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Gerardo Marti on Successful Multicultural Churches

Whether you say multicultural, multiracial, or multiethnic, churches want to become more diverse. So many churches want to know: what makes a congregation successfully multiethnic? A feature story exploring successful multicultural churches.

Generalizations simplify life. They make us feel satisfied that we have answers. Gerardo Marti noticed this when researchers and reporters flocked to Mosaic, a multiracial Los Angeles church. These “experts” would visit for a day or two and then share their insights on diversity.

Marti, then a sociology professor and Mosaic pastor, did his dissertation on what makes and keeps Mosaic multiethnic. After interviewing 60 members and writing A Mosaic of Believers: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic Church, Marti had ideas on what made that congregation work.

Next he worshipped and talked with 50 people from Oasis Christian Center, a neighboring church with a different racial mix. The result was Hollywood Faith: Holiness, Prosperity, and Ambition in a Los Angeles Church (Rutgers University Press, Summer 2008).

Marti, who now teaches sociology at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina, has since interviewed 170 members from a dozen other multicultural churches in metro L.A. He’s read the current popular advice on how to make your church multiracial, such as “Choose the right music” and “Be intentional about race.”

Marti’s take? “Too many times my brothers and sisters are writing books out of one experience. Take the witness. Take the testimony. But be careful before universalizing and generalizing from one successful experience,” he said in a recent lecture.

Marti says he wants to “sophisticate leaders, to save churches from expensive, painful, time-consuming changes that won’t accomplish what they want.”

And while he hasn’t found a program that will help any church diversify, he has noticed attitudes that successful multicultural churches share.

It’s not the music

“Only about 5 percent of Protestant churches have more than one race or ethnicity in any significant proportion. It’s so rare that accomplishing it is something we don’t really understand,” Marti says.

The 14 churches he studied are all multiracial Protestant churches in greater Los Angeles. All conduct worship in English. They don’t have separate services according to language or ancestral background. Their worship ranges, Marti says, “from highly liturgical and mainline to wildly charismatic and Pentecostal.”

Many church leaders believe that music is the key to diversifying. After all, you can’t control neighborhood demographics or who comes to your church…but you can control the music and worship.

“I wanted to find out whether music style really matters and how it works. I was very diligent in listening to the sounds in each service. I quickly found I’d made a critical error.

“I thought worship was merely an acoustic phenomenon…something in rhythms and sounds. I thought I’d find a relatively small number of musical styles that were accomplishing diversity—because that’s what the conversation has been about so far,” Marti says.

He began his research hoping to find “the magic bullet.” Instead, he discovered, “there is no single style that successfully accomplishes racial or ethnic diversity in congregations.”

He spoke with church leaders who see music as a universal language and passionately believe that certain music touches the most people.

Mosaic believes rock and roll is most fundamental to human nature. It has almost a third each of Asians, Hispanics, and whites, with the rest from other ancestral backgrounds.

Oasis believes gospel, funk, soul, and rhythm and blues reach the most people. It attracts young blacks and whites from the entertainment industry.

Marti learned that music matters but not in the way people think. When asked what brought them to a church, worshipers told him their life stories and how they’d formed wonderful relationships that fit their lives into that church.

“Most people accept the music at a church as part of being at the church. They don’t say, ‘This place has cool music. I think I’ll stay.’ They say, ‘This is my church and this is how we worship,’ ” he says.

Not everyone plans for diversity

In every church Marti asked, “How much do you think about race when you plan worship and music?”

Some multiracial congregations plan worship as a buffet, with everyone happily taking turns as each group gets “their” song or worship practice. Certain music directors said, “I do an even mix of white music and black music.”

Others choose a wide base of music—because they want to promote and preserve music. These churches aren’t intentional about race but are multiracial.

Still other multiethnic churches “just do ‘their music.’ It may be contemporary or hymns. But they don’t think about race as an issue because their goal is not diversity, it’s to worship God.”

Marti was surprised when Mosaic leaders told him diversity wasn’t their goal. As he describes in A Mosaic of Believers, people came to Mosaic to escape something, often a monoracial church.

They were attracted by “havens,” affinity groups that match something they value in themselves and help them create a new community. He describes havens as theological, artistic, catalytic (change friendly), age-related, or ethnic.

