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Bridging cultures in the church

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Epiphany (or the Day of the Three Kings) on January 6 celebrates the revelation of Jesus to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi.

Most of us probably don’t think much about being Gentile. Long used to our place in the grand scheme of the church, especially if we belong to a homogenous congregation or the dominant ethnicity of our neighbourhood, we miss the radical fact that the Jewish Messiah was also “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32) and that we, once considered “outside,” were brought completely “inside” in Christ.

The drama, tension and theological argument in the New Testament around inclusion and intercultural unity in the church are lost on us.

As North American society becomes increasingly multicultural, however, and, in the words of Rob Brynjolfson, “irreversibly pluralistic,” the church today faces a challenge similar to that of the early church.

She is challenged to enter into the radical nature of God’s intention for all peoples, his body. This issue introduces that challenge and highlights Mennonite Brethren who are engaging it with particular intentionality. The theme will e continued in the following issue.

—Dora Dueck

It’s hard work, but it’s right – and it’s worth it!

The day I interviewed the staff of Killarney Park MB Church, Vancouver, was not an opportune day for some of them. It was one pastor’s day off and a house re-location was in progress. Another had an illness in the extended family that required a trip out of town later that day. I suggested I could talk to people individually around these situations.

Senior pastor Ken Peters insisted, however, that in spite of inconvenience, we meet as a group. I soon realized why this was important. The relationships within this multicultural group of leaders – the affection, respect, listening and talking together I witnessed in response to my questions – lie at the heart of what Killarney Park MB Church is trying to be as a congregation.

Killarney Park identifies itself as an intentionally intercultural church. This means, explained associate pastor David Chow, a young Canadian-born Chinese married to a Caucasian, that people of different ethnicities, generations and cultures come together under one roof to celebrate God together. Some 65–70 percent of those who attend (about 160 people) could be considered Anglo–Canadian, about 25 percent represent pan-Asian ethnicities, and other groups make up about five percent.

“The whole point of the venture,” said Chow, “is building bridges.”

The trajectory

Killarney Park began in 1961 as an offshoot of Fraserview MB Church, and reached, at its height in the early 1970s a membership of more than 400. Economic realities and rising real estate prices began to take their toll on the congregation, however. People retired or “cashed out” of the area; younger families were forced to locate in the suburbs. Numbers shrank and those who remained in the congregation were largely commuters. The church also experienced high pastoral turnover and then one especially difficult crisis in the early 1990s.

In 1994, Gordon and Donna Stewart came to serve as interim pastor couple. Stewart “plowed some deeper furrows,” said Peters. He created “an environment of conciliation” and growing awareness that “God put us here for a purpose.”

Peters, born in Chilliwack, B.C. and raised in nearby Sardis, who had earlier been associate pastor at Coaldale (Alta.) MB Church and then attended Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno, took the leadership of Killarney Park in 1995. It took some years to understand exactly what that purpose was, he said, “but I didn’t change the trajectory; I waved the pompoms.”

The church realized that it needed to connect with its neighbourhood – a neighbourhood that mirrors the multicultural reality of Vancouver.

An integrated city

Like many other major North American cities today, Vancouver is culturally diverse. More than a third of its residents are non-white. But what is significant about Vancouver, according to a series of articles by Chad Skelton in The Vancouver Sun titled “The mixed city: how Vancouver became Canada’s most integrated metropolis,” is its high level of integration.

There are fewer ethnic ghettos and less ethnic segregation in Vancouver than in cities like Toronto and Montreal. (One exception is Indo–Canadians). Vancouver embraces diversity, cross-ethnic friendships, and inter-marriage. Ethnic culture has gone mainstream, Skelton noted, and young people have “fluid ethnic identities.” Because of its high level of cultural sharing, Vancouver could, in fact, be considered “a post-ethnic city.”

This reality demands a response from the church, Peters said. It also creates an opportunity to reflect God’s purpose for His body. Killarney Park determined that they would seek to do so using an intercultural model, rather than becoming multi-congregational or acting as landlord to visible ethnic minorities who came seeking space in their building.

“We want to reflect heaven,” Chow said.

The language used in services is English, but every aspect of church life is viewed under Killarney Park’s goal to “embrace the City’s multicultural identity by welcoming and caring for all people.” ESL classes are conducted on the premises, as are classes in basic Mandarin (which Peters is currently attending). A nursery school program of 140 children under the direction of Pat Ling, a Cantonese Canadian-raised Chinese, is specifically Christian in orientation. It has a high reputation in the community. Watching the children gather is like watching a miniature United Nations assemble.

Many questions

Pews once dominated by people of Russo–German background who were highly-educated and biblically literate, with strong generational Christian patterns to their lives, are now filled with highly-educated, often underemployed (as is the case for many immigrants), biblically illiterate people who are new to faith, God and Canada. For Killarney Park, therefore, being intentionally intercultural has meant moving from a stable environment to a community with questions.

