to make a commitment to a direction that reflected the servant approach to cultural differences and knew that it would not be universally accepted.

The house church pastors agreed and committed themselves to pray. We talked potential strategies and how we planned to follow up the direction I was to frame. A few Sundays later, I determined to address the “English only” proposition.

“Church,” I began, “I know you are aware of the controversy that the English-only proposition has generated. I am concerned that it has the potential of warping our presentation of who God is. We are a multicultural and multiethnic church, and it is this identity that presents the work and love of God to all of our neighbors. Let me remind you of several realities about our faith and the faith of our fathers that I think are important to make explicit.”

“First, we who are white, Anglo-Saxons are the foreigners to the faith. We are the Goyim whom the first century church hesitated to approach because we were considered unclean. Our food had strange aromas, our clothing was odd and unfamiliar, and our religious views were alien and odd. Yet through God’s grace, they loved us and ultimately, over the centuries of outreach, many of our ancestors finally heard the gospel in their own languages all of which were foreign to the church: English, German, French, and Spanish.”

“Second, the Jesus we know as Lord was not white or European. He was Israeli, a Middle Easterner. Our pride in our respective European heritages is fine. Like you, I share a rich heritage in my family from our European background. Our pride however becomes a problem when it becomes exclusive. We make Jesus look like us, and then we are shocked with other cultures or ethnicities when they do the same.”

“Third, and perhaps most shocking—the Jesus you know as Lord and Savior never learned English. If these things are true about us, white European believers, then we can offer understanding and support to those who are different than us and invite them into the kingdom of God, not on the basis of our cultural norms or language but on the basis of their faith in Jesus Christ just as they are and in the languages, customs, foods, and clothing that they bring.”

Grins of relief and comfort slowly grew across the faces of part of the congregation that day. The other part of the congregation grew somber—some thoughtfully and others angrily. Some left the congregation that day and never returned. In their minds I had ruined and destroyed their church, and in many ways they were correct.

The new perspective I introduced altered the way the congregation was culturally defined. I was saddened by the departure of some of these people. However, I knew we were on the way to establishing the kind of organizational culture we needed to remain effective in our culturally diverse city.

Organizational culture is manifest at three levels: artifacts, values, and basic assumptions. Understanding these levels of organizational culture gives the servant leader the ability to quickly assess whether or not their conviction regarding servant leadership is evidenced in the behavior of their organization.”

— Change the Paradigm: How to Lead Like Jesus in Today’s World by Raymond L. Wheeler
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