Widening the Circle: Nurturing the Multi-Ethnic Church

Rachel Boehm Van Harmelen

(Article first appeared in the August 23, 2010 issue of the Christian Courier.)

The City of Toronto ranks among one of the most multicultural cities in the world, with over 140 languages and dialects spoken there.  “Diversity is our Strength” boasts Toronto’s motto, and its population mirrors that vision. Just over 30 percent of Toronto’s residents speak a language other than French or English at home. Half of Toronto’s current population of 2.48 million people was born outside of Canada. Of the 1.1 million international immigrants Canada received between 2001 and 2006, Toronto welcomed one quarter of them. With statistics like this, it is not surprising that Toronto’s churches are realizing that their capacity to survive—and thrive—in today’s city will depend on how well they adapt to these sweeping demographic changes. Will they be able to embrace diversity?

“While we recognize that Toronto is a very diverse city, our churches are not always reflective of that,” says Rev. Rob Datema, a member of the Race Relations Committee for the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in the Toronto area. As Executive Director of The Lighthouse—a multi-ethnic community centre that offers counselling, immigrant settlement services and children’s and senior’s programs in downtown Toronto—Datema understands that embracing diversity doesn’t just happen. It is something that both individuals and institutions must work at, and training and equipping are crucial. Churches need help to learn how to make their communities welcoming places for people of different linguistic, ethnic and cultural backgrounds.  That transformation needs to happen, says Datema, and equipping pastors is a good place to start.

As a member of the Toronto-area Race Relations Committee for the Christian Reformed Church, Datema and his fellow committee members saw an opportunity to help Toronto-area pastors gain some practical skills in nurturing multi-ethnic congregations through a grant program offered by the CRCs Sustaining Pastoral Excellence (SPE) program.  The committee approached the regional body of the CRC in Toronto, known as Classis Toronto, and presented their ideas, which were warmly received. Next they applied for, and received, a grant to create a peer learning group for pastors with the theme “Learning to Develop a Multi-Ethnic Congregation.”

Ten pastors signed up to be members of the peer learning group, and they were joined by Datema and other members of the Race Relations Committee. “Our first activity was to attend a symposium on multi-ethnic issues held at Richmond Hill Chinese Community Church,” recalls Datema, an experience that opened their eyes to the beauty and diversity of the Christian community in their city.  After that, the peer learning group held a fall retreat in which they used materials from the learning program “Widening the Circle: Opening to Diversity and Undoing Racism” * to explore their biases, understand the context of racism in the church and in Canada, and to increase their self-awareness and skills in opposing racism and building relationships in their communities.

Datema and his peers also met on a monthly basis for prayer and encouragement, forming triads within their peer group to encourage each other and pray together.  “We looked for ways we could challenge each other with the things we were learning,” says Datema.

Leadership and Welcoming
Throughout their peer-group activities, Datema says their biggest learning was the “need to be intentional in the welcoming and leadership aspects.”  Datema and his peers examined their personal and congregational practices. “We asked ourselves questions about how we welcome people in our church. And we looked at our leadership. Is it reflective of the communities we serve?”

Datema explains that examining leadership practices from a multi-ethnic perspective includes taking a look at hiring practices when recruiting for staff positions, but it also applies to how unpaid church positions such as elders and deacons, youth leaders, and educators are filled.  “For example, when a church hires an outreach coordinator, they can think about ways of recruiting individuals who are reflective of the community around them,” Datema says. “Churches can look at the diversity of their elders and deacons groups.”

Training and Celebrating
Datema and his peer group weren’t content to keep their learnings to themselves. They understood that the work of becoming multi-ethnic requires the commitment and passion of entire congregations—not just a few leaders. They decided that their next steps would be to expand the impact of their peer group experiences by sharing what they had learned at larger venues.

“The first event took place in October at a Classis Toronto meeting where each church has a pastor and council member in attendance,” says Datema. “We led an equipping session on what our peer group had learned during the past year. Through a time of worship, with singing and scripture, we focused on different aspects of being a multi-ethnic church. Following that, we showed the Canadian film, Journey to Justice.* This film provided us with a starting point to break barriers that we as people and churches create to not allow diversity,” Datema says. “Following the film, we met in small groups to talk about how prejudices and stereotypes limit us from being a truly diverse church.”

Next, Datema and the group planned a large, multi-ethnic worship service to coincide with the CRC’s annual All Nations Heritage Sunday. “There were 250 people in attendance,” Datema says. “There were people from Vietnam, the Philippines, Guyana, the Netherlands, Kenya, Nigeria, Mexico, China, Korea, Canada, the U.S. and other places.”

“We had a speaker, communion, a time to socialize and to share a variety of foods representing many different ethnic communities,” Datema says. “It was like we were in heaven. It was so diverse. We hadn’t realized how diverse our Toronto-area Christian Reformed churches already are.”

Datema says people walked away from the event saying they now better understood the Biblical image, presented in Revelation 7:9, of people from every nation worshipping around the throne. In that heavenly city, Toronto’s motto “Diversity is our strength,” will no longer be a vision—but a reality.  “This event gave us a glimpse of what our communities will look like when we work at becoming a multi-ethnic church,” Datema says.

To learn more about the Widening the Circle learning program, please contact Steve Kabetu, Race Relations coordinator in Canada, at 905-336-2920 or 1-800-730-3490. For U.S. churches, a similar learning program called the “Dance of Racial Reconciliation (DORR) is available through the Christian Reformed Church’s office of Race Relations. For more information or to schedule a workshop, please call the Office of Race Relations at (877) 864-3977.

The Multi-Ethnic Church Reading List
A Many Colored Kingdom by Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, S. Steve Kang, and Gary A. Parrett (Baker, 2004)
Building a Healthy Multi-ethnic Church by Mark Deymaz (Jossey-Bass, 2007)
One Body, One Spirit: Principles of Successful Multiracial Churches by George Yancey (Inter-varsity Press, 2003)
One New People: Models for Developing a Multi-Ethnic Church by Manuel Ortiz (Inter-varsity Press, 1996)
Multicultural Ministry: Finding Your Church’s Unique Rhythm by David Anderson (Zondervan, 2004)
Reaching the World in Our Own Backyard Reaching the World in Our Own Backyard: A Guide to Building Relationships with People of Other Faiths and Cultures by Rajendra K. Pillai (WaterBrook Press, 2010)


*Directed by Roger McTair, produced by Karen King-Chigbo, National Film Board of Canada, 2000 (47 minutes). To learn more, visit www.onf-nfb.gc.ca.