James Yu, who came to Christ through the church’s Alpha program and is now part-time intercultural ministries coordinator, is a case in point. (See next article, “After questions, thirst.”) “Growing up in communist China,” he said, “we were taught there was no God. Now our questions would include, Is there a God? If yes, is Jesus God or just a western god? If Jesus is God, why do I need this God? To think of such things is difficult.”

Church secretary Seny Andresen, a Filipino-born Canadian married to a Canadian of Norwegian descent, countered how different it was coming from a predominantly Catholic-informed culture. “When [people] ask, is there a God? we say, of course. We were taught that.”

“When our new international God-seekers ask the hard questions, we are often found wanting,” Peters said. “It’s easy to come up with trite Sunday school answers, but we’ve had to back off.” The openness of those from other cultures to share fundamental questions and doubts has also been “freeing” for those used to having the answers, he added.

Hard work

Peters and his colleagues would be the first to say that becoming intercultural is hard work. There are still obstacles of “subtle racism,” which shows itself in stereotyping or the way people position themselves toward others. People feel fear that may be expressed along racial lines, not knowing if they have “the tools and capacity to understand and be understood.”

Sometimes the youth in the senior high group just want to “hang out,” Chow said, rather than make the effort to connect with their peers where there are cultural or linguistic hurdles to cross. This is as true for the Mandarin Chinese and Korean as the Anglo–Caucasian. Employment issues also affect many in the church community, which in turn affect families and the stability of the congregation.

Although integration in church life is going well, there is not yet integration in “home hospitality,” Peters said. The majority of the congregation is now drawn from the neighbourhood, but 40 percent are commuters.

There has never been resistance to the intercultural vision of the congregation from the church’s pioneers, who are now seniors, Chow commented, although this group sometimes wishes to “rest” from change and effort.

Ironically, noted Peters, it’s the boomer generation that, while intellectually in favour, has difficulty breaking through and integrating other cultures.


Another intentionally intercultural Mennonite Brethren church is the Esperanza Multicultural Church, a church in Delta that embraces a variety of Spanish-speaking cultures as well as English cultures. The Esperanza congregation was first affiliated with Mennonite Brethren as a linguistic congregation of Willingdon Church. In 2002, the group became an independent MB church. Translated services didn’t meet their needs or interests; they wanted to be an ethnic church that would reach back into the English community.

“We are intercultural or multicultural even though we use Spanish,” pastor Rob Brynjolfson said in a telephone interview. “We represent a variety of Spanish-speaking cultures.” The church embraced a vision to be intentionally intercultural, and that meant developing an English language church – for their youth who are in the “shadowlands” between Spanish and English cultures, but also for outreach.

Both Brynjolfson and Peters have been involved in the larger intentionally intercultural churches (IIC) “movement.” It emerged as churches across North America recognized a reality and became more intentional about it. It’s a mindset, Brynjolfson said, that develops into strategy.

IIC Conferences in Ontario and B.C. have brought together participating church leaders to learn the issues, and Brynjolfson is co-editor of a manual for churches in transition, Becoming an Intentionally Intercultural Church.

All about culture

For some participants, the intentionally intercultural church movement represents a specific challenge to the homogenous unit principle (HUP) promoted by the Church Growth Movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Brynjolfson’s own view is that IIC doesn’t negate church growth principles and that there are many models of church that can be used. For him, it’s about culture.

“As evangelicals, we need to develop a more concise and accurate theology of culture,” he said. Often wrongly seen as the problem, culture is a gift of God, Brynjolfson said, to which we give “expression.” It is like two sides of a coin: affected by human depravity and reflective of the Creator.
A theology of culture, therefore, involves humility about our own culture and respect for that of others. It has to follow, he said, quoting Eric Law (The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb) “the road of the cross.”

Worth it?

The four leaders I met with at Killarney Park Church radiated their commitment to the vision God has given them. They believe the attempt to be intercultural is both right and necessary, especially for churches in places like Vancouver, and they believe it’s worth it. They told good stories of how the congregation has changed, and how they have been changed.

David Chow told, for example, of an Iranian couple – Muslim – who came to Killarney Park several years ago. They liked the music, the messages and the fellowship. Some time later the father asked Chow to “raise” their son, that is, to be like a father to him and teach him the ways of Jesus Christ. This son, now a teen, has become a Christian.

Upon hearing of his son’s conversion, the father said, “You say you are a Christian; you better live as a Christian.” This story of people encountering Jesus, like others they told, is one that is still unfolding.

Quite simply, as Rob Brynjolfson said, “Jesus is honoured when we reach out interculturally.”

—Dora Dueck

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