Amsterdam, where I live and minister, is one of the most multi-ethnic cities in the world, with approximately 180 nationalities living there. However, our city’s churches are most often “black” or “white.” Dozens of migrant churches (Ghanese, Nigerian, Egyptian, or Indonesian) are present in the city, but they mainly reach their own people. Within mainstream white churches (mostly people born in Christian families), most migrants feel like strangers. While our schools, universities, sporting clubs, and public transport are mixed communities in which many different people meet each other, our churches are organized in a way that reinforces separation. Does this mean a multi-ethnic church is just a dream?
Our churches are organized in a way that reinforces separation.
It is possible, if we choose, to be an inclusive church in which multi-ethnicity is not a threat but an inviting challenge. But we must choose to live an “integral life,” in which spirit, soul, and body are all important. We must choose to always look for God’s image in other people and desire for it to come to fruition. We do this with the hope that people will meet the Lord Jesus, so that the gospel can change them from the inside out. The result can be a wonderful community that gives us a taste of God’s kingdom, where people from all tongues and cultures will stand together before God’s throne in eternity (Revelation 7:9).
Sharing the Gospel
We create space within our church for migrants to share the gospel in their own language and with their own customs. As soon as we find a person from a specific cultural background who is able to lead a group, we start a “house church.” Currently, we have a Persian house church (with Iranians and Afghans), a Kurdish house church, a Pakistani/Indian house church (with Urdu and Hindi languages), an African group, and a Surinamese group. These groups gather during the week to share their own food, music, customs, and language. They then join as one during Sunday worship services (conducted in Dutch, with headphone translation to English). Through house churches, we are able to reach communities that, otherwise, we would never be able access in the right way — the house church’s leader knows and is part of their culture, speaks their language, and has the sensitivity to deal with their way of life. The members can then take the gospel to their home countries, during holidays or phone calls with family members. This calls to mind Jesus’ words on spreading the faith to people of all cultures:
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” — Matthew 28:18–19
To celebrate this diversity corporately, our church has “cultural Sundays,” which I plan together with our house church leaders. On a “Pakistani Sunday,” I might wear Pakistani clothing, which empowers the Pakistanis in our congregation and gives them the opportunity to invite their friends to church. We might have an African offering during an “African Sunday,” and all of the attendees bring their tithe to the front while African brothers and sisters in traditional dress play their culture’s music.
On a “Pakistani Sunday,” I might wear Pakistani clothing, which empowers the Pakistanis in our congregation and gives them the opportunity to invite their friends to church.
Personal connections with people outside our usual circles influence how we prepare sermons and function as a church in our community. The unity of such a variety of people is visible to everyone around, including non-Christians. An intercultural church is God’s special masterpiece. It is an apologetic that validates the truth of the gospel.
Relationships and Living an Integral Life
If we want to anticipate the future, when the number of citizens from other cultural backgrounds will only grow, we must commit ourselves completely to building multicultural Christian communities. Twelve years of church planting in Amsterdam and twenty years of spending time with asylum seekers have taught me this: building a multicultural church is impossible if the church planter and his team are unwilling to wholeheartedly invest in relationships with people from different cultures and social backgrounds. Organizing a multi-ethnic church without strong connections to other cultures can create a condescending “we do this for you” atmosphere in which there is no equality. True friendship is essential.
Several journeys to India, Uganda, and Iraq made me realise that the perfect balance is found in the idea of integral mission. Integral mission means being a holistic church from which justice, peace, and joy flows into society. It is a kingdom-focused ministry. It means wanting to see Jesus, the Saviour from sin, be the Prince of Peace in every area of life.
Currently, there is a widespread desire for churches that exemplify what God’s kingdom looks like: communities living life in all its fullness, free from poverty, injustice, and conflict. His kingdom is about proclaiming the good news to the poor, setting free those who are oppressed, and restoring the sight of the blind. The challenge for church leaders and planters is to journey toward the bigger goal of “shalom” (which, of course, is not just peace, but God’s kingdom in everything). If we speak a message of transformation and shalom, then we must live it. If applying the truth of God’s kingdom to our lives is the goal, we must throw off everything that hinders us and work toward it together. That work involves both the head (our rationale and theological understanding) and our heart (obedience, willingness, spiritual discernment, and emotional decision). It involves the hands, the eyes, and the community. As Luther said, we are God’s hands and feet in this world that bring his peace.
This blog is part of a longer essay called “Integral Life: Building Multi-Ethnic Christian Communities” in the free ebook Movements of the Gospel: Experiments in Ministry in Unfamiliar Places.
In 2006, Jurjen ten Brinke planted a church in Amsterdam called Hope for the North, which includes multi-ethnic house churches. Previously, he worked among asylum seekers in the Netherlands. Jurjen is married to Marijke and they have three daughters and a son.
For more on the intercultural church planting movement in Amsterdam, visit http://icpnetwork.nl/?la=en.