Becoming a house of prayer for all nations
MB Herald interim editor J Janzen sat down with five pastors of intentionally intercultural churches in B.C.’s Lower Mainland to talk about what it looks like to be a unified congregation expressing the various cultural and ethnic backgrounds of its members.
Mike Nishi is lead pastor at South Hill MB Church, Vancouver. In 2007, Vancouver MB Church (begun in 1935) joined with members from the English-language congregation of Pacific Grace MB Church to become an intercultural church.
Xavier Law is a pastor at Pacific Grace MB Church, Vancouver. Due to the work of Henry Classen, Pacific Grace was formed in 1964 as an English-speaking congregation. It became a Chinese congregation in the mid-1970s. After planting three Chinese churches in the 1990s, Pacific Grace shifted its focus in 2003 and became a multicultural church that includes Cantonese-, Mandarin-, and English-speaking Chinese. Grace Kim is pastor to the Mandarin congregation at Pacific Grace.
Bindu Sidhu is lead pastor at The Life Centre, Abbotsford, an intercultural congregation of 200-plus people that worships in six languages: French, Punjabi, Spanish, Swahili, Portuguese, and English.
Dave Chow is lead pastor at Killarney Park MB Church, Vancouver. Changing demographics in the vicinity of the church (begun in 1961) encouraged the congregation to become an intentionally intercultural church in the 1990s.
What’s the difference between a multicultural church and an intercultural church?
Dave: There isn’t a singular definition of what a multicultural or intercultural church is. Generally speaking, multicultural churches tend to have ethnic groups separated mainly because of language limitations.
An intercultural church is a collage, a mosaic, in which people still retain their ethnic backgrounds, and they try to share them with each other. Intercultural churches try to bring the strengths of each culture to the table, so there isn’t a “cultural bunker.”
Being an intercultural church is a bit more complicated. It’s fraught with a lot of cultural “landmines.”
So in a multicultural church, you might have different cultures, but people basically conform to one culture’s way of doing things, whereas the intercultural model is to try to get the best of all the different cultures working together.
Bindu: I think most churches want to be multi-coloured, but not multi- or intercultural. There’s this idea that a person of colour can come to our church, but this is the way we do things. The person of colour kind of has to leave his culture at the door.
What does it look like to be a multi- or intercultural church?
Dave: We’re still trying to figure that out – particularly in worship.
Xavier: You have to work hard at communication. Language is a particular challenge. You cannot separate language and culture. Something about the culture is embodied in the language, and if we switch the language, the culture changes. So, out of respect to the different cultures in our community, I don’t preach the same sermon in our Cantonese, Mandarin, or English services. I change everything, particularly the illustrations and applications.
Bindu: Part of the challenge is resources. For example, we try to sing songs in different languages, but our repertoire is limited. We don’t have Brian Doerksens in the Punjabi language and culture. Plus, it takes time to teach people how to sing in six different languages. And for the musicians, it’s stretching too, because they have to learn to play songs according to a Spanish or African rhythm.
Mike: We’ve been wrestling with this at South Hill. We’ve had to ask the question, “What is going to be the culture of South Hill Church? Do we rely on the German traditions that ran Vancouver MB Church? Or do we try to superimpose something that comes from the Asian people?”
We’re trying to be multi-ethnic. We understand that we can’t get away from cultural things – whether it’s ethnicity or generational distinctives or tribal differences. We don’t deny that those things exist. We decided to ask our people, “Can we adopt a culture that is unique to our Christian faith?” We took from 2 Corinthians 5:17 the idea of being a new creation. Does that new creation bring with it a culture in Christ? If so, what would that look like?
We’re trying to figure that out every week.
Grace: Openness is required. Different ethnic groups will bring their concerns and agendas that may not be important to your group, but you have to be willing to listen and to think through carefully how their decisions might affect the whole church. You have to be willing to wait.
Bindu: In a multi- or intercultural church you have to slow down. Everything has to be intentional.
Dave: There’s a lot of cultural education that has to happen, especially in terms of interpersonal communication. For example, you won’t see two Asians who are of different social standing always looking at each other eye-to-eye. Direct eye contact is impolite and disrespectful – even defiant. Whereas in Caucasian cultures, you’re thought to have someone’s attention and they’re listening to you if they look directly at you.
What are some ways you have educated people to become conversant in the various cultural customs?
Grace: You have to take time to be with each other, to talk about issues, to do some translation.
Dave: Eating together is a big thing. Every first Sunday of the month, we have a “hospitality lunch.” It started with our white Canadians bringing a “brown-bag lunch” of ham and cheese sandwiches. Our Korean friends brought plates of noodles and sushi, and the Chinese people started to bring their ethnic dishes. The white Canadians thought, “Oh, that’s pretty fancy.” It became more complex, and it was rich!
Barriers came down and exploration and peer mentoring happened naturally as people said to each other, “Here’s how we do it in our culture.”
Mike: We try to help people build bridges with each other based on how they’re the same. All people eat sausages, whether it’s a farmer sausage or a Chinese preserved liver sausage.
Sometimes I’ll talk about my cultural faux pas from the pulpit, so that it gives people freedom to take risks and make mistakes.
