Identity in Multicultural Contexts

In my last post on multiethnic churches Eric rightly raised questions on the compatability of multicultural and subcultural approaches to mission. Many within the missional movement advocate a subcultural approach, with a hat tip to the homogenous unit principle of cross-cultural missiology. However, some within the missional movement, like myself, have come to question subcultural mission as an ideal on both biblical and practical grounds. Here, I would like to graphically illustrate some of the why.


Conventional missiology emphasizes the need to meet people where they are at, in their own context. I agree with this in principal but in practice one of the unfortunate side effects has been the segregation of the church, at a time when our culture is becoming increasingly pluralistic.

If we consider the example of easterners and westerners, a subcultural approach would be to plant different churches amongst each subculture, corresponding to the first line of the diagram. In countries like America or Australia this might lead to the formation of ethnic churches.

The problem is, multicultural situations are not that simple, there are grey areas the subcultural approach does not adequately address. For starters, second generation migrants are usually more indigenized than the first, this leads to the phenomenon of westernized easterners who feel out of place in both easternized and westernized churches. But the situation is not static for westerners either, eastern influence through migration and tourism and global communications also leads to the phenomenon of easternized westerners, who also feel out of place in both easternized and westernized churches.

So what do we do with these biculturals, who actually represent a third subculture? Well the subcultural approach would suggest we plan a church amongst them too, corresponding to the third line of the diagram. But wait, maybe there is actually a fourth subculture lurking there, since weaternized easterners and easternized westerners aren’t the same. Or maybe even a fifth? You see the problem? The subcultural approach used uncritically in such a fluid context as our own can lead to an infinite regression of contextualization. Where does it end?

This leads me back to the second line of the diagram. My own church is evolving more like this, as a church where easterners, westerners, easternized westerners and westernized easterners try to figure out what unity in Christ means together. In more monocultural contexts churches will naturally be more monocultural and I have no problem with that, but the more multicultural the context the more need I see for multicultural churches. Where I see a model of multiple subcultural churches working best is in contexts where the lines between subcultures is more strongly demarcated. But even there, for theological reasons highlighed in the video, I’m not sure it should be considered as a temporary necessity, not an ideal.

Now I am sure you could think of other contexts where cultural overlap occurs.

19 thoughts on “Identity in Multicultural Contexts

  1. I think you make a very significant point.
    I can think of one example — at the moment there is talk of starting an Orthodox Church in Gaborone, Botswana.
    There is a Greek community there, and a Serbian community. In the old days there would be no doubt about it, they would each have raised money for their own church and ignored each other. Now they are meeting and possibly there will be a single church, and perhaps that could be a church for the local Batswana people as well, instead of, as in the old days, having yet a third mission church for them. And if people who belong to an ethnic church move to a city or a country where there are few or no other members of their ethnic group — do they drop out of the church altogether until there are enough members of their ethnic group?
    In my synchroblog post I just touched on the ecclesiological problems with McGavran’s missiology, and you have gone into more depth on it.


  2. “…do they drop out of the church altogether until there are enough members of their ethnic group?”
    Yes, that is precisely the problem. Consider the Furries, a bizzare subculture if ever there was one. Should we be planting a church specifically for them? Their numbers are low and diffused across the country. It is doubtful you would find enough converts in even the largest cities to begin a church plant, and even if you did, how viable would it be with the commuting distances involved? Asking them to join a church dedicated to another subculture is highly problematic. This is where I would recommend a multicultural church that celebrated diversity, that welcomed ideosyncracy.


  3. Oh yes. I’m just always impressed when I hear someone mention that particular subculture. Most of my friends (well, the ones that don’t watch CSI or other shows that have done an episode involving it) wouldn’t know what a Furry was. (Heck, I still occasionally have to explain to them what a bear is, and I’d argue that term gets wider usage.)
    But yes, you made your point quite well. Incidentally, are you aware that there are actually sites and message boards for Christian Furries? So there’s good reason to be serious about the subject, I’d say.


  4. Oh yes, I’m aware of the sites. I originally came across them through researching Otherkin. Way before the CSI episode … though it was instructive!!! I’m just a complete mavin when it comes to the strange and esoteric corners of the www. Joined a vamp board once just to see what went on. Now, since I mention that I should also mention that I know of one attempt at vampire goth Christianity. I came across this guy, Pale Rider, a few years ago. The site is down now but there’s still an interview transcript at Just so I’m not misunderstood, I am open to the development of dark alternative Christianity, I find the Gothic Christianity site at very interesting, I’d just advise Goth Christians and their more unusual offshoots against waiting for a Goth church to emerge before they engage with others in Christian community. Last year some Goth Christians did a Goth Christian service during a Goth festival in inner city Sydney. I think that’s great, but no sustainable community has grown out of it to my knowledge. And if they can’t make it work there I can’t see it working anywhere in this country. And even if it did, it would hardly help a Goth Christian in Perth.


