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September/October 2006 Issue

Every Nation, Tribe & People:
How to Become an Intentionally Intercultural Church

By Sabitri Ghosh

It takes a conscious choice and a bit of work to become an ethnically diverse congregation. But those who have done it say it’s worth it.

On his first visit to Bramalea Baptist Church, Ivan Kostka slipped quietly into a pew at the back and tried his best to blend in.

But no matter where he sat, the Indian immigrant still stuck out.

“I looked around,” says the former journalist and management consultant, “and saw a congregation that was predominantly a vanilla colour, with a swirl of South Asian chocolate, Afro-Caribbean chocolate chips and maybe just a very small sprinkling of East Asians.”

Ten years later Kostka stands out at the Brampton, Ont. church for a different reason: he’s now a prominent member of the pastoral leadership team. Looking around the church today, he sees a diverse mix of hues – from the black-and-white couple in the first pew to his own wife, Sylvia, clad in her Sunday-best sari.

“Today,” he smiles, “Bramalea Baptist is one huge sundae.”

There’s no easy recipe for creating such an intercultural church.

But there is a list of five Rs – courtesy of David MacFarlane, director of national initiatives for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada – that any urban congregation could follow if it wants to be intentionally intercultural.

It begins with a fundamental realization. “The intention [to become intercultural] isn’t ours,” contends Brian Seim, director of Culture Connections for SIM Canada and co-author of the term intentionally intercultural.

“It’s God’s.”

The First R: Reflect

In 1997, Seim helped organize a seminal conference that brought together ethnically diverse congregations for the first time. Back then, the nascent movement called itself the “intentionally multicultural church.” As it developed, so did its terminology – from “multicultural” into “intercultural.”

Multiculturalism, as set out in official Canadian government policy, is a static mosaic of indivisible ethnic communities. Interculturalism envisions people learning, growing and interacting with each other in dynamic community, rather than as separate enclaves.

Proponents of the intercultural church movement refer back to Paul’s speech in Athens. They say it brilliantly illuminates the theological nature and purpose of the intercultural church (Acts 17:26-28).

“From this one man, Adam, God created all people groups, all ethnic groups,” Kostka paraphrases. “So ethnicity is a God-created thing. Also, God has determined the exact time and places where we will live. So migrations, whether of individuals, families or whole people groups, are ultimately coordinated and orchestrated by God.”

Kostka believes that, as extraordinary as that is, an even greater revelation follows: “It says, ‘He has done this so that they may grope’ – we may seek Him – ‘ and perhaps find Him.’ ”

Like Kostka, Seim sees this and other New Testament texts as irrefutable scriptural support for an intercultural church. But he doesn’t think churches should be in a rush to transform themselves.

“Wait until the Holy Spirit says ‘Go ahead.’ This is not a human decision, and if you attempt it as a human decision, you have no ability to make it happen.”

Instead, Seim suggests, take nine months to pray and discuss it as a congregation: “Do you see it as what God’s leading you to do? If it is, what challenges does your church face doing it?”

The Second R: Reach out

Many of Canada’s urban centres are becoming home to people whose journey, as immigrants, frequently intersects with a more spiritual one. Still, many churches fail to grasp this God-given opportunity to reach out.

Kostka refers again to Acts 17:26-28. He once wondered about the mysterious qualifying “perhaps” before the words “find Him.” Why did Paul hedge on whether or not the diasporic peoples of the world would eventually find God?

He thinks he’s found the answer: “The ‘perhaps’ is incumbent on us, we the Church. If we reach out to all the different ethnic groups that God is moving around to become our neighbours, then there is a strong chance they may find Him.”

Five years ago, Seim spoke at a conference of Pentecostal ministers, repeatedly prodding them: “Do you know the names of the people of colour and accent in your church?” One minister stifled a giggle at the touchy-feely question.

But on the way home, the same minister pondered it more deeply. The next Sunday, he met with newcomers within his congregation, confessed he didn’t know their names, and asked them: “Would you tell me who you are?”

That brave act of humility sparked a rebirth in his inner-city church.

It took another kind of courage for Vancouver’s 10th Avenue Alliance Church to reach out to its next-door neighbour – the city’s gay community. Determined to minister there, despite the ideological gulf separating it from the church, Pastor Ken Shipman spent long afternoons in local coffee shops. He befriended the seriously ill AIDS sufferers who frequented them.

Soon, he was leading 25 men in prayer each week.

“Not that 10th Avenue is not a conservative church – it is,” Seim says. “But they got the order right. People come first.”

The story didn’t end there: the church then began attracting a flow of East Asian newcomers. “Evidently,” Seim remarks, “the people got the idea that if they can accept late-stage AIDS patients, they can accept me.”

The Third R: Respect

In his examples, Seim draws a crucial distinction between non-committal friendliness and the unstinting friendship that characterizes Christ’s love.

“At a personal level, that’s what it’s about,” he says. “At a community level, it’s about respecting each other rather than tolerance.”

Respecting each other means honouring each other’s gifts. Seim recounts how he was once scheduled to give a talk to a Filipino church group who routinely went out of their way to help people. When it came time to speak, he departed from format.

“I want you to teach me,” he told them, “because in your culture, the gifts of hospitality and compassion are upheld, but in my culture, they’re not, and I need to learn from you.”

