Multi-Ethnic Leadership In Global Missions: “I have become all things to all men that I might save some”
Why Diverse Leadership Matters
Driving home one evening, turning on news radio, I found myself in the middle of quite the interesting story. The Southern Baptist Convention was adding a resolution saying the “Alt-Right” is not biblical and goes against the theological and moral values of the Convention. To be clear the “Alt-Right” was described as White Nationalism and White Supremacy. This was a significant statement. First, because this was coming from a White Evangelical denomination, second, and more importantly, it was coming from a denomination that had historically been overtly racist and contributed to the deep racial divides and oppression of Black Americans, unapologetically until the 1990s. For the Church, especially a denomination carrying significant influence and a problematic racial past, to make this statement was a clear move forward. As a Black pastor, leading a multi-ethnic church in south Louisiana, who passionately desires racial reconciliation, it was a move I was happy to see. To be clear, I didn’t consider everyone who was a part of the Southern Baptist Convention governance, nor pastors, leaders, or church members to all be racist. I was observing the change in systems and historical attitudes with their implications and applications for the future. Being a part of an ecumenical movement, and myself being an ecumenical pastor, I have a great appreciation for the SBC, and I’m grateful for the statement they made. Given that, later in the segment, a caller chimed in asking (with good intentions I’m sure) “Why does this matter? The only thing that matters is the Gospel, we should just be preaching the Gospel.”
I sense a similar question from leaders as I bring up the idea that diverse leadership is necessary in cross-cultural evangelism and discipleship. While the representative for the SBC didn’t have a response to the caller, the caller’s sentiment is something that I’ve heard many times. This is not a discussion primarily on racial reconciliation in the church but suffice to say racial reconciliation is a prominent message in the gospels and epistles. That being said, I invite you to join me in examining the impact multi-ethnic involvement and leadership in global missions could have. We have an opportunity to learn and share why this is critical in a movement dedicated to sustainable and effective church planting.
If a US-based movement wants to implement planting thousands of churches across the world, that aren’t here one day and gone the next, we must be willing to bring those along with us who can not only bridge the cultural gap of North American and South American or North American and African, but those who can also demonstrate through lived experience of the gospel, true reconciliation and social healing. It’s not just about planting churches. We must be willing to see churches planted that will extend the Kingdom and the narrative of the renewal of all things.
Our Vineyard missiology is firmly rooted in working with, developing, and releasing indigenous leaders. We highly value empowering national and local pastors, planters, and leaders. Why do we do this? Anyone working in Vineyard Missions would tell you how critical it is that churches are being planted and led by those that call a place home. It’s critical that these churches are not planted or led by American pastors or missionaries, and that we miss an essential component of discipleship if we subvert the influence and place of local leaders by placing ourselves in their stead. We know that cultural context is everything, and when we miss the proper approach, the churches being planted suffer the consequences of being unable to fulfill their purpose and their leaders become handicapped by missionary oversight.
This is a great first step. Let’s take the next step, especially since our primary methodology is leadership development. We need to bring people of color alongside us, people who have a unique perspective and cultural insight that will not only help open doors that have been closed, but open doors we didn’t even know were there!
Early Church of Acts
Early in the Acts of the Apostles we see something significant take place. Acts 6 begins with a scene that’s all too common, then and now. Those without social power were being discriminated against by those with power. It may seem unusual to define a Jewish community (occupied and persecuted no less) as a group with power. However, within their own circles the Hebraic Jews possessed a higher status than the Hellenistic Jews. It’s important to note the Hellenistic Jews were not just Greek-speaking Jews, but instead were a part of the diaspora who then re-settled in Jerusalem. As such, the account displays a serious issue within the church. The apostles however, were not in a position to solve this problem effectively. Their focus was elsewhere, and therefore, they appointed leaders to handle this major function of the Church. Those who were selected were not Hebraic Jews but Hellenistic Jews. The oppressed minority was given leadership! The oppressed minority—full of wisdom and the Spirit and also had unique insights to the problems at hand—were able to effectively resolve these problems. And the result… “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.” – Acts 6:7
The Apostle Paul has an obvious place in the Christian narrative and our hearts as a missions-minded people. As a Jewish leader and scholar, a previous persecutor of the Church, and a leader affirmed by the original disciples, few if any could question his legitimacy and his insight into communicating the gospel of grace. Beyond that, Paul had full Roman citizenship and he was very familiar with Greek culture, giving him the freedom to travel throughout the empire without issue. God’s mission for Paul was to bring Christ to the gentiles. God arranged Paul’s life, background and circumstances to prepare him for this unique and important call: to minister to people who were far removed from Jewish culture.
Consider the Apostle Peter, who also has an obvious place in the Christian narrative. Neither a scholar nor Jewish leader, Peter was highly unqualified. Yet, how many walked closer with Jesus than Peter did? He was an average person, a low-class fisherman, yet also someone with passion and fire in his soul. God called him to bring the gospel to the Jews. While God did send him to the gentile Cornelius, Peter’s main focus was to help the Jewish people find the fulfilment of the messianic promises in Jesus. Peter’s position was perfect for his mission: equipped and formed by Jesus directly and one who identified closely with his Jewish heritage. Who could have been better for this mission?
