A Feature Review of
Given our nation’s current trend toward polarization, author and pastor Lisa Washington Lamb’s new book Blessed and Beautiful: Multiethnic Churches and the Preaching that Sustains Them asks one of the most salient questions of the day; What does it take to create and maintain healthy, multiethnic churches?
She writes, “Ethnic-specific churches have historically been strong settings for transmitting and preserving values and traditions, especially for marginalized minority communities. Are multiethnic churches able to do the same?” (1)
Far too often, churches pull toward one of two extremes: creating and fostering a monoculture which preserves and protects the ethnic/social identity of one particular people group (i.e. white, suburban, upper-middle class) or presenting as multi-cultural but by means of actually diminishing cultural distinctions within the congregation. If Lamb is correct, and I think she is, a third option exists—one that is biblical solid, relationally robust—and rarely achieved.
According to 2 Corinthians 5:18, God has reconciled himself to us through Christ and then given us the job of bringing reconciliation to the world. For true reconciliation to happen, the church must refrain from both eliminating ethnic differences (having an African American worship leader in a predominately white church but then subtly communicating that she must tone down her blackness) or circling the wagons to prevent “outsiders” from entering our midst. Randomly walk into a dozen houses of worship across the United States and you will see, this is not easy to pull off. Both humility and intentionality are essential ingredients if we want to create healthy churches which represent every tribe and every tongue.
Lamb rightly understands that this call to diversity must be championed and stewarded by all, but specifically, by the preachers. “Our time in the pulpit, or behind the beat-up music stand, is a highly leveraged moment, crammed with opportunities to shape culture, form hearts, and proclaim truth.” (viii) When that shaping, forming, and proclaiming is done with an awareness of the beauty and necessity of diversity, preachers are able to both value and transcend differences.
Lamb begins her text with a pithy and scholarly exploration of race, ethnicity, and culture, including quotes from incredibly diverse sources (i.e. not all white, male theologians). Having established her terms, she then moves on to excavate the ground for the book’s foundation: the theological basis for multiethnic churches. Lamb asserts, “The deepest basis for unity across cultures is the nature, actions, and purposes of God. God’s triune nature supplies our supreme model for reconciled life together. That life together is made possible as communities of faith pursue two core practices of the gospel, hospitality and repentance.” (30)
Because she’s past the half way point in her own life and because she has partnered in bringing the gospel to churches across the globe, Lamb well understands the limitations of the over-simplified and oft used metaphor “making space” at the table for ethnic minorities. Here, she writes like a prophet:
Aspects of [making space at the table] still speak to the necessary response of welcome that churches must make toward recent immigrants, but the metaphor risks perpetuating power dynamics of superiority and control on the part of the majority culture, as that group construes minority people as guests and therefore passive recipients of the largess of their white hosts. (38)
This and other passages evidence Lamb’s confidence and willingness to challenge us as parishioners and pastors alike to grasp the vital and essential role of repentance in creating and sustaining multiethnic churches. Without doing the hard work of corporate and individual repentance, how can we trust one another? How can we dare to believe that our churches will be places of refuge from the onslaught of violence and hatred which so many experience on a regular basis? “The evangelical church in North America has focused on individual reconciliation with God, often failing to extend that value to reconciliation with neighbors from whom one is estranged. … One of the ministries of preaching is its task of witnessing truthfully to aspects of the past that listeners would rather forget.” (41-43)
By seeing a church as an intentional repository of collective memories, Lamb asks the question, “Can a multiethnic congregation house those memories that shape identity? To what extent should we expect it and to what end?” And I would add, to what cost? For instance, if one of the goals for a church that ministers to the Hmong community is to help them preserve their cultural identity (language, food, dress, music), what will be the price to that community if it intentionally begins to invite in members of another, totally different, ethnic group? Obviously, they will sacrifice some of the comfort and ease that happens when we join together with others who are like us. Effective pastors/preachers ensure that the community both remembers their heritage but also refrains from growing bitter or resentful for the inevitable sacrifices that must be made to include others.
In order to successfully and sensitively pull this off, the men and women who stand before their congregations week after week need to meet two goals. First, to “attend to and give voice to the cultural expressions, memories, gifts and hermeneutical vantage points of all those in their midst.” No easy task. And second, such churches must be led to practice those spiritual disciplines that make unity possible: “hospitality, repentance, reconciliation, and mutual submission.”
That all of this could happen in the context of preaching a sermon is remarkable. Lamb devotes the next four chapters to models of preaching and the seminal role of memory. I struggled to stay with the author in chapter four, not because it was disinteresting but because many of the terms and concepts (ie. New Homiletic) were unfamiliar to me. It was worth pressing in because the concepts apply to anyone who wants to communicate effectively.
Lamb’s chapters on memory and how it serves to “shape the character and identity of groups” as well as condition our capacity to “hear and interpret Scripture” were convincing and challenging. When writing or preparing a talk, I rarely come to a full stop and consider how the specific memories (histories) of my listeners/readers will impact how they receive and understand my words. More times than I can recount, these same listeners/readers make harsh comments which have perplexed me. Perhaps this is why. Lamb writes, “Remembering is both a field we plow with difficulty and one in which we may inadvertently stumble upon treasures and occasionally landmines.” (113)
Lamb is not encouraging preachers to foster sentimentality by remembering past achievements or times when life was perceived as somehow better. She goes much deeper, believing that memory “brings the past into the present, fosters humility, fuels gratitude, nurtures faith, leads to wisdom and compels ethnical behavior.” She also understands the necessity of remembering—perhaps particularly—within minority communities that find themselves in cultures which often encourage them to forget and assimilate. For preachers to “find ways to name and interpret [disparate stories] through the narrative of Scripture, and to speak a word from the pulpit and elsewhere that brings healing, joins members in solidarity with one another, and fosters faith within them” is an incredible gift and a necessary one if we are to establish healthy, diverse communities of faith.
Toward the end of the book, the author makes the analogy between preachers and quilters:
The comfort that a quilt provides makes it an especially apt metaphor for the healing ministry that preaching can perform. Preachers go about their work of listening with compassion throughout the week, finding fragments in the stories they hear from their members and in the wider community context, and searching for interpretive keys in the Scripture that can lend a pattern to those garments, one that might enable listeners to see and embrace the work of God in their lives. (189)
Whether or not you find yourself facing a congregation on Sunday mornings, Lisa Washington Lamb’s text will not only make you a better communicator, but more importantly, a more sensitive, empathetic follower of Christ. That she is able to pull this off while presenting a compelling vision for multiethnic churches is rather remarkable.
Dorothy Littell Greco works as a photographer, writer, speaker, and pastor. Her passion is helping other believers pursue holiness and reconciliation. She and her husband live outside Boston and have three sons and one daughter-in-law. You can find more of Dorothy’s work on her website (DorothyGreco.com) or by following her on Twitter at @DorothyGreco and Facebook.