And sometimes you can’t prepare people for the different cultures. You just have to wait for them to clash, and then you simply have to be willing to talk about it, and create a safe environment in which you can experience it without feeling push back.
Why be an intentionally multicultural or intercultural church?
Xavier: Family ties and respect for elders is important in Asian culture, so being together is significant. Also, when people come from different nations, they love to use their own language to worship God – just like at Pentecost. Plus it’s good for Cantonese-, Mandarin-, and English-speaking Chinese to serve in our neighbourhoods together.
Mike: Revelation talks about the tribes of all languages and all nations standing before Christ and worshipping him together (7:9–10). Why wait till heaven to see that happen? We’re trying to get a taste of that here.
Bindu: When Jesus tipped the tables in the temple, he wasn’t upset because they were selling stuff. He was upset because the nations weren’t in the temple. They had filled it with everything else, but kept the nations outside. Jesus says, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:15–18).
Singing together in Swahili sends a message to that community: God accepts you.
So it’s about dignifying people and showing hospitality – especially to the stranger, the weak, and the marginalized.
Dave: Absolutely. We have so many people coming to Canada, and to them it’s heaven on earth. And we’re saying, “Yeah, heaven is here, but it’s not what you expect it to be.”
Xavier: In Ephesians 2, there was a barrier between the Gentiles and the Jews, but Jesus brings those groups together. In the multicultural church, we’re demonstrating the power of the gospel to bring people of different backgrounds, cultures, languages together in one church where they can worship, serve, and respect each other.
The intercultural church is a sign of reconciliation?
Mike: It’s a picture of restored humanity.
Dave: And it’s a way of proclaiming Christ to the nations.
Bindu: The Punjabi community believes that each culture has its own way to God: God sent prophets into all the cultures to communicate to them; God sent Muhammad to the Muslims, the gurus to the Sikhs, etc. Being Christian is viewed as “being white.”
By being a multicultural church, I can really say to my Punjabi friends, Look; there are people here from different cultures that cry out to Jesus. Jesus is not just for one group of people.
So being a multicultural or intercultural church is a way to communicate the gospel effectively.
Grace: By being multicultural, there are more spaces for people to come, however they are, to meet Christ. The main goal isn’t to become more and more multicultural. The goal is that people become Christ-like.
Bindu: Being an intercultural church simply leaves you open to God’s leading. The Holy Spirit came into a multicultural setting. People from all over came to Jerusalem, and then God came. The Spirit didn’t just come to a Jewish worship service. There is something unique that happens when the nations come together.
What does it mean to be Mennonite Brethren in a multicultural or intercultural church?
Grace: When I talk about Mennonite Brethren, the emphasis is not on the ethnicity, but on the theological teachings and core values.
Xavier: We used to be called Pacific Grace Chinese Church. We replaced “Chinese” with “MB” to emphasize that we want to embrace all cultures.
Mike: When we started South Hill, we were first known as “that German church.” We said, “Actually, we’re still Mennonite Brethren, but we’re not German.” That was an interesting thing for the community to see us move from “this is a German church” to a multi-ethnic church.
We’re trying to pick up on the distinctives in our Confession of Faith to say, “This is what MB is,” and we’re trying to educate people to see that being MB is not an ethnicity; it’s a spiritual movement.
We draw a lot on MB values and history. For example, this Sunday we’re going to speak on peace and nonresistance as a wonderful heritage that the MB church has. In our particular community there is that need for social justice, and that need for restoration and peace. As we focus on those distinctives, people are coming and committing their lives to the Lord.
Dave: We’ve gone to the Confession of Faith and talked about the heritage we’ve inherited from the Reformation Anabaptists. We talk about how we are living remnants of that theological history, and let’s carry the torch forward.
So being MB is not so much about ethnicity, but theology.
Xavier: Yes. We highlight MB values like mission, evangelism, discipleship.
Bindu: I consider myself to be Mennonite Brethren in my theological thinking, but I’m Punjabi.
What advice would you give to churches in parts of Canada where multiculturalism may not be an obvious reality?
Grace: It’s wrong to assume that we’re monocultural. For example, an English-speaking Chinese worship service is more intercultural than one might realize. Even though they may have grown up in Canada, English speakers from a Mandarin background and English speakers from a Cantonese background are very different.
Xavier: Plus there are generational culture differences. When it comes to the internet, for example, the grandparents in my congregation are, “What’s going on?” But when I preach, the children and grandchildren open up their Bibles on their iPhones.
You’re suggesting that what you’re doing isn’t unique. Any church is a multicultural or intercultural church.
Mike: Many Canadians assume we’re monocultural. We’re not. We are essentially monolingual, but multicultural.
For example, a senior citizen and a teenager in Manitoba might both speak English. Just because they share the same language doesn’t mean they’re of the same tribe. Their cultures are different. That reality is easier for us to see here in cosmopolitan Vancouver just because we’re so different on the outside. But even in small-town Saskatchewan, there’s still the challenge of figuring out how you work together, how you resonate with each other, and how you build a community out of that.
Bindu: That’s right. Our job is to love our neighbours. If your community’s all German, or all Punjabi, or all Chinese, fine. Don’t worry about it. Just love your neighbour.