Then there’s the prophet Jeremiah. He was born into a deep divide as the nation of Israel was separated from itself. Jeremiah’s call was to unite the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. It was a big project, and yet, he too was in a position that gave him an advantage. Born into the priestly line in Anatoth, Jeremiah had no particular allegiances to either Kingdom. His words and prophecies carried much weight as both sides knew that he wasn’t biased toward the other, therefore he could speak with full authority and clarity. There were times, he would use various language that would respect one side’s perspective without offending the other. He understood the frames of understanding and history that each group lived under and spoke to each of them in a way that would bring reconciliation.
Ethnicity is one of the few unchangeables in life that God decides for us. If we truly believe that He loves us, formed us, and calls us according to His purposes, then He gave us our unique worldview, ethnicity, and family dynamics to help us fulfill our role in the Kingdom, just as He did in the previous examples. What if ethnic identity and background could have significant impact in our efforts? Soon, we will see how this plays out in our modern-day context.
The majority of countries we work in as a movement have at some point been colonized. It’s easy to look at the state of the US and because of our successes not consider, or even completely dismiss, the impact of colonization on a country and its peoples. Slavery, the destruction and occupation of land and culture, and forced assimilation of values onto a people group has a tremendous impact on the society and on the soul. Growing up without power generation upon generation degrades the social frames that people live in. It degrades the dignity of the individual while simultaneously fragments communities to dissuade change.
I’ve talked to many people about Haiti, the Vineyard Haiti Partnership, and what foreign involvement has looked like in Haiti over the last several decades. Many people I’ve talked to have said with conviction that the reason Haiti remains in such an impoverished state, the reason it has earthquakes and continual infrastructure problems is because of its association and practice of witchcraft. This is so disheartening every time I hear it because it is completely reductive. I don’t dispute the powers of darkness at play in our world and I understand at some level it’s a theological paradigm, but it’s more than that. This point of view thoroughly ignores the vastness of internal and external factors (including the USA) that have led to its current state. It shows a significant lack of understanding of Haitian culture, and from a theological perspective, dismisses suffering in a Kingdom yet to come.
Historical Impact Of Western Missions
Vincent Donovan was a Spiritan priest and Catholic missionary to the Massai people in Africa. In his book Christianity Rediscovered he forays into international missions, the Church’s global impact and effectiveness, how we can better understand our role in cross-cultural ministry, and how we can learn from history. In his book he recounts Catholic missionaries in nineteenth century East Africa and their primary mission of dealing with the system of slavery.
They bought the slaves. They bought them left and right, with all the money they could get their hands on…by the hundreds and thousands and they Christianized all they bought. Buying slaves and Christianizing them became, in fact, the principle method of the apostolate in the entire continent… The missionaries bought those slaves, took care of them and fed them by means of huge farms and plantations, run by ex-slaves themselves… The word “free” might not be the most accurate word to describe life on the mission plantations. And even for that freedom, such as it was, there was a price to be paid-acceptance of the Christian religion (Donovan, pp. 4-5). (Emphasis mine)
Unconscious (sometimes) Imperialism
We’ve seen imperialism from governments and world powers throughout history. We’ve seen it in the rise of the Church as Church and State became intertwined. The question remains, with all this history does the Church, primarily the western Church engage in imperialistic missions? It’s safe to say over the last several decades we’ve seen this play out. We plant a North American way of doing church in places that are far from it. We have tied funding to a particular practice of a church, and we’ve gone as far as declaring churches as not churches because they don’t fit the paradigm in which we have determined as the identifiers of church.
Reflecting on the purchase of slaves at the cost of Christianity, we may be quick to say, we would never do that today. To a point, I agree, we would never do that. The reality however, is that we have done that in different ways, and perhaps not as traumatizing, but nonetheless still systemically demoralizing. And don’t get me wrong, just as the church did in the nineteenth century, I have no doubt it is done with good intentions, and a heart toward God and his people. Just as with our biases, the largest problems with imperialistic missions is generally not from those who are aware of their intention to force the American church on our friends across the globe. The largest problems come when our imperialism is unconscious, when our intent is good, but our impact is troublesome. When people of color are a part of your team, our intent and impact can become more aligned. For example, people of color tend to notice when assimilation is being forced in a community, work, or ministry dynamic. When we force assimilation, it becomes less of a partnership and more of an imperative. This dynamic is implied (as opposed to explicitly verbalized), and people of color are equipped through experience to recognize those power dynamics in relationship building and leadership development; they are able to help facilitate true partnership. This is why enabling and empowering people of color in cross-cultural global work is essential for sustainability.