  5. Yes, using Furries as an example. If one takes McGavran’s “homogeneous unit” principle to its logical conclusion, the outcome of successful evangelisation of Furries would be a homgeneous Furry church, which, as you have pointed out, would cater for a very diffuse population that is too scattered. So while evengelistic outreach may be aimed at a specific sub-culture, the aim must be to incorporate them into a multiethnic church.


  6. “So while evengelistic outreach may be aimed at a specific sub-culture, the aim must be to incorporate them into a multiethnic church.” Steve, yes, that says it very succinctly.
    To flesh this out a little more, I should say that I believe there is a place for sub-culturally specific cell groups, ministries and events within a multiethnic church. In our church for instance, the contemplatives are given the run out the house for the evening services on Holy Thursday and All Saints Day. That provides a space for the post-Catholics, post-occultists and post-moderns amongst us (including yours truly) to use silence in worship, something that you don’t see often in evangelical churches. Regular readers of Glocal Christianity would note we also recently had a bilingual Christmas service to give more space for the Sri Lankans amongst us. There is also much diversity between our cell groups, with a Sri Lankan cell group, a seniors cell group and a young mums cell group being amongst the cell groups currently running in the church. You may recall that a few years back I myself was running a cell group called “Anything Goes” for all the misfits who felt out of place elsewhere to be misfits together. There will always be those who don’t fit anyware. My experience is, misfits fit better in communities where diversity is respected.
    The key, I find, is to regard your enthic and cultural identity as a secondary source of identity only, the primary source being in Christ alone. This will mean you’ll be asked to sacrifice your own preferences more often than you would in a monoethnic church. At this stage in my spiritual journey I can say, that’s not always a bad thing.


  7. Back to the original diagrams though, to consider the implications.
    One of the things I am saying here is that geography still matters. It may be that in subcultural hotzones that subcultural churches may be viable, but in most place they won’t be, most places there will be insufficient critical mass.
    So it may be that a goth church might arise in inner city Sydney, but most goths in Australia wont have easy access to that church or any sort of equivalent. Such churches might become a resource for individual goths in multicultural churches elsewhere, but that’s all we can realistically expect. That means we have to have a more adequate way, a more practical way, of discipling goths in non-goth churches. I find that the churches most capable of doing this are ones that embrace diversity, however they find it.
    But its still not that simple. To return to the example of the inner city goth church, what happens when they encounter non-goths seeking to know more about the ways of Jesus. Do they turn them away? “Oh sorry, only goths allowed here!” That’s no better than the old WASP situation.
    So in both situations the cultural boundaries are fuzzy and we nead Christian communities who can cope with that. So what I see emerging is not a plethora of rigidly defined subcultural churches but a plethora of churches with differing degrees of multiculturalism.


  8. Draco Dei (Dragon of God) here again.
    I glanced at the “Bear Jesus” thing… unless I am missing something, it gets an utter thumbs down from me.
    “To return to the example of the inner city goth church, what happens when they encounter non-goths seeking to know more about the ways of Jesus. Do they turn them away? “Oh sorry, only goths allowed here!” That’s no better than the old WASP situation.”
    A very valid point and part of the reason that the Christian Furry Fellowship doesn’t do that. To quote from our FAQ:
    Q: Do I have to be a furry to attend?
    A: Not at all! We accept all species, here.


  9. The “Bear Jesus” thing was just an “Oh Dear!” moment. No thumbs up necessary.
    Sound like we’re on the same page with the inclusion thing but you’ve got me asking the question, so what species am I? Is there a furry jargon equivalent for a muggle?


  10. If you mean what would we say your species is on the chat(IE in the virtual world that exists in our shared imaginations)? So far as I know: “Human”, “Baseline Human” (to emphasize that human soul and human rights and such things are shared in common with furs), or, if one is feeling PARTICULARLY silly… I THINK the term I heard was “Hairless North-American Land Ape”.
    If you mean what would we call you as a non-member of the fandom? I guess the generic Sci-Fi/Fantasy term “Mundane” MIGHT apply…
    Jude the Rat is suggesting we change that FAQ answer to something less confusing.


  11. LOL. Not being North American I am left with a baseline identity crisis.
    As an aside, are you aware of the theory that humans may actually be aquatic apes, given that most other hairless mammals are closely associated with water? Coming from a swimming saturated culture like Oz this theory has a certain appeal to me.
    Tell me, do you ever mix with Otherkin?


  12. I just said what I had heard without adjusting it to your locale. Adjust as needed for geographic variations. 🙂
    As for theistic creationism, I am personally going to have to give that a miss since it is not one of my area of semi-expertise, and I can only say I am highly suspicious of it.
    Otherkin are part of our target group, yes, although, if I am remembering correctly, most varieties of it are incompatible with Christian doctrine. Even in these cases it is not necessarily required to convince the person of the fallacies of otherkinism before they can accept Salvation.


  13. Yes, I understand from what little I know that reincarnation informs the beliefs of many of them. With Hindus and Buddhists I prefer to focus on the goodness of Jesus over any badness of reincarnation, and am quite prepared to converse over karma, so I think our approaches may have some similarities there.


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