Pioneers & Settlers: The Pains of Multicultural Ministry

To help me deal with the pain of a new venture I was involved in,  man once said to me: “Pioneers get the arrows, settlers get the land.” This was such a helpful comment for me because It works to give me a picture of what its like to be the first one in a new space. The people working to keep things the way they are see your attempts to do this new thing as an attack on their way of life and they will work to defend that way of life so they shoot arrows at you. And they hurt. Some even die in the process. But the people who come later don’t experience the arrows. The harshest difficulties have been dealt with already so they come in and they get to settle the land. They enjoy the benefits of the work that took place before they got there. Some are completely unaware of the blood that was shed before they arrived. Others are unaware of the sacrifice made by the men and women sitting elsewhere in the camp dealing with wounds, scars pain they earned when they were working to change the place. The pioneers felt the pain of the arrows so that settlers would enjoy the benefits of the land.

With all of the talk lately about multi-ethnic churches, I’ve noticed one glaring omission in the discussion. Maybe this is because for some, multi-ethnic ministry is still a “sexy” idea that they haven’t lived yet but really like talking about. But I’ve noticed one very present and unpleasant reality for those looking to create this kind of reality for their lives and their churches for the first time and its this: For the early adopters, the pioneers, the first into the pool, its hard and painful. For the multi-ethnic ministry pioneers there are many arrows awaiting you.

I’ve talked to numerous black and brown leaders in churches that are the pioneers in their predominantly white church’s foray into multi-ethnic ministry. Sure, the church isn’t in the early church plant days anymore but their new focus on being a multicultural ministry is a pioneering work all to itself. For them, they are pioneers feeling the pain of the arrows. These arrows come in the form of feeling excluded in the decision making because they’re experiences and knowledge are devalued because it’s different than everyone else’s. They get asked their opinion then it’s disregarded because it’s a foreign concept to the majority culture. The pain of having their good ideas shot down because “that would make people uncomfortable.” But if we’re genuinely going to see a church change and become a multicultural church, that comfort has to be confronted. That is the painful shot of an arrow a pioneer must be willing to take on.

It’s not always the leaders that have to endure these arrows. It’s also the parishioners. Here’s two real life examples I’ve seen recently. One church I helped pastor was trying to go deeper in its expression and acceptance of being multicultural. It was a pioneering work for them because most people considered the church to be pretty white. We knew that in order to turn the tide, we needed to have different cultural expressions on display from the front so we had the passage we were preaching through that day read in Spanish. English was a second language for him so it was easy for him to read the verses in his native tongue. It went great! After the service, a well meaning member of the church told me they didn’t like it because it made them “uncomfortable” hearing it in a different language. I said right to them “imagine how he must feel every Sunday.” They were getting a sense of the arrows he felt. They were feeling what it felt like to pioneer into multicultural ministry lands.

Another time, a church I helped pastor had established itself as a multicultural ministry.  It was planted with that in its DNA. For the people already in the church by year 8, they were settlers in the land already. But, for those doing in to the church for the first time, it was a pioneering experience in their lives. Once a visitor came to the church and plainly told us: “I love your church! I love the teaching, the music, the kids program, the people are great. I love it. But I can’t do the whole multi-ethnic thing. I just can’t.” They then proceeded to attend the mostly white church down the street and stayed there. They quickly felt the arrows of discomfort in their lives in being a diverse ministry setting for the first time. They didn’t like it. So they left.

I have countless other stories from my own experiences and from counseling others about the pains of pioneering multicultural ministry. If we are truly going to go that route, we must know that there are pains associated with it. The pain of discomfort. The pain of alienation because some people don’t get it. The pain of loss when valued members and friends leave the church because “things are different now.” The pain listening to majority cultured friends tell you about the “concerns” that they have about things that are cultural norms for you. These pains are arrows in the backs, legs and shoulders of pioneers. I don’t say this to discourage you. I say it to empower you by preparing you. Pioneers get the arrows but the land is worth it.

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