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Religion | November 1, 2012

Separated on purpose


Campus Christian groups say ministry can be more effective when it's divided along cultural and ethnic lines

©iStockPhoto/Christopher Futcher

At a mostly white, contemporary church in the middle of suburbia, a worship band leads service every Sunday evening. As the congregants stand to sing along with lyrics projected onto a big screen, they modestly sway to the music. Just a few miles down the road, another congregation worships with hand clapping and exuberant shouts of "Hallelujah." Still another church a few blocks away recites prayers in one solemn, collective voice. Three Christian congregations, three very different styles of worship.

Despite Christ's prayer that his followers would remain unified, the church began to separate itself into cultural cliques almost as soon as he ascended into heaven. During its first few decades, church leaders struggled to bring Jews and Gentiles together into one faith family. Today, American Christians remain segregated along denominational, cultural and ethnic lines.

New Christian leaders like author Scott Williams say the church should more accurately reflect heaven, where all who belong to Jesus will gather together to worship him. Williams' book Church Diversity declares Sunday to be the most segregated day of the week and encourages churches to foster and embrace diverse congregations. But on college campuses, where students from different cultural backgrounds already come together in an academic setting, ministry often remains purposely segregated.

Campus ministry fosters diversity within Christian organizations because of the common ground it gives students, said James Choung, director of Asian-American ministries for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. Undergraduate students share similar life stages, making it easier to connect with Christians of different ethnic backgrounds.

At the same time, Choung acknowledges that common languages, history and customs "bind you to others more easily," something true of both ethnic minorities and majorities.

Allowing all students, regardless of ethnicity, to encounter Jesus often means adapting strategies or launching new ministries to accommodate issues specific to each culture, said Charles Gilmer, director of The Impact Movement. A partner program of Cru, formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ, Impact specializes in ministry to African-American students. Other ethnic programs through Cru include Destino and Epic, which cater to Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans, respectively.

While students share life stage similarities, cultural nuances exist in every ethnicity, and ministries must address these individually, Gilmer said: "The effort to do a ministry that speaks to everyone at the same time really limits your ability to face those unique issues that affect the respective audience."

In the African-American community, for example, black women outnumber black men two to one. Because of this, Impact diligently encourages female students to lead pure lives, despite wanting attention from men, Gilmer said. With the Asian-American community, it's important for students to honor their parents through education and career choices, so Epic often addresses that issue.

Rather than adopt the "Why can't we all be in the same room?" approach, Cru has the potential to reach out to more students of ethnic minorities through the unique ministries, Gilmer said.

For churches and ministries that want to increase ethnic diversity, Choung advises leaders to ask themselves why people of other ethnicities do not attend. In some cases, students or churchgoers may have difficulty identifying with the groups' leaders, or they could simply not be comfortable with the worship style.

"Ask and be honest about why others might not come," Choung said. "And then ask, 'Are you willing to be led by His Spirit to make the needed changes?'"

Ministries should seek diversity because it's what God desires, rather than for "political or public outcomes," wrote Jamie Noling-Auth in a blog post for Faith on Campus, a website that promotes conversation and resource sharing among those who work in campus ministry.

An associate campus pastor at California's Azusa Pacific University, Noling-Auth recognizes that ethnic unity does not mean conforming: "Our unity as a community is in becoming like Jesus, not in asking those of minority cultures to become like those of the majority culture."

The goal of Christianity should not be to simply present the gospel to all cultures, but allow the Good News to manifest within those world cultures, Gilmer said.

God will be glorified whether Christians of all ethnicities worship in one group or many, and the global movement for Christ is worth getting excited about, Gilmer said: "We should celebrate all the various expressions of ministry taking place and those that are being reached by them."