What It Takes to Have a Truly Multicultural Church

(Unsplash/Omar Lopez)

I think a multicultural church is a biblical church. The Bible says that God loves every tongue, every tribe, every nation, so that is something that I've tried to teach our church, to help us grow in cultural diversity.

We are located in Fontana, California. We are a nondenominational Christian church that began in my home as a Bible study in 1990. We started with 27 adults and 15 kids; and at this point, we have 7,500 people per weekend.

The decision to become multicultural was really made in my heart when we first began. I grew up in an African-American community. I played basketball for an African-American coach in college, and when our church first started, we were a very, very white church. And I went before the Lord and just cried out to Him and said, "Lord, help us. I love other nationalities, tongues, and tribes and nations. Please give us other people."

I came from the mission field with Youth With a Mission. And I had been living in Malaysia and had a heart for nations and different people groups. When I came home to the U.S. and planted Water of Life, it was always in my heart that we would be multicultural. So we were very intentional about that, even going so far as telling our hospitality people that if there was an African-American walking next to a white person, reach around the white person and greet the African-American first. I did that just to try to honor people. To try to make a statement. I was always very conscious of who was on our stage and how they were framed up so minorities would feel like they had a place in our church. I also taught every February on Black History during Black History Month and during Dr. King's anniversary weekend, I would always teach about black history. I would always speak at African-American churches. And I made it a very intentional big deal.

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The process we used to become multicultural was really hit and miss. We made attempts to love people and provide forums for people, and we made sure there was no ceiling for people. So we had African-American and Latino elders as well as Asian elders. We made sure we had pastors who represented other ethnicities. And I spoke openly about racism and minority issues, which I have done for the last 28 years.

It took a while to convince people that this was really our heart. But after staying in, and staying in, and staying in, we won people over, and they began to trust me. And they would ask me candid questions about their place in the church, as a minority, as an African-American, as a Latino ... primarily, those were African-American questions. And when they would ask me those questions I was very clear about that. I've been on the Fontana Police Department's Minority Hiring Commission. I was the only white guy on that commission because I had a deep understanding of African-Americans because I had lived in an African-American community. I taught at a black high school after having grown up in an African-American community. My interest level was deep in my students. So I went back and studied black history, which allowed me to have a far better perspective and ability to work better with those students.

For about 14 years, we've had an African-American running our worship department. We've had a couple of different people doing that, but both of them were men who had a deep love for their people and an ability to express culture and help our people grow in diversity and their understanding of other peoples.

At Water of Life, we talk about loving every tongue, tribe and nation, and every culture, and honoring what God has put in cultures and different people groups. We do that with African-Americans. We do that with Latinos. We do that with Asians. We believe God's image can be found in every people group, and we need to look for places to honor His presence in culture and in people. I think that that was born in my heart a long time ago. I speak to my staff about it often and how important it is to love people—and love other people outside of your comfort zone.

That word ekteno used in 1 Peter 4:8, which says to "have unfailing love for one another" is a very important word. It means to stretch out in our love for other people.

Throughout the years, when we've had African-Americans leading worship or on our staff—we have many, many African-Americans on our staff as pastors or leaders—we made sure that people understand that there is no ceiling. So those people can gravitate to the top. We have several African-American men on our elder board and we make sure they are seen publicly and speak publicly. The communication is very clear to our church that this is a high priority and that we are a mixed-culture church. I think the Bible is also very clear about every tongue, every tribe and every nation and embracing what each culture has to offer. We do that with all of our minority cultures, as well as those overseas: the Cambodians we work with or the Africans and the Kamay people of Cambodia, Thailand. We work hard at embracing all those countries.

We try to honor other people groups by openly talking about their race in our classes and in the places where we have different gatherings. We make that a point. We talk about their race, their journey, what it's like to be African-American, what it's like to be Latino, what it's like to be a minority. We speak openly about those things in our messages and in our classes because we want people to feel safe. We want them to know that we care about them, and we are not embarrassed at any level to have other people. We are honored to have other people in our church, to have different races and different cultures.

I hope that helps. I hope that helps others build from a multi-ethnic perspective. Our community is a very mixed community. It certainly wasn't more than 30 years ago when we started, but we have a number of Latinos and African-Americans on our board, and they are certainly a huge part of our church. I guess our church today is about 40 percent Latino, and probably 25 percent white, probably 28–30 percent African-American and 5 percent Asian. We have a lot of Filipinos, a lot of Asians from Southeast Asia, a lot of Chinese, and we are a really blessed people. So we are grateful that we reflect the kingdom of God and we reflect the heart of the Father.

Dan Carroll is the senior pastor of Water of Life Community Church, Fontana, California.

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