A Fish Doesn’t Know It’s in Water

| |

The word missional has become a buzzword among many church leaders today. There are varying definitions of that word. I like the short, simple definition in a recent Christianity Today article by J. Todd Billings titled “What Makes a Church?” (March 2008): “The church is not primarily about us, but about God’s mission.” I interpret that to mean that the church is primarily about those who are not currently part of the church.

How should we apply this concept to the Christian Reformed Church?

I’ve thought about that a lot in recent years and have come to the conclusion that, if we’re serious about being a missional church, we will have to be much more intentional about identifying and eradicating the ways our ethnic roots make it difficult for people to become part of us.

I grew up in a traditional Dutch ethnic church and have been a member of several such churches in my adult life. I’ve often wondered why many of these churches are not growing, or why, when they do grow, it’s mostly due to “transfer” growth from other churches.

This, of course, is not a new issue. However, I believe it needs new attention.

I recently re-read the editorial by former Banner editor Andrew Kuyvenhoven titled “It’s Time to Burn the Wooden Shoes” (Nov. 3, 1980). He says that, for immigrants, taking along some of the traditions they grew up with is a legitimate part of the immigration process. But he also notes that if the church becomes “our church for our people,” this “ethnic exclusivism becomes sinful.”

Though I’m writing this editorial about exclusivism as it relates to the Dutch ethnic group, I have no reason to believe that other ethnic groups are any different.

Of course, every culture has admirable characteristics that should not be lost; we need to find healthy ways to celebrate our ethnic roots. But we should do so in ways that are not off-putting to others.

Yet often we’re unaware of how we hurt people by how we show our ethnicity. A phrase from a recent workshop on cultural and ethnic differences keeps coming back to me: “a fish doesn’t know that it’s in the water.” Those of us in churches made up primarily of a single ethnic and/or cultural group may not be aware of how we show our ethnicity or culture. But those who visit our churches sure are!

When we play “Dutch bingo,” we exclude people. When we joke about the many people whose last name starts with a “Van,” we exclude people. When we associate only with people we feel comfortable with, we exclude people. The list could go on and on. If you attend a church made up of people who have mostly Dutch roots, try to find a non-Dutch person in the congregation who is open to talking with you about this issue—you’ll find many other examples.

I now attend a multicultural, multiracial church. I find it refreshing. I’m not at all reluctant to invite my neighbors to this church, no matter what their cultural or racial background is.

During the 24 years I have been in a denominational leadership position, I have developed a great appreciation for the many strengths of our denomination. But I’ve been most excited about seeing some of our churches move from being ethnic-based churches to churches that welcome people from all cultures and races. (It’s also interesting to note that many of our new church plants don’t have to deal with this issue.)

So here’s a suggestion: if you’re part of a church made up mostly of people from one ethnic group, the next time your small group meets or you have coffee with your extended family, do some brainstorming about the subtle ways your ethnicity or culture might exclude people from other ethnic or cultural groups in your church.

Visualize with me for a moment a Christian Reformed Church in which virtually all the congregations look like what we’ll find in heaven: people from all cultures and socio-economic groups welcomed and supported. What an exciting vision that could be!

About the Author

Gary Mulder, formerly director of Faith Alive Christian Resources, is the Washington, D.C., representative for the CRC’s Office of Social Justice.