Our roots in American Evangelicalism from the very founding of this country have formed and impacted much of our gospel message. That root is our understanding of Manifest Destiny. We have embraced an identity of “a city on a hill,” and that only America can save the world and bring in the fullness of the Kingdom. Manifest Destiny has seeped into the very fabric of Christian American culture. The issue is, it can be so ingrained that we can’t always see its present effect. Not everyone believes in Manifest Destiny, but I would challenge you with something I’m learning more and more every day. Our past impacts—and will continue to impact—our present if we don’t deal with it.
A common experience among people of color occurs when people universalize their experience with them. While it happens most often with our Anglo friends, it occurs across ethnicities. When someone who is White (we’ll call him Sam) is in relationship with a person of color (we’ll call her Sanaa), either a working, personal, or familial relationship, what often happens is Sam will equate all of his experiences with Sanaa to the entire ethnic group she belongs to. An assumption is perpetuated then that all people with the same shade of skin as Sanaa or the same ethnicity as Sanaa speak like her, act like her, think like her, and for the most part, are similar to her.
This is not an unusual pattern. We even see it working cross-culturally in countries where languages and culture enumerate by geographical location. As many sociologists will tell you, we all are ethnocentric by default. All this means is that we find our culture, our way of doing things, and our thought processes are the better way of doing it. We prefer that which identifies with us most closely. It’s not an inherently bad thing. It only becomes an issue when you or I are the ones that hold the most influence and power within a setting and aren’t aware when we are forcing our way on a group. We think objectively that our way is better not realizing that we’re viewing someone else’s way through the lens of our ethnocentric preferences. Or we may be so blind to our own cultural preferences that we don’t see that there is another way to perceive something.
How do we combat this? We bring along people who can help us recognize these trends, help us understand when we’re missing key aspects in our relationships, development, and support of our international partners. We combat this by working with those who identify in some way more closely with those we are working with cross culturally. When we bring people along as partners, as people we are willing to share power and influence with us, we find they bring a perspective that can’t be found anywhere else. A perspective that is critical to the work we’re engaged in.
An understandable retort is, “We haven’t seen this play out in our relationships around the world,” or “We haven’t had these kinds of conversations with those we work with, who are trusted and close friends.” The reality is that these conversations aren’t had and won’t be had for many reasons. The primary way to start these critical conversations is to have a bridge-person there with whom your cross-cultural partner can more freely express his or her cultural concerns (with greater hopes of understanding).
The rise of evangelical Christianity is coming from the global south (Southern Hemisphere). If we want to be a part of what God is doing, then we must consider how we intend to connect with those that God has called us to in a relevant way. When there are people very near to us in our home churches and communities that can bring us tremendously closer to the people God has put on our hearts, why we would not partner with them?
This all raises another question. Could our experiences, shaped by the gospel we read and know, be affected by the world we grew up in, a world where we are the empire and not the occupied? Of course, a proper hermeneutic should distill as much bias as possible in order to remain true to scripture and its application today, yet, our experiences--or lack thereof--dramatically impact our engagement with the stories of Jesus and the Kingdom and thus our inviting those who have a different ethnic identity expands the breadth of understanding in the gospel while also expands the potential means of communicating it.
When I read about Simeon who carried the cross with Jesus and then read about him again as a leader in the church in Syria (many scholars believe this is the same Simeon), as a black pastor, that makes a significant impact on my story and the call of my life. It brings another dimension of the transformative gospel. When I speak at a meeting in Haiti about freedom, the language I use, and my contextualized understanding of the gospel is different, because freedom runs deep and wide and can mean something different for different people. It means something different to me. It comes out not only in homily, but in relationship building and equipping.
I mentioned Peter earlier in looking at how God chose specific people to minister the gospel of love. In comparison to Paul, he wasn’t as “qualified.” This is important, because without realizing it, we often exclude people because they don’t have the typical “qualifications.” Yet God chose Peter and he walked closely with Jesus. In the Vineyard we say, “everyone gets to play.” Does that not extend to those who don’t aren’t as qualified on paper, but walk closely with Jesus?
Looking at the theology of the Kingdom of God, we recognize that the Kingdom broke in to free an enslaved and oppressed Israelite community in Egypt. The Kingdom arrived to an occupied and divided Israel in Jesus’ day, when he brought hope and reconciliation, and the Kingdom expanded through the persecuted and oppressed church. Yet, by and large, the people “bringing the gospel” have not experienced nor understand oppression.
I end with a few questions. Given this paradigm of shared power within a multi-ethnic context for cross-cultural engagement, what other benefits can a person of color bring to the table in our cross-cultural efforts? Is it not invaluable? Who can you invite into your missions journey in the next 18 months? What is the Spirit saying to you or calling you to do in the midst of this?
Senior Pastor | Co-Regional Coordinator for the Caribbean
Vineyard Church of Baton Rouge | Vineyard Missions MLT
Jeremy is the Senior Pastor of the Vineyard Church of Baton Rouge. He also leads the Vineyard Haiti Partnership, where he leads, in partnership with other organizations, an international mission that focuses on planting churches and training leaders and equipping Haitians to train and empower their own people to build sustainable ministries. He is deeply committed to justice, compassion, and healing in his local community and communities impacted by poverty and injustice.