Authentic Koinonia in the Multicultural, Multilingual Church

patch1Greetings to visitors, readers, and conversation partners! At this website, I’m reflecting on how to help Anglo churches get comfortable with opening up to different cultures and languages. My heart’s goal is transformation of the 99%-white churches I’ve loved all my life. I want to worship in the church of Paul’s vision.

You are warmly invited to join this conversation. In the last edition of Liturgy Remix we reflected on intersectionality and the local church. As we move into today’s discussion of authentic koinonia, we’ll carry forward from that discussion the idea of the Imaginary Normal Person and the challenge of developing non-demographic categories for church programs.

Straight from the get-go, let’s acknowledge the important original work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, the originator of the term intersectionality. Crenshaw describes the development of her ideas in Why Intersectionality Can’t Wait, a recent Washington Post article. She’s written extensively on critical race theory and her newest book, The Race Track: How The Myth of Equal Opportunity Defeats Racial Justice, will be published in 2016.

0001-79841518Let’s begin with this Washington DC parish; yes, the Spirit is at work at St. Stephen and the Incarnation and the people are willing to enter into transformation. This article is particularly strong on describing the process of moving from sharing-the-building to shared koinonia. Starting as a building with an English-speaking congregation giving space to a Spanish-speaking congregation, they are finding more and more ways to worship together. It’s clear that the Imaginary Normal Person has changed.

Take note of this graceful and gracious poster from St. Stephen and the Incarnation. The poster describes the event directly for Latin@s and interpretively for Angl@s. The picture tells us this event is for all ages. The general impression is warm and welcoming, but it’s clear something important is going on. I would be totally delighted to give artist credit here if I could. At the end of the article are some helpful resources on bilingual worship, including a bilingual Stations of the Cross.

Several of you responded thoughtfully to the last edition –

  • Episcopal priest John Rawlinson wrote eloquently in the comments section on training for clergy leadership; John, you’ll be glad to hear that, according to an ELCA seminarian friend of mine, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago is offering a course on Spanish for Ministry.
  • An LGBT Episcopal laywoman wrote about the challenge of getting close to others. Even if a congregation says it’s welcome to LGBTQ folk, that doesn’t say anything about the attitude of the person in the next pew.
  • Terry Milner, a playwright, writes: ‘This phrase jumped off the screen at me: ‘If everything is intersectional, aren’t there more interesting categories than these?’ I think there are. And I think this is a great start to the conversation.” (Terry, as a first attempt, every local church I’ve been part of has had: meditators, singers, theater folk, knitters, bike riders, treehuggers, and people with a heart for the safety & happiness of children. These are niches where koinonia can grow but, in most cases, these haven’t been treated as program groups.)
  • Lyle McKee, an ELCA pastor, wrote about the language of intersectionality, likening it to the relationality/relativity ideas in process theology, and observing that – although these are important ideas – neither intersectionality nor process theology articulate the ideas in a way that’s likely to be useful to a local parish. I honor the project of talking about the church in the language of the church; for today’s Liturgy Remix I’m using koinonia – a word from the Acts of the Apostles.
  • Lyle also writes: “…the deeper question is how. How do congregations create spaces where encounter with the other becomes possible, even routine? “ This good question is one we’ll need to carry along with us.

Kraft-Mayo-and-Free-Bread-DG-300x141New member incorporation  and new culture or language incorporation are not the same thing. Heuristics for new member incorporation are broadly practiced throughout the church: being mentored into the congregation, being accepted by the elders, finding a niche in a small group, and so forth. Seems to me, though, that these tactics work best for members who resemble the congregation’s Imaginary Normal Person. The worship and cultural practices of people whose traditions are different may be subject to erasure: the people are welcome; the traditions, not so much. This is depressing:

“Whose interests are multiracial congregations serving?” asked researcher Kevin Dougherty, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences. “We want to believe that they promote a shared, integrated identity for all. But the truth may be that many are advancing a form of Anglo-conformity instead.”

John Rawlinson, in personal correspondence, has written about the integrity, patience, and faith required to serve a bilingual parish. It’s not just worship that must be bilingual, it’s vestry meetings, announcements, formation – all the day-to-day words of the body. When we don’t do this work, the message we send is that people are welcome – sorta kinda – but their traditions and language are not. We perform our worship in front of them. They are our audience.

The people who study language usage tell us this, to a degree, generational. The children will speak both languages, the grandchildren perhaps only English, but the children and grandchildren still want to see their traditions respected and practiced. They won’t mysteriously become, say, Swedish.

