Mrs Jeannie Mok is a pastor at International City Church, Brisbane, and the Principal of the Asian Pacific Institute, which offers accredited diploma (Australian), bachelor and masters degrees (from Manchester University) in multicultural and Pentecostal-charismatic studies and corporate cross-cultural training. This paper is based on two articles written for Alive Magazine.
Now that Australia is the most multicultural nation in the world, should churches alter their organizations to suit such a diversity of people?
Occasionally, the odd conservative politician may assert that it is the duty of migrants to become like all other Australians (whatever that may be) and not expect people to change things for them; after all, they are the ‘foreigners’ who came into this country, so shouldn’t it be a case of ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’?
Similarly, why worry about what church model to plant or restructure – after all, these new migrants are the ‘latecomers’ and they should try to fit in or assimilate into existing structures! And unfortunately, many churches do think this way and remain the way they are.
I would like to suggest that one of the key factors determining how we organize our churches depends on what we think about other peoples and their cultures. A close look at the variety of churches in Australia will reveal that how we organise our ministry and churches has in fact resulted from several myths or assumptions about ourselves and our culture and how we view foreigners and their cultures and communities.
These key assumptions influence the essential ‘flavour’ of a church and it will be shown that very often, these are misleading, bordering on racial prejudice, and should be replaced by more appropriate biblical principles.
An assumption that has existed for centuries has been Parochialism (the only one way assumption) – the ‘my way is the only way’ belief, where there is no real recognition of any other way of living, working or doing things. British Colonial practice is a classic example of a policy aimed at making Englishmen out of the natives. Not surprisingly, the European missionaries in Africa and in Australia followed this lead and forced indigenous peoples to give up native ways and renounce traditional ‘pagan’ beliefs and practices.
In our cosmopolitan world, Parochialism should be replaced by Equifinality (our way is not the only way) that suggests that there are many culturally distinct ways of reaching the same goal, or of living one’s life. In fact, there are many equivalent ways to reach a final goal.
Traditional Western Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) Churches reflect a parochial way of thinking. They tend to therefore to be mono-cultural, carrying on in ways that ignore cultural differences. Such churches could be Exclusionary, with one group dominating the others as all key decision making and administrative matters are in their hands.
In such Australian churches, if you do not speak the dominant language, you either sink or swim! Thus foreigners will always remain on the fringe since cultural differences are seen as a problem. Bible study groups, cell groups, etc., will not accommodate language differences. Often, there is a negative evaluation of culturally different people, especially if they are from non-European countries.
Another belief is Ethnocentrism (the one best way myth /our way is the best way). Such organizations recognize people’s differences but believe that their way is still the best, since all other ways are inferior versions. This has in turn led to the establishment of Ethnocentric institutions which acknowledge that there may other ways out there, but “we feel ours is really the best way”.
It is true that in such clubs and organizations, the chief purpose is to preserve special cultural and linguistic understandings and customs that have generally diminished in a cosmopolitan or multicultural setting. And undoubtedly, the flow-on benefits are important as it is not possible to express certain beliefs and feelings outside the boundaries of specific psychological/cultural/linguistic traditions.
Thus ethnocentric churches are very much like monocultural clubs where race is the primary discriminator – membership is limited to a certain ethnic community (all Chinese or all Spanish or all Greek), but inclusive of all different classes and educational levels, with a limited number of selected non-group members and outsiders. Such churches are closed ethnic enclaves but within each national group (e.g. Chinese) is contained a multiplicity of ethnicities (Taiwanese, Hong Kong, Malaysian/Singaporean Chinese, Mainland Chinese). Policies change only under pressure since traditions are highly prized. Gender could also be a discriminator in the management of the church – in favour of male leadership. For example, Chinese evangelical churches are traditionally run by male pastors; female pastors are rare, and not highly respected by older members.
Then there is the Similarity myth which asserts that “people are all alike” or “they are all like me” since we all have the same life goals, career aspirations and activities. This belief is faulty since a study of people’s values, attitudes and behaviour in 14 nations showed that whilst people felt more comfortable believing that this ‘similarity’ exists, this was not the case. Apparently, people felt more comfortable believing in this similarity since ‘Differences’ were regarded as a threat. Unfortunately, there are problems associated with this belief. One gets disappointed and feels anger or surprise when people do not act as one expects them to. Furthermore, this assumption denies the individuality of people, and negates their distinct characteristics.
Thus, it must be acknowledged that people share similarities and differences. (They are not just like me since many people are culturally different from me. Most people have both cultural similarities and differences when compared to me). It is thus a good thing to assume that there are differences first when meeting a ‘foreigner’, unless similarities are proven.
The Similarity assumption is akin to the Homogeneity or the Melting Pot Myth (We are all the same since everyone is and wants to be like the majority). Homogeneity proponents state, however, that as a nation of many distinct cultures, they realize that it is impossible to get all to be the same. Thus newly arrived migrants have to be integrated with the rest of Australians and become like everyone else. And since Australia is basically ‘Waspish’, the newly-arrived must assimilate into the new ‘Home’ culture.
