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Sep 17 2010

Hospitality and the Multicultural Church

Many Colors

Of all the possible prologues for the written revelation of God, the opening line of Scripture describes the creation of a space: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). The Creator God shapes a sacred space which His presence will inhabit; and then, in a majestic display of cosmic hospitality, God extends the invitation for man to dwell with Him.  Such is the epic of Eden: God creates humanity, places him in an environment in which he can thrive, and then commands him to be fruitful and multiply.  From the hand of divine hospitality, human culture is born.
 
Now, in the face of the most drastic demographic shift American history has ever seen, author and professor Soong-Chan Rah calls believers to return to the beginning to discern God’s design for diversity.  In Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church Rah states, “For much of the twentieth century, the American evangelical church has had a dysfunctional relationship with the world.” [65] And if there is any hostility in our stance towards our native culture, our attitude towards foreign cultures is often no better.  Perhaps, amidst stories of dust and ribs, we can unearth a precious paradigm of how God would have us navigate the multicultural reality of our changing world. 
 
If there’s a key that unlocks this paradigm, it is the doctrine of Imago Dei, a concept that Rah considers foundational to the culture conversation.  Rah affirms, “Regardless of our racial, ethnic, national, or cultural identity, we are each a spiritual image-bearer of God.” [27] This statement teases out the implication that to demean a person on account of their cultural roots is to blatantly deny the image of God in that person.
 
But if you’re like me, you’ve walked into a Christian college’s cafeteria to find “the minority table” clearly separated from the rest.  You’ve attended urban churches in which young professionals raise their hands in worship, chic engagement rings gleaming in the high-tech stage lights, only blocks away from the projects.  You’ve been racially profiled, not on the street but in the sanctuary, and you’ve misjudged others based on their skin color as well.
 
The vision of the church in Revelation is a multitude of tribes and tongues worshipping together at the feet of the King, many people with one voice.  If we were to trace the thread from Genesis, in which God endows humanity with His glorious likeness, all the way through time to this final vision of saints, we would see a vibrant, many-colored cord.  And yet, we are not always faithful to God’s plan for His people.  Where is the disconnect between our theology and practice? Why do we sever the family ties that should bind the church together?
 
In Many Colors, Rah is not afraid of asking the hard questions as he urges his brothers and sisters in Christ to answer God’s high calling for a multicultural church.  Boldly honest and realistic, Rah warns his readers that building a multicultural, racially reconciled church is an ongoing process that involves a lifetime of learning.  No formula can deliver the church from centuries of ethnic tension, but we can adopt what Rah calls a “learning posture” that will help us recognize God in other cultures besides our own and teach us to worship Him together.
 
A learning posture will help us gain “cultural intelligence”, a business term meaning the skill of understanding cultural differences in order to enhance the work environment.  But Rah applies this term to the church, redefining its aim as “seeking ways to honor the presence of God in different cultures.” The first step towards cultural intelligence is to listen.  Rah is insistent on the importance of educating ourselves about our various cultural pasts.  At first blush, it may seem daunting to tackle so much history, but we don’t need a degree to understand our nation’s struggle with race.  We only need to listen, to submit ourselves to a “learning conversation” in which “the goal…is to explore each other’s stories and learn to listen.” [133]
 
The postmodern generation is drawn to stories as a way of understanding life, it is a language that resonates with us. Stories teaches us to listen, to develop cross-cultural communication skills, and to step outside our perspective and into another’s to expand our worldview. And Rah is convinced that as we practice the art of storytelling, honestly revealing our experience with color and culture, our church will begin to harmonize itself into a multiethnic community. 
 
As we approach this multicultural threshold, Rah also emphasizes the need for hospitality.  Divine hospitality marks the creation story as God invites mankind into the intimacy of His presence and gives him an environment in which man can prosper.  In the New Testament, God’s hospitality is understood in terms of His invitation to salvation: people of every tribe and tongue are invited into eternal life.  The early church reflected this hospitality as well by eradicating social customs and sharing home and meals with people of various ethnic and social backgrounds.  Now, Rah proclaims, it is our turn. We can create a safe place in which multicultural ministry can thrive.
 
Rah calls hospitality “the gateway of connection” for people of a multicultural church. “Hospitality can be expressed in an openness to different foods, languages, worship styles, and other external expressions,” Rah explains. [181] Practicing multicultural hospitality can be as simple as eating a meal together, something any church can do.  But cultural intelligence should not culminate in the mere tolerance of foreign culture, Rah charges Christians, we need to grow beyond hospitality into a household.  We need to surpass the roles of host and foreigner so that eventually we grow into a family. 
 
Just as the Creator God welcomed humanity into His divine presence with the hope that we might become sons and daughters, so we can learn to open our arms wide to a multicultural family in Christ.  Just as God gifted Adam and Eve with an environment in which to thrive, we are called to create a church climate where diversity is welcomed, cultivated, and made comfortable.  Image-bearers from the beginning, all people from all nations can join in one voice to praise their Maker, manifesting the majestic vision of 2 Cor. 3:18, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”

About the author

Stephanie Smith

Stephanie Smith is a freelance writer and publicist, working from her home in Upstate New York. She recently married and graduated from Moody Bible Institute with a double degree in Women's Ministry and Communications.