Mosaic’s ethnic havens are different than Chinese Baptist or Mexican Pentecostal churches. One person described Mosaic as “a place for people who are Korean but don’t have to act Korean.” Others explained Mosaic as a haven for second and third generation ethnics who want to mingle with other cultures without being expected to fulfill all the requirements of whatever ancestral group they came from.

People at Mosaic see themselves as coming from different backgrounds to form one culture—becoming dedicated followers of Jesus Christ who are on a mission in the world.

By contrast, Oasis leaders are intentional about race. They talk and preach about bigotry and racial harmony. The church views racism as a sin that needs to be confronted as strongly as addiction or other moral issues.

“Blacks and whites don’t insist on having separate selves or cells at Oasis. They want to participate in whatever social realm they choose. About 85 percent of people there are trying to make it in the entertainment industry,” Marti said in his lecture. He noted “an amazing affinity” in how Oasis and historically black churches address people who are dealing with pain, frustration, and failures.

Stereotypes in church worship

Marti studied a church that, to him, looked racially diverse, because it had whites and Asians. “But when you talk to these church members, they don’t feel diverse. They grew up together, went to school together, and marry each other,” he says. The cultural differences they perceive are between their church and neighboring blacks and “Mexicans,” by which they mean any Spanish speakers.

He uses this story to question whether churches should begin by reaching out to people most unlike them.

“We all want to reduce complexity by treating everyone in a certain racial group as the same. Churches want more blacks, so put huge generalizations around every person whose skin is darker. We have a sense of what we need to do and rush to attract more of ‘those’ people. We end up reinforcing stereotypes that divide us,” Marti explains.

He suggests reaching across racial or ethnic lines to people who are already assimilated into your school, work, neighborhood, or income or educational level. “That in itself is challenging enough. Assimilated people from different ancestral backgrounds can be your bridge to people who are more culturally distant than you,” he says.

Essential Attitudes that Help Churches Become More Diverse

Gerardo Marti has worshiped with and interviewed nearly 300 people in more than a dozen multiracial Protestant churches in metro Los Angeles.

“In extensive interviews with leaders and regular worshipers, I realized I’d focused too much on the Sunday morning service,” says Marti, an ordained pastor who now teaches sociology at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina.

People he met in multiethnic churches talk most about relationships they establish outside worship. “The multicultural diversity in church is not because of what the choir is singing. It’s because of the people involved, the rehearsals, and the community established around the production of music,” Marti says.

He doesn’t think there’s a surefire program for successfully building relationships and accomplishing racial diversity in churches.

But he noticed common attitudes in churches that enjoy great diversity. People describe worship as “letting go.” And congregations live out attitudes of hospitality, humility, and creativity.

Genuine hospitality

“Most people in the world come to church because a friend invited them,” Marti says. These visitors watch whether and how others at the church notice them.

“Look at 1 Peter to see how the early church practiced philoxenos. In Greek, philo means love and xenos means stranger. Consistently, all the successfully multiracial churches I studied create an environment of hospitality to strangers.

“You come through the door and people say hello—and not just the official ones who are supposed to greet you. Within these churches, people have a bent to say, ‘We are going to see who’s here. We’ll take a moment to talk with them and welcome them back,’ ” Marti says.

He explains that churches with hospitable attitudes know people need to connect. “The larger the church, they more likely they are to have a welcome area, small groups, specialized staff, and many ministries for people to participate in,” Marti says.

In his book A Mosaic of Believers: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic Church, he explains that churches most easily diversify when they reach out to people who have affinities not necessarily based on race. He sees being successful at hospitable ministries as a key to attracting groups that are more culturally distant.

Thinking of others as more important than yourself

Marti recommends reading Philippians 2 to understand the humility that marks multiethnic congregations.

“Think of others as more important than yourself. We need to stop presuming that we know and understand something about a person based on how they look or their accent.

“Churches that are best at humility are eager to learn from others. The experts for diversity in your church are those newest through the doors—not a committee of people that’s been in your church all their lives.

“Every musician I talked with had gotten involved within four weeks of visiting the church. If the average church needs a musician or drummer, then the next musician or drummer through the door gets asked to help out. But if the slots are filled, then the musician or drummer doesn’t get invited,” he says.

By contrast, the churches Marti studied keep expanding ministries by creating space for new people to be involved in the church’s mission. He describes this in A Mosaic of Believers and Hollywood Faith: Holiness, Prosperity, and Ambition in a Los Angeles Church (Rutgers University Press, Summer 2008).

