Grace Church from its very beginning has been a multi-cultural church. How could it not be? After all, we’re a British family who moved to Sweden to be a part of this church. And we’ve added plenty of nations along the way.
At present, and just off the top of my head, I can think of people in the church from amongst others: Syria, Argentina, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, USA, Sweden, UK, India, Tanzania, Singapore, Romania, Poland, Brazil, China and Nigeria. I may have forgotten a few. This was a rich and rewarding experience in all sorts of way. We were a congregation of minorities led by a white British guy.
Then, at the end of the summer last year, this changed. We were joined by a man from Congo, let’s call him Gilbert because that’s his name. Gilbert was soon joined by his immediate family, then his wider family, then some of his contacts and on and on. What began with one person in August is now over 90 men, women and children all refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The DRC is one of the world’s great basket cases of a country. Ruined by Belgium and then ruined by every other leader since. It’s a vast mineral-rich nation that is a battleground for rebels, neighbouring countries, ethnic division and banditry. If you lived in Eastern Congo as nearly all of our people did, you’d be a refugee too. Most of them have been refugees for decades or were born refugees before coming to Sweden in an arrangement with UNHRC.
These people have lived in Zambia, Malawi, Burundi, Uganda and other East African countries. You know a country is pretty bad when Burundi is your safe refuge. Yet these are remarkable people – they speak multiple languages and here in Sweden are embracing another. Hard-working, entrepreneurial, toughened by life yet with hearts full of joy they’re are a delight to be amongst.
But what the heck am I doing being the leader? How did that happen?
It is a humbling thing to suddenly find your church being chosen as a home and community but it’s also a bit overwhelming and it brought with it numerous challenges. Here are some:
We can’t easily speak with each other. Right now we don’t have a shared language and we have too few people who can translate. This is a massive hindrance to genuine relationships. It will ease over time as particularly the children and young people learn Swedish (& English) but it is a huge challenge.
For a time we were running children’s work through three different languages which was taxing to say the least.
As Jonathan Szeto writes, “As people immigrate from different places, they bring new customs, cultures, and languages with them. As a church, we must share the gospel with them, minister faithfully the Word of God to them, and shepherd them in love. But we must also speak their language. In our ministry to them, we must also consider their children, who will grow up speaking English (NB: or in our case Swedish). If we are to reach this generation…, then we must also speak their language.”
So we quickly established a separate language service in Swahili. Jonathan Szeto again, “Language barriers provide a reasonable justification for the existence of an ethnic church. You can’t respond to a message when you don’t understand the words.”
This conviction meant we chose to invest in translation options and purchase equipment to help us when we worshipped together.
Language is the first and most obvious barrier but it is also easy to spot and there are ways around it. Culture is a trickier thing altogether. It takes a while to realise that you don’t think the same and therefore you approach many aspects of life in completely different ways with a completely different set of unquestioned assumptions.
It wasn’t so noticeable when we were a church of minorities but now, taken as a whole, the largest grouping by far in our church is Congolese. Yet many of the things we do as a whole, are much more shaped by European thinking or theology than by African thinking. And if you don’t think there is such a thing as European theology but only biblical theology, then that shows you’ve never been to a theological optician to have your eyes tested.
We’re working on trying to include leaders from the Congolese group amongst our broader leadership teams but we bump into the language challenge at every turn.
The largest group in our church is by far the poorest. They’re refugees, they’re on benefits. Most don’t have jobs, their own homes and most send a chunk of what they get to support relatives back in Africa. The smaller portion of the church that has holidays, cars, homes, debts, credit cards and the rest are realising that while Acts 2:45 sounds great in theory, it’s quite a bit more challenging when that reality is in your church every week. Credit, where credit is due though, the people of Grace Church are stepping up.
Also as Dan Hyun notes, “For example, a church will need to wrestle with living life together when its members stand at different ends of the wealth spectrum. A church composed of primarily wealthy parishioners can plan social events requiring significant financial investment. They may need to question this approach, however, if the church begins to bring in those who may not possess as much materially and wants those new individuals to feel included in the family. To be part of a multicultural church asks people what they’re willing to sacrifice to cultivate that kind of community flourishing.”
Our current thinking is to try and have our cake and eat it. We’re going to try to be both multi-ethnic and give space for distinct groups to worship in their own languages and culture. We’re figuring out how to grow as a church together. The keys will be learning to listen, learn and love.
This desire is ultimately shaped by our convictions of what God ultimately wants for his church. As Rebecca McLaughlin says,
The last book of the Bible paints a picture of the end of time, when “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language” will worship Jesus (Rev. 7:9). This was the multicultural vision of Christianity in the beginning. For all the wrong turns made by Western Christians in the last 2,000 years, when we look at church growth globally today, it is not crazy to think that this vision could ultimately be realized. So let’s attend to biblical theology, church history, and contemporary sociology of religion and, as my friend Kanato Chopi put it, let’s abandon this absurd idea that Christianity is a Western religion.https://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2019/october/most-diverse-movement-history-mclaughlin-confronting.html