Teaching and modelling cultural competence could be a useful approach in incorporating new languages and cultures in the local church.  Here’s  a skill-building adult formation series on cultural competence and, at first read-through, it’s terrific. Here are two of the units, Building Relationships with People from Different Cultures and Creating Opportunities for Members of Groups to Identify Their Similarities, Differences, and Assets. These materials are not specific to faith communities but their calm, everybody-needs-to-learn-something approach would be effective in a local church.

We are all working within invisible constraints. When an existing congregation seeks to blend in a culturally different group,  the congregation has expectations and structure embedded in its corporate life. This is the way we prepare the altar. This is the way we teach Sunday school. This is the way we set up for parish dinners. All these assumptions are not only unspoken, they are invisible. Furthermore, there’s the whiteness problem – an idea written about with authority and insight by Willie James Jenkins, a professor at the Yale Divinity School:

“…whiteness is not a given. It is a choice. Whiteness is not the equal and opposite of blackness. It is not one racial flavor next to others. Whiteness is a way of imagining the world moving around you, flowing around your body with you being at the center. … Whiteness is a way of imagining oneself as the central facilitating reality of the world, the reality that makes sense of the world, that interprets, organizes, and narrates the world, and whiteness is having the power to realize and sustain that imagination….”

Screen Shot 2015-11-06 at 1.37.46 PMBoth ELCA seminarian Marissa Tweed and Episcopal rector Miranda Hassett strongly recommend The Agile Church: Spirit-Led Innovation in an Uncertain Age by Dwight Zscheile. Zscheile, an Episcopal priest and seminary professor at Luther Seminary [ELCA]  in St. Paul, integrates theology, social criticism, and insight from organizational psychology. His goal is to enable local parishes to reground themselves as neighbors, nomads, and learning communities. Because this book is all about the transformation of the local church,  it’s directly relevant to Liturgy Remix.

Here’s a very brief tour of The Agile Church:

  • The first chapter is on the state of the church; the second chapter is how God acts in history. This material will not be new to you.
  • In Chapter Three,  Forming and Restoring Community in a Nomadic World, Zscheile notes that people today often are nomads, disconnected from sources of identity in home and locale. He likens this to the stories of the Hebrew scriptures and urges us to reclaim and rearticulate these stories for our own culture. Zscheile goes on to present the disciples as a learning community being taught by Jesus and given opportunities to experiment and make mistakes. He claims  this praxis of a Christ-centered learning community of disciples as an identity for the local church today. Koinonia doesn’t grow from shared social class; it is a gift of the Spirit.
  • With Chapter Four, the book becomes significantly more chewy. In this chapter, Failing Well: What the Church Can Learn from Silicon Valley, Zscheile presents organizational practices from tech companies: cultures of innovation, adaptive learning, failure as part of learning, lean startups, connecting with outsiders, collaborative prototyping. He re-situates these practices as elements of Spirit-led group discernment and offers examples from the local church he serves.
  • Chapter Five, Disciplines of the Learning Church, directly addresses the experience and problems of clergy leadership in a church searching for agility. Zscheile discusses rigidity, fear, shame, ambivalence, anxiety, and conflict. He proposes models for clergy leadership that create safe space for the faith community to experiment, fail, learn, and grow in discernment.
  • Although Chapter Six, Organizing for Innovation, has a brief discussion of new church plants, it’s primarily about the challenges of innovating within an existing structure. The point of innovation ideally isn’t to split off daughter-churches; it’s to feed transformation back into the existing church. Zscheile also discusses relationships with judicatory and denominational structures.

free-download-managersBecause I truly hope some of you will read The Agile Church, I’m having a giveaway – just like the knitting blogs. I’ll give a copy to the each of the first three people to email me,  narthex @



For instance, here’s Papa Francesco on the multicultural, multilingual church:

“Together we are called to say ‘no’ to every attempt to impose uniformity and ‘yes’ to a diversity accepted and reconciled.”

I found this multilingual liturgy for the canonization of Junipero Serra to be a delight to read. And I truly appreciated the multicultural depth of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s recent installation liturgy as well. Still, these are one-off events for an international audience, not lived practice in a local congregation.

I’ve truly enjoyed the tenderness of several churches’ All Saints/All Souls/Día de Muertos celebrations. These holidays are blending to make a sacred space to reflect on, pray for, and celebrate the dead.

And that’s enough – more than enough! – for this edition of Liturgy Remix. Your responses are warmly invited as comments, as email, or in person. Next edition: ceremonies of inclusion / Las Posadas.

Pamela Grenfell Smith

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2 Responses to Authentic Koinonia in the Multicultural, Multilingual Church

  1. Trelawney says:

    I enjoyed this post – gives me a lot to ponder. Especially my own feeling of intimidation. ❤


    • Pamela says:

      I’m wondering about that intimidation thing & I hope you’ll say more, if you feel comfortable doing so. NB: Trelawney also claimed a copy of Agile Church. One down, one to go!


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