Recently I finished reading The Color of Church by Rodney Woo, pastor of Wilcrest Baptist Church, a multi-cultural congregation in Houston, Texas. I appreciated both the biographical, theological, and practical work Woo presents and find that the book moves easily between these aspects to create an informative and helpful guide. The Wilcrest story is exciting to consider because Woo and his team had to lead an “all white” congregation to not only accept people who were different from them but they also had to initiate changes that created space for different culture groups to find a voice in the leadership of the congregation. Today people from over 40 different nations call Wilcrest their Church.
I had a seminary professor who would often say “good sociology does not necessarily equate to good theology.” In response to the Gospel and Jesus’ mandate to reach the nations, urban churches must include the nations who are their neighbours. However, the challenges inherent in leading an ethnically and culturally diverse congregation really only begin when one seriously ventures into cross-cultural relationships and missions. Even in the hyper diverse setting of Vancouver, BC I find that many people manage their lives according to cultural familiarity. Churches as social constructs either have diversity patterns in their DNA or they must make intentional efforts to re-engineer their DNA. The later is quite difficult.
I believe that anyone who venture into the worthwhile “Revelation 7” vision of eternity for the church will benefit from reading Woo’s book. Some urban churches may discover that their community around them prefers the witness of a multi-ethnic congregation. However the mono-ethnic church which shares strong people sense as a culture will struggle with the change required for a new generation of multicultural or multi-ethnic believers. The church will need to create a strong sense of shared culture that values openness and change above their own cultural comforts.
Cultural familiarity is no longer defined by just ethnicity. Many cities now have a growing mono-culture that expects cultural diversity as part of what it means to be a good human. However, Woo’s experience in Houston is of reaching a highly segmented and sometimes racially charged setting with the Gospel. I find the story of the past 17 years at Wilcrest to be exciting yet realistic. Woo shares the learnings gained through not just their successes but also their failures. The romanticization of multi-cultural church has a short honeymoon. The following paragraph illustrates the challenge Wilcrest faced in developing “rules of engagement:”
One of the limitations of making adjustments in the heat of battle is that the leader makes a decision with only the knowledge that is available. Even with the best of intentions, however, the decision does not always work out. In the growing context of a multiracial congregation, an abundance of knowledge or wisdom is not readily accessible, so we have to learn through trial and error. It is a slow and painful process, but it is necessary. (p. 166)
One of the strengths of the The Color of Church is the alignment of practical challenges of church life with biblical theology. Woo has given the reader a window into the processes which turn the vision for multicultural and multi-ethnic churches into reality via real conflicts regarding the practical concerns of worship, leadership, decision-making, reconciliation, and mission. Leaders sometimes, perhaps often, feel alone when they are captivated by a compelling vision; it is the same for leaders who desire to lead a thriving multi-ethnic congregation. The Color of Church will be a helpful resource for boards or teams of leaders who are searching for the language and processes that would facilitate the fulfillment of their dream.