“Smart leaders get to know those who live near the church. They pay attention to what new people are telling them. They realize a newcomer’s first involvement is simply a bridge to new areas of involvement,” he adds.

He also saw in most multiracial churches a greater openness to women as pastors, elders, or deacons. “Women are very visible and integrated at all levels of ministry,” he says.

Creative in local context

Marti doesn’t recommend a specific program for church diversification because each situation is different. Instead he advises being creative within your local context.

“The churches I studied create very flexible systems that allow people to contribute to the mission and purpose of the church,” Marti says. A Mosaic of Believers, Chapter 5, gives details.

Oasis Christian Center, Marti says, is “good at helping people go from being welcome to being wanted. Leaders say, ‘We’d love to use your creativity and skills if you have time and are willing.’”

About 85 percent of people at Oasis are young blacks or whites in (or trying to succeed in) the entertainment industry. The church offers classes in acting, video, sound, and scriptwriting…and invests in the local community. People get invited to tutor, serve in crisis ministries, or connect through groups for preachers’ kids or single moms.

Oasis offers something that many Americans—as well as new immigrants—want. “Say what you want about prosperity theology, but certain forms of it stimulate practical helps that  appeal to people who want a personal approach to a personal God,” Marti says.

Besides offering practical help for life, language, and business to recent immigrants, successful multiracial churches aren’t afraid to look “more like the world today. They may have a café or cafeteria or look like a mall. If recent immigrants enter a church that looks like the places the work and shop in, they feel comfortable.

“Remember, our understanding of what church is supposed to look like is in itself historical. But many immigrants have been influenced by worldwide Pentecostalism, which feels more familiar, more personal, less hierarchical.

“It’s so important to contextualize worship. Church leaders may head into trouble when they see worship as timeless or a-historical. I think worship happens in real time, inescapably in a cultural context.

“Yet you have to avoid exaggerating racial and ethnic distinctions. Both lead us away from the richness of local context. That’s where we need to become better at appreciating where and how we live,” he says.

Learn More

Listen to Gerardo Marti’s lecture “Diversity and Innovation in a Multi-Ethnic Church.” Read his book A Mosaic of Believers: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic ChurchOrder his book Hollywood Faith: Holiness, Prosperity, and Ambition in a Los Angeles Church (Rutgers University Press, Summer 2008). Hear him speak at the 2008 Calvin Symposium on Worship.

This Christianity Today article, “Go and Plant Churches of All Peoples,” is interesting to read in light of Marti's comments on reaching out to people who are less or more distant to your culture. R. Stephen Warner’s review of Marti’s book A Mosaic of Believers looks at why some ethnic groups feel more comfortable than others at Mosaic.

Enjoy a Christian Century interview with Gerardo Marti about his Mosaic book. Get ideas from Mosaic pastors in this podcast on “How to Create a Culture of Innovation in Your Church.”

“Eavesdrop” on a Louisville Institute Dialogue on multiracial churches. Check out DJ Chuang’s definitive website on multiracial churches. Explore denominational resources on diversity from Christian Reformed Church in North America and the book Learning to Count to One by Alfred E. Mulder; Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Reformed Church in America; and Vineyard USA.

On this worldwide worship site, you can see and hear how African church traditions differ from Anglo ones.

Invite neighbors (perhaps academically-minded ones) from other ancestral backgrounds to read and discuss:

Browse related stories about church architecture that builds community, Korean American churchesLaotian American churches, and Reformed churches worldwide.

Start a Discussion

Talk about successful multicultural churches:

  • What have you learned by asking newcomers how they got involved in your church?
  • What do you think of Gerardo Marti’s ideas that hospitality and humility are more important than music and intention in becoming a multiracial church?
  • Which people in your church neighborhood are most like your congregation culturally…yet from different ancestral backgrounds? What relationships do you have with them?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to understand changing demographics in your church neighborhood or within your congregation?

  • Did you seek out people from different theological or cultural traditions for a discussion on what’s the same and different about how they welcome people or help newcomers connect? If you produced a resource summarizing your findings, will you share it with us?
  • What has been most effective in helping your church discover embedded cultural practices, assumptions, or codes that make others feel unwelcome? Was it talking with people, worshiping elsewhere, a mission trip, a film, a seminar…something else?