Churches inflict damage upon themselves, as well as the greater Body of Christ, by not acknowledging the gifts of culturally diverse members. Seim lists many instances of churches that seemed to do everything right in reaching out, only to lose new members later on because they didn’t feel fully involved or represented once inside the church.

“The way to signal that you are intentionally intercultural is leadership,” says Kostka, who accepted the invitation to become Bramalea Baptist’s director of Glocal (“global/local”) Ministries in 2002. “When you see people of different cultures serving, leading, that sends a powerful message to the rest.”

The Fourth R: Respond

Still, to Kostka, an intentionally intercultural church “is not so much a matter of structure” as of love.

“The first requirement is love,” he says, “and it is agape love, unconditional, God-like love, which can only come from the Holy Spirit.”

To demonstrate that love, Bramalea Baptist strives to actively respond to newcomers’ needs. Its Integration Centre for All Newcomers (iCAN) helps them refine their English-language skills and gives them access to computers and the Internet. It offers job-search coaching, and provides practical support in the form of rides and furniture donations.

“We do not try to convert them,” says Sylvia Kostka, who runs the fledgling ministry. “But as they see our love, as they see how God answers prayer, they become interested.”

Her husband adds: “The language of love speaks louder than any words. The people may not speak very much English, but the very fact that you’re smiling at them, you’re doing things for them – that says a lot.”

The Fifth R: Rejoice

In Revelation 7:9, people from every race, tribe, nation and language stand united around God’s throne. It’s a vision of the future that inspires Sylvia Kostka as she works to build an intercultural church.

To celebrate this aspect of the kingdom, she’s introduced the “Taste of” series to Bramalea Baptist. Over the course of an evening, the church immerses itself in the food, culture and fashions of one of its different ethnic communities. The series is so popular that people actually had to be turned away from the last event, “Taste of Africa,” after the fellowship hall became filled to capacity.

A similar event, World Fest, is held by Churchill Heights Baptist Church in Scarborough, Ont. “The first time they held it,” says Seim, “they expected 400 [but] 1,250 showed up. They next time they held it, nearly 4,000 came.”

While such events help cement the importance of cultural diversity within a congregation, the Kostkas say a truly intercultural church will also incorporate culturally diverse modes of worship into its services. At Bramalea Baptist, churchgoers now sing Indian devotional bhajans to Jesus, alongside Western hymns – and do so with gusto.

“God is the author of languages and culture,” Sylvia Kostka says. “So God cannot be restricted to one language and one culture. The beauty of the Christian faith is that we can all speak different tongues, we can maintain our culture, our dress, our names, but it’s our hearts that are converted.”

Sabitri Ghosh is a freelance writer in Kingston, Ont.

Ways to Reach Your New Canadian Neighbour
By Brian Seim

Invite your new Canadian neighbour into your heart and home. Pray for them. Find out each other’s interests and focus on the similarities. Develop sports ministries as an outreach in the church. Provide courses to teach English as a second language and other “how to” skill workshops. Assist with medical needs or referrals. Get involved in needs-oriented ministries. Be a part of outreach opportunities such as small groups, literature distribution in their language and pre-evangelism studies and talks (such as the Alpha program).


The Bible still remains the primary resource for becoming an intentionally intercultural church. Besides Acts 17:26-28 and Revelation 7:9, the Acts accounts of Jesus’ final directives to his disciples (Acts 1:8) and Pentecost (Acts 2) are two of the most critical texts. (In today’s context, proponents of the intentionally intercultural church see “Jerusalem” as the culture we come from; “the ends of the earth” as overseas missions; “Judea” as those who are geographically as well as culturally close to us; and “Samaria” as those who are geographically close but culturally distant.)

Brian Seim has written two books that provide guidance for churches in the process of becoming intentionally intercultural: Canada’s New Harvest: Helping Churches Touch Newcomers (Vision Canada/SIM, 2000) and Moved With Compassion (Vision Canada, 2001). Purchase $9 and $12, respectively, at www.sim.ca or 1-800-294-6918.

Tyndale Intercultural Ministries (TIM) Centre, affiliated with Toronto’s Tyndale University College & Seminary, offers a variety of services for churches, agencies, students and individuals working in intercultural ministry. In addition to consulting and providing resource materials, it also conducts seminars, conferences and symposiums, including a day-long seminar for churches in the Greater Toronto Area. Contact www.timcentre.com or 1-877-Tyndale.

The instructional CD/DVD Becoming an Intentionally Intercultural Church: A Manual to Facilitate Transition is available from the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada for $29.95. Order at www.evangelicalfellowship.ca/resources/resource_viewer.asp?Resource_ID=236 or phone 1-866-302-3362 x. 234.

Other Articles
Sept/Oct 2006 Issue

Cover Story
Every Nation, Tribe & People: How to Become an Intentionally Intercultural Church

From the Editor
Sharing Space

Feature Article
How to Advertise the Good News: Professional Advertising Campaigns

Kingdom Matters
Website Brings Bible to Kids

The Gathering Place
An Uneasy Conscience

God at Work in Denominations
Transformers and Reformers

A Church You Should Know
Mill Woods Assembly, Edmonton

Ask a Theologian
What Does "Made in the Image of God" Actually Mean? 

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