Revisiting intentionality

Riding the Waves of Intercultural Church

May 4, 2023 | Opinion | Volume 27 Issue 9
Joon Park | Columnist
(Photo by Brett Jordan/Unsplash)

Once upon a time, there was a belief in the Canadian Mennonite church that if it welcomed new people of colour, immigrants and refugees, these newcomers would eventually join and integrate into the church. This was an illusion. The church’s initial welcome may have played as a curious gesture to get to know the new people, but did not warrant a success of embracing and integrating the new people.

From the early 1990s through to the 2000s, a group of Korean students and immigrants knocked on the doors of Canadian Mennonite churches in Winnipeg, Toronto and Vancouver. Tired of the prosperity-gospel message and individual salvation heavily marketed in Korean churches, they desperately sought an alternative, a radical faith of following Jesus.

As new people to Canada, they were exposed to the Mennonite faith and church, whose members strongly embodied Christ, community and reconciliation-centred beliefs. These beliefs served as a refreshing contrast to what they learned in Korea. But their fascination did not last. Two or three decades later, almost all of them have left the Mennonite church.

Among intercultural church practitioners, there is one universal truth that is timelessly shared: An intercultural church can happen by accident, but it does not survive without intentionality. The church must consistently and communally take intentionality very seriously. If we want to be an intercultural church, we must test how biblically intentional we are, how intentionally patient we are and how intentionally hopeful we are.

Yet when it comes to the Mennonite church where I have survived for the past 19 years, this word “intentionality” is still treated as an uninvited guest. I wonder how many more trials and errors our Mennonite church has to go through before we fully understand and embrace the real value of intentionality.

I know how generous and hospitable Mennonite elders are. I know how non-judgmental the Mennonite leaders are. I know how traditional the Mennonite church is. But this is not enough to achieve an intercultural church.

Mennonite grandfatherly love for the people of colour has a limit. Unless the church goes beyond this, integration can be hardly sustained. Unswerving intentionality toward intercultural integration should permeate the church from beginning to end, even until our last days on Earth.

This requires that we have a firm grip on God’s mandate of unity in Christ (Revelation 7). It requires an embrace of our ruthless dependence on God’s providence along the way (Psalm 127:1). Intentionality itself is also not enough.

When I was at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, in Elkhart, Ind., from 2009 to 2011, studying theology and dreaming of a future when I could use my intercultural expertise for the Mennonite church, I came to know Village Baptist Church in Beaverton, Ore., a pioneering multicultural church in the United States. I read about it in Mark Deymaz’s book Building a Healthy Multi-ethnic Church.

Then I visited the church and was able to interview the missions pastor, John Jordan.

Founded in 1949, the church’s desire was that God would use it as an “instrument and testimony . . . to reach a multitude of neighbours with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” The church remained in the realm of the purely white congregation until a Korean stranger, Mr. Lee, knocked on the pastor’s door in 1990. He randomly asked Don Jensen, lead pastor at the time, “Why does your church exist?” The pastor simply told Mr. Lee, “We exist to meet the needs of the community.”

Thirty years later, the church became one of biggest, intentional and exemplary multicultural churches, embracing five ethnic ministries under the same roof: Korean, West Indian, Chinese, Hispanic and English. And with one ledger!

The following statements of this church, from a document I obtained when I visited there, tell us all how important it is to have intentionality even in the stage of envisioning the church’s future:

  • We are a church devoted to becoming culturally inclusive—multicultural as opposed to monoculture.
  • We are a church where all cultures embrace the same mission, vision and beliefs.
  • We are a church that is intentional to reach the demographics of Washington County.
  • We are a church that is intentional to build a biblically and culturally qualified leadership that is multicultural, effective in reaching the diverse cultures of our community.
  • We are a church that is intentional to reach first, second and third generations.
  • We are a church whose aim is to be a diverse community that reflects both united oneness and individual identity.
  • We are a church that is a diverse community in which no ethnicity is primary.

By which statement are you challenged the most?

Joon Park is intentional interim co-paster of Holyrood Mennonite Church in Edmonton.

Read more Riding the Waves of Intercultural Church columns:
Three kinds of grace in the formation of intercultural church
Goodbye ‘model minority’
Forever hybrid
One-anotherness in Christ

(Photo by Brett Jordan/Unsplash)

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Thank you, Joon. This is a very good and helpful article.

There's a divide, often a wide one, between progressives and traditionalists in MC Canada, and progressives are few. It seems most members intentionally avoid important topics and decisions. It seems most don't want to think about or discuss things they don't already believe and agree on as a group, nor make changes. So, I'm not surprised when people quit MC Canada churches or never begin to attend, regardless of their ethnicity.

There are endless examples of good topics raised and good points made in existing topics, which are then ignored or given very little attention. The main message is that we're here for fellowship, traditions and old agreements; we dislike new issues, new approaches to old issues, and considering that some of our established beliefs and practices are unhelpful or even damaging. We give a few improvements lip service, but usually little more.

Genetic and cultural European-descended Mennonites seem the most interested in avoiding changes, so it may appear they don't accommodate newcomers properly. Really, they just accommodate little of anything new, in my experience, even when newness is much-needed. So, if joiners embrace the desire for as few real discussions and adjustments as possible, they might fit in well.

There are some notable exceptions to all this, but those changes usually happen without good, extensive, thoughtful discussions and with many members becoming disgruntled, some of whom leave.

You're progressive. You want new, positive ideas to prevail. You want changes. So, you'll probably be greatly resisted (very intentionally!), but mostly passive-aggressively. You'll probably mostly just be endured and outlasted. This strategy has usually succeeded for hundreds of years.

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