Is Multiculturalism "bad" for the church? Should local churches strive for a multicultural make-up?

As Canadians, we cherish our multicultural value, proudly celebrated this past Canada Day. We encourage diversity in the workplace, schools, and communities believing that this will strengthen us as a society. Passed on 21 July, 1988, the Canadian Multiculturalism Act, formalized the government's commitment to "promote the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society".1 Incidentally, the Act coincided with a shift in immigration trends for 1971, as for the first time, the majority of new immigrants were of non-European ancestry — a precedent that has persisted ever since.1 According to the 2011 census, nearly 21 per cent of Canadians (6,775,800 people) were born outside the country.

However, a recent survey conducted by CBC, “suggest a majority of Canadians believe the federal government should limit the number of immigrants it accepts…[furthermore], the government should prioritize limiting immigration levels because the country might be reaching a limit in its ability to integrate them”.2 In another survey, commissioned by VanCity, a regional banking institution, “70% of all survey respondents have experienced some form of discrimination, from hearing a racist comment in their presence to being the target of abuse because of their ethnic background.3 It should also be noted that two-thirds of immigrants in 2010 (7.2 million) reported Christianity as their religious affiliation.4

These surveys beg the question, “How does the Canadian multicultural ethic influence Canadian churches?” Firstly, as Canadian churches, we should rejoice that there are more global Christians immigrating to Canada, and secondly, the rise in immigration from Asia Pacific has not seen an increase in conversion to other world religions, e.g. Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism, and actually provides access to formerly closed groups. Furthermore, “Has multiculturalism hindered or facilitated our efforts in fulfilling the Great Commission?” It is indeed good news that the world is coming to Canada in an age where the practice of Christian evangelism and missions is from everywhere to anywhere. But, the majority of mainstream evangelical churches are still primarily monocultural congregations, segregated by ethno-historical culture and denominational doctrine.

Whether we’re discussing the acceptance of immigrants into Canada or global Christians into our mainstream evangelical churches, the poll results reveal a disconnect between what is articulated and what is practiced. In many cases the attitude in churches is not based on Scriptural truths and ethics but resembles Canada’s multicultural policy; which promotes accommodation and tolerance but creates a false sense of solidarity, and where, sadly, little is done to overcome barriers to integration in homily or ecclesial leadership. Roland Kawano states this dichotomy well in his book, The Global City. He writes, “Curiously, the churches in the host society have always been the initiators of spiritual movements in societies in other parts of the world. But when people from those other countries come to the host country, the church in the host society frequently become afraid. It is unable or unwilling to cross the barriers in its own multicultural society”.

In a speech entitled, “Diversity is a fact; Inclusion is a Choice”, delivered by Stephane Dion, Ambassador of Canada to Germany and Special Envoy to the European Union and Europe on September 22, 2017 at a conference in Brussels, “Inclusive Societies? Canada and Belgium in the 21st Century”, he states, “Diversity is a fact. In Canada, first- and second-generation immigrants make up nearly 40 percent of the population, and more than two thirds in Vancouver and Toronto…Our societies are becoming more and more diversified with respect to ethnicity, culture and religion…Diversity is here and will only become more widespread. We can try to contain it or avoid it as much as possible, or we can mould it so that it becomes a strength, a source of enrichment. The second choice is the right choice. Diversity is a fact; inclusion is a choice.”5

For Canadian-Christians, the need to embrace the other should not be driven by economic, political or population sustainability reasons. However, there exists an “unconscious bias” within our mainstream evangelical congregations that can be traced to the mindsets of their Western European forefathers who were the initial immigrants to North America. Racial prejudice towards non-Europeans that developed during periods of imperialism and colonialism, hinders the development of an egalitarian faith community. It is my conviction that this unconscious bias is dichotomous to Scripture which promotes a theological ethic of accommodation, assimilation and integration of the nations in the Body of Christ (see Matthew 28:19-21; Isaiah 55:5; Galatians 3:26-29; Colossians 3:11; Revelation 7:9). These verses suggest to me that God’s ideal for His church is to be a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual community, regardless of ethnicity, gender and socio-economic status. Therefore, the ideal representation of God’s grace would be an intercultural community as it would be proof of God’s power to transcend our human tendencies to divide and segregate. If this is God’s revelation of Heaven given to the Apostle John, and if we are to pray that God’s Kingdom is to be on earth as it is in Heaven, then should not Christ’s followers strive to achieve this vision in our time?

Finally, in 2 Corinthians 5:17-21. the Apostle Paul admonished the Corinthian church for their attitude and treatment of the “other”. He states in verse 16, “From this time on, we don’t think of anyone as the world thinks”. That in Christ, Canadian-Christians do not have to continue to adopt and have the mindset of their forefathers towards immigrants. We can be bridge-builders, which means intentionally seeking to increase our intercultural awareness, and remove our blinders and start recognizing who is missing from the table. As David Livermore states in Cultural Intelligence, “Our goal is not simply to learn more about different cultures, nor is it just to become better at “navigating cultural differences.” We must actually become multicultural people so that we might better express love cross-culturally.”6

Footnotes

  1. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/multiculturalism [back]
  2. https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/canadians-favour-limiting-immigration-1.5177814 [back]
  3. Good Intentions: An examination of attitudes on immigration and experiences of racial discrimination in British Columbia. Prepared by Insights West for VanCity, January 2017 [back]
  4. Statistics Canada. Immigration and Ethnocultural Diversity in Canada. (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2013), 21 [back]
  5. Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada. “Diversity Is a Fact; Inclusion Is a Choice.[back]
  6. David A. Livermore, Cultural Intelligence: Improving Your CQ to Engage Our Multicultural World. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 12 [back]

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About the author

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Sherman Lau serves as the Manager of Agency Collaboration at Mission Central. He is also currently a student at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon in the Doctor of Intercultural Studies program. He is passionate about equipping the church to be the intercultural people of God.

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Mission Central (Burnaby, BC) — Manager of Agency Collaboration

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