Christina Edmondson on Church Multicultural Accessibility Committees
John 17 records Jesus’ prayer for unity “so that the world may know that you have sent me and loved them.” It is a powerful witness when churches model unity within diversity. This witness requires intention and prayer.
Christina Edmondson is the dean for Intercultural Student Development at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She is a certified Cultural Intelligence facilitator, public speaker, and mental health therapist, and she consults with churches on diversity and mental health issues. In this edited conversation, Edmondson talks about the multicultural accessibility committee at her church.
How would you describe the demographics of New City Fellowship Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC)?
We’re a four-year-old church plant averaging 200 to 230 people at Sunday worship. Besides the pastor—Mika Edmondson, my husband—our only paid staff are two women who serve as secretary/office assistant and church administrator/coordinator. Our volunteer leadership includes elders and deacons (all men), women who serve alongside the deacons, and, of course, ushers and committee heads.
We’ve been praying for more age diversity. We have some older 20s with young families, but most folks are in their 30s to 50s. My mother-in-law, in her 60s, is considered one of the mothers of our church. It was a grand event when a dear woman in her late 70s joined us.
What is New City Fellowship’s cultural and socioeconomic makeup?
Like our denomination, we’re still overwhelmingly white, with lots of people of Dutch, English, or Irish background. About a quarter of our members are people of color, including African American, Asian, Asian American, Haitian American, Jamaican, Mexican American, and transracial adoptees raised by white families.
We have a fair amount of economic diversity. Some people come to us via transitional living, homelessness, incarceration, substance abuse recovery, and domestic violence. We have people who appear to be affluent, such as blue-collar business owners, white collar workers, and a smattering of academic types and seminary-trained women.
When and why did you form a multicultural accessibility committee at your church?
Before New City Fellowship officially launched, we had a thirty-person group to plant a foundation. Danielle Veldman and I were tasked with helping our core group consciously look at practices and policies that are prohibitive or welcoming. She and I spent time learning about cross-cultural curriculum, and we designed our own workshops around becoming a multicultural congregation.
We spent a day on understanding one’s own cultural community and values. The case for becoming a multicultural congregation must be made through leadership, so people see our various ethnic identities, narratives, and experiences of the gospel as gifts to be shared. We did a second workshop on implicit bias, conflict management styles, and how to build intentional intercultural relationships. Twice a year we host workshops dealing with these topics. Everyone who becomes a church member is encouraged to attend.
Who serves on your multicultural accessibility committee?
The MAC, as we call it, is now chaired by Janet Herrick, who did her seminary master’s thesis on multicultural churches. The committee has ten members now. We’ve all taken the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI), which helps people and organizations shift perspectives and adapt well to cultural differences and commonalities. Our session [elders’ council] was gracious enough, at our recommendation, to also take the IDI. It often reveals a rather humbling gap between how we perceive ourselves and how the IDI assesses our intercultural competence. Elders move in and out of the MAC.
How often do you meet, and what happens in your meetings?
We usually meet every other week but meet a lot more when planning our congregation’s annual conference. Janet Herrick is serious about good spiritual hygiene. She usually leads us in an almost Quaker-style Bible study of a passage given to us with no chapter or verse numbers. We spend fifteen minutes on what the passage means to us, and we pray together.
Our new business usually consists of opportunities for growth or observations. We might discuss how we can support and encourage music ministry leaders to pull from a diverse repertoire or how to support sermons for wider reading levels. The MAC inspired the congregation to build a huge ramp for our century-old building
Can you say more about “sermons for wider reading levels” as an aspect of multicultural accessibility?
Culture isn’t just about race. It’s also about education, learning preferences and ability, church background, and more. We consciously make sure MAC members represent different traditions. We know we’re a bit more didactic than the average church, because we usually preach through entire books of the Bible. This is helpful for people who come from a topical sermon tradition
We’ve done several things to address reading levels. First, we offer a Sunday school class to equip the saints to read the Bible well. We also ask different kinds of people to listen to our sermons, so they can provide feedback on ingroup references or assumptions that unchurched people won’t understand. Our worship leaders spend time explaining what’s about to happen in worship so people from Baptist backgrounds, for example, don’t have to wait until after a baptism service to ask, “Why are you all sprinkling babies?”
What’s an example of how the MAC influences congregational life?
Many people don’t have the chance to break bread with people of different races, incomes, or educational levels. They do at New City Fellowship because we always have a meal after service in our fellowship hall. About 100 to 150 people attend. Different people from small groups or the hospitality committee take turns making the meal.
The MAC has made fellowship meals accessible in three ways. First, we want to be known for whom we include, not whom we exclude. So rather than charge for the meal, we’ve built that cost into our church budget. Some regulars come just for the meal, not for service. We cook extra so that people who need it can take home leftovers. Second, we are mindful of dietary allergies, so whoever is cooking makes sure there are a variety of sides and options. Third, for themed meals served at our annual church conference, we contract with local minority-owned businesses.
How does the MAC make a difference in New City Fellowship’s neighborhood connections?
We know that most neighbors will first enter our doors for reasons other than Sunday service. The MAC has helped the wellness committee think through its offerings through the filter of cognitive, ethnic, and income realities. The wellness committee partnered with the YMCA to host free exercise classes here. The teacher is very clear that it’s fine to exercise at your own pace. We want to be hospitable in our selection of exercise music, so we use up-tempo Christian hip-hop. Maybe soon we’ll add Zumba and Latino music.
We are like a filter for congregational life. The wellness committee may start offering cooking classes with food people can take home. We try to lovingly ask, “Is the food cost prohibitive? Are the actual ingredients mindful of common allergies? Do the recipes in cooking class reflect our neighborhood?”
Does getting to know more neighbors result in any worship changes?
It helps us name where we are not accessible. Our neighborhood has many Latinos, but our service doesn’t have a Spanish speaker. So, as the MAC, we say right now and out loud that we are not accommodating our Spanish-speaking neighbors in worship. We came up with a small intervention we can do for now. We started a small Bible study in Spanish, led by a seminary student raised in Chile and two bilingual people. The purpose is to help native English speakers strengthen their Spanish language abilities.
What does a church need to start its own multicultural accessibility committee?
You just need to recruit a small team of people who love the church, love people, and want to ask questions—out of love—to help make the church more accessible to the community. Start with who you have, and within that aim for as much diversity as possible. At New City Fellowship, we need the white man who’s perceived as super=conservative politically, because some members will tell him things they wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about with me, an African-American woman.
Learn from local churches and denominations around you. Every Sunday at our church we pray for a different church in our community by name. This means we pray for congregations that are Catholic, Christian Reformed, Church of God in Christ, nondenominational. . . . We visit and learn from them, because sometimes the best ideas can come from outside your tradition. And it guards against seeing ourselves as a “righteous remnant.”
Listen to Christina Edmondson and friends interview people about multiethnic churches on their Truth’s Table weekly podcast. Read Edmondson’s essay “Hospitality in Higher Education: Is There Room for All?”