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Journal

Our need to categorize

Mark Junkans

One my my pet peeves in our mostly white church body is the need to pigeonhole and categorize our leadership based on their ethnicity.  We, a mainline church, still tend to have the attitude that certain leaders are only qualified to lead in their own community, but not in ours.  There is a distinct cultural mindset in minority leadership.  Instead of recognizing that our congregations need to adapt to this new mindset in order to reach future generations, we keep saying "He's a good leader for his community, not ours."  I was in a conversation with a local pastor, while discussing a West African candidate for ministry.  He said "Do you actually think that these ethnic leaders will truly become a pastors on the level of you and I?"  He asked me "Have you ever heard him pray (with passion)?  Our (white) congregation loves him, but would never follow his lead."  This pastor has the perception that he is a better spiritual leader, presumably because he is White and doesn't speak with an accent, even though his congregation continues to shrink at a fast pace.  

The following paragraph by Soong-Chan Rah from the book "The Next Evangelicalism" pretty much sums up this issue.

On another occasion, I was sharing my vision of a multiethnic church with a white colleague who listened politely for at least half an hour.  After that discussion, we were leaving his house when we ran into his pastor right outside the door.  He introduced me in the following way: "This is Soong-Chan, who's a Korean American pastor who'll be starting a Korean American church in Cambridge." I was quite stunned.  After a pretty specific conversation about my desire to plant a multiethnic church, I was being introduced as an ethnic immigrant church pastor.  Of course, his pastor was not introduced to me as "This is my white pastor who pastors my white church." But there was this need to pigeonhole me as an ethnic minority pastor of an ethnic-specific church.

If we are ever going to succeed in reaching this diverse and multi-ethnic nation, we will need leadership that reflects this new reality.  Sooner or later, we as a church will need to submit to the leadership of those who look and think differently than us.  

If our Western desire to categorize is based on love and respect of different cultures, then there is no problem recognizing the ethnic differences among us.  I believe, however, that most of the time we categorize because of our need to set OURSELVES apart from others.  If we can immediately categorize someone, then their opinion and wisdom can be discounted as only applying to their culture.  In the church, this attitude is death.  Jesus prayed that we would be one as He and the Father are one.  The Jerusalem council settled this matter when they recognized that even Gentiles could belong to the Body of Christ without first adopting Jewish cultural norms and practices.

If our church in the West is declining, but growing in many non-Western countries, why are we not learning how to be church from those whom God is sending to our country?  There is much for us to learn, but maybe we are too captivated by our pride, prejudices and our comfortable lifestyles.  There is hope for the church, but our future will look much different in the coming decades than it does now.  Those who embrace this reality have a chance to find a place there, while those who don't will continue to see their own decline.  For me, I'm seeking the new wineskins where God is pouring out his life-giving Spirit to the world.  Our current one is about to burst.

Is it good to categorize new missions here in North America by their ethnicity?  Is it always born out of ethnocentrism?  The symptoms are there, but I'm not sure about the answer.