These two assumptions (Similarity and Homogeneity) often underlie non-discriminating and culturally aware organizations like International Churches and ‘Melting Pot’ Assimilationist Churches. These Churches recognise cultural similarities and differences but choose to attempt to minimize the diversity by imposing single one-best-way solutions on all management situations.
Most international churches believe that they are multicultural, but in reality they are not, since there is still the one dominant culture (the ‘Waspish’ normally). Competence requirements are higher for outsiders – especially fluency in the dominant language. But such churches do attempt to seek change by changing race and gender profiles. They will have a Missions group and international food festivals, etc., and allow token representation in management, and over time these could evolve into multicultural churches.
‘Melting pot’ churches operate on the belief that various cultural groups from all nations, must be treated with essential equality since “We are all Australians and we accept an Australianised form of English, and Christian moral principles and values.” The belief is that in time, all will be unified as one large heterogenous ‘stew’ as cross-cultural marriages abound. In such churches, individual ties to ethnic groups culturally rooted to other parts of the world are not so important, as these are actually regarded as potentially disruptive or distracting. There is also the mistaken belief that as all are equal, all will have an influence in the pot. Hence, this ‘multicultural stew’ method is seen as truly the best way of unifying everyone.
This all sounds most reasonable but in reality, new migrants are under pressure to conform and accept dominant cultural principles. In Australia, they have to melt into an essentially Anglo-Celtic Protestant pot to be accepted. They must shed essential aspects of their traditional cultural belief and practice if they are to fit in nicely. The ‘Melting Pot’ is in reality the melting away of non-Anglo-Saxon traditions.
The fact is that Heterogeneity or Cultural Pluralism is a hallmark of our society today. (We are not all the same); there are many culturally different groups in society. It therefore makes sense that in our policy and practice, we need to consider the many equivalent or culturally distinct ways of reaching the same goals, since our way is not the only way!
One model of a Multicultural Church utilises the Equifinality or Parallel approach. These are churches that recognise cultural similarities and differences; and allow parallel approaches based on members’ cultures to be used simultaneously in each management situation. Such a church utilises a common language (through necessity), although diverse languages are still used widely for the respective ethnic groups. Senior management is committed to power-sharing practices, and incorporates leaders to represent each major ethnic group found in the church. It is usual to find that the key leaders can operate in a variety of languages, and are able to switch methods of cross-cultural communication to deal with the various ethnic groups.
Perhaps the ideal multicultural church is the Synergistic church, totally committed to the multicultural vision. This church recognizes cultural similarities and differences and uses them to create new integrative solutions to organizational problems that go beyond the individual cultures of any single group.
For instance, at their combined celebrations, when the Spanish, Chinese and English-speaking congregations come together, International City Church in Brisbane, has ‘invented’ a new kind of praise and worship session with worship leaders from the three language groups leading the mixed congregation in songs incorporating all the three languages; so that all can participate in the same song! (Incidentally, this unique blend of languages has resulted in a project to produce the first real multicultural Praise and Worship CD in Australia). Such a church also recognises diversity as a valuable strength (as productive, creative and resource-rich). Initially, there may be many communication problems, but once this is overcome, huge benefits are realized.
Given the fact that Australia’s demographic profile has changed so radically recently, perhaps it is time for us to re-think our churches. Should we now work hard at evolving our churches into Multicultural and Synergistic churches? Are we inclusive and totally ‘user-friendly’ to the harvest (boat people and all) that awaits us in our own backyard? Or are we still focusing on a traditional (middle-class ‘Waspish’) clientele that is fast diminishing?
We cannot totally eradicate our cultural biases. An immediate start would be to replace the Golden Rule (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you), with the Platinum Rule (Do unto others as Jesus did unto you).
Samovar L.A., Porter R.E. Intercultural Communication: A Reader Wadsworth Publishing Co, USA 1997
Simons G.F., Vasquez C., Harris P.R. Transcultural Leadership: Empowering the Diverse Workforce Gulf Publishing Co Texas 1993
Weaver G.R. Culture, Communication and Conflict: Readings in Intercultural Relations Simon and Schuster USA 1994
 Nancy J. Adler, Domestic Multiculturalism: Cross-Cultural Management in the Public Sector (102) in Gary R. Weaver (Ed) Culture, Communication and Conflict: Readings in Intercultural Relations Simon and Schuster Custom Publishing MA, USA (1994)
 ibid (102)
 R. Janzen Five Paradigms of Ethnic Relations (65) in Larry A. Samovar, Richard E. Porter Intercultural Communication Wadsworth Publishing Company USA 1997
 Nancy J. Adler Domestic Multiculturalism (110)
© Renewal Journal #18: Servant Leadership (2001, 2012) renewaljournal.com
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