the shape of leadership

Toward a Multiethnic Church

Congregations should embrace America’s changing demographics

Rich Guerra with Walt Brown on February 22, 2024

After emigrating from Mexico to the United States, my grandfather accepted Christ as Savior, answered a call to ministry, and started the Pentecostal church I attended growing up.

My parents were bilingual, but I spoke only English. To reach a generation of Hispanic Americans like my siblings and me, Grandpa knew he needed to adapt. So, he started offering services in both English and Spanish.

This enabled our congregation to serve even more people. In fact, the church’s exuberant worship, passionate preaching, and Spirit-led ministry soon attracted families of other ethnicities.

The result was a multiethnic, multigenerational environment that enriched my spiritual development and has shaped my ministry approach ever since.

First as a pastor and now as superintendent of the SoCal Network Assemblies of God, welcoming all kinds of people has always been a ministry priority for me. It should be for you, too.

America is becoming increasingly diverse. In 2020, 57.8% of the population was white, non-Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That was down from 63.7% just a decade earlier.

In California, the largest racial or ethnic group is now Hispanic, comprising 39.4% of the population. (California’s white, non-Hispanic population dropped out of the top spot after declining from 40.1% in 2000 to 34.7% in 2020.)

Between 2000 and 2018, the number of majority Hispanic counties in the U.S. doubled, from 34 to 69, a Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data found. In all, 151 U.S. counties were majority Hispanic, Black, Native American, or Alaskan Native in 2018, compared to 110 such counties in 2000.

Meanwhile, U.S. church attendance is declining. In January 2023, 31% of U.S. adults said they had attended services within the past seven days (26% of them in person and 5% online), compared to 44% who said the same in January 2000, according to Gallup.

One reason many churches are struggling to attract attendees and reach their communities is they no longer identify with the people living in the area.

Racially and ethnically homogenous congregations are losing relevance. Quite simply, they are not keeping up with the times.

Why should your congregation take steps to become multiethnic? And how can you lead this change?


Embracing Change

A multiethnic congregation is diverse. That can, of course, mean different things to different people.

In United by Faith, authors Curtiss Paul DeYoung, Michael Emerson, George Yancey, and Karen Chai Kim recommend churches establish a measurable goal. They suggest no racial or ethnic group (including white people) should make up more than 80% of a congregation.

As communities become more diverse, local churches will need to change as well if they hope to attract people from the neighborhoods in which they reside.

A church that fails to adapt will lose its support base and ultimately cease to exist. That is precisely what is happening to many older congregations today. They have not kept up with the changing demographic landscape around them. Consequently, they are being left behind.

Others are awakening to the realization my grandfather had years ago: Embracing change is essential for staying relevant in ministry.


Leading the Way

The first step toward becoming a multiethnic congregation is cultivating a sincere desire to build bridges across ethnic divides and develop lasting, cross-cultural relationships.

One reason many churches are struggling to attract attendees and reach their communities is they
no longer identify
with the people
living in the area.

Start by teaching the biblical principle that all people — regardless of nationality, ethnicity, race, culture, or other differences — are made in God’s image and equally valuable in His sight (Genesis 1:26–27).

Then guide congregants toward intentional and meaningful outreach to neighbors they consider different.

Pastors must lead the way by modeling sensitivity and cultural awareness.

Develop a missional mindset. Research the people groups you are trying to reach, adapting your ministry methods accordingly.

Regardless of differences, there are some basic principles to keep in mind. For example, be sincere, welcoming, and friendly.

Address people by name (including nicknames and shortened forms if they prefer). Pay close attention to pronunciation and cultural norms regarding formality.

Avoid stereotyping or making assumptions. Everyone deserves to be treated as an individual. Take the time to get to know people.

Pay attention to generational distinctions. Even within the same cultural community, there can be significant differences from one generation to the next. My childhood church was an example of this.

Embracing multiethnicity means recognizing your story is worth sharing and the stories of others are worth hearing.

When integrating members of a local ethnic community into your congregation, there are some specific things you can do to make them feel more comfortable.

Learn about the group’s culture, including practices, beliefs, language, expressions, dress, music, and food.

Initiate dialogue to develop a mutual plan, focused on mutual purpose, and based on mutual respect. Through conversation and collaboration, find ways to meet needs and build cultural bridges.

For example, include worship songs in the ethnic group’s traditional style (ideally, after recruiting at least one member of that community as part of your worship team). Add a service in their language. Consider their food and beverage preferences when planning refreshments.

You may not get everything exactly right. That’s OK. The goal is developing intentional community that expresses selflessness, forgiveness, justice, generosity, and unconditional love.

Jesus said, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34–35).

God calls us to love and serve people — and not just those who look, act, and think like us. The Church comprises diverse peoples coming together as the body of Christ.

Spiritual community starts with spending time together, interacting, and showing genuine interest in one another. This can include sharing meals, participating in recreational activities together, observing holidays and festivals, and celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and accomplishments.

At the leadership level, make sure your board and ministry teams reflect the ethnic makeup of your church.

In the SoCal Network, for example, we changed our governance structure to include ethnic executive presbyters from each category of the General Council’s recognized ethnic codes. We also have executive presbyters representing credentialed women and under-40 ministers.

The changes have brought clarity and unity to our mission. Not only are these presbyters informing network leadership decisions, but they are also helping local churches move toward multiethnicity.

All these things are about demonstrating God’s love to people who may be different from us nationally, culturally, and ethnically. Jesus said the second greatest command is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39).

From a biblical perspective, every congregation should be as multiethnic as its neighborhood. After all, if we are loving our neighbors as ourselves, we are also making space for them in our churches.

In America today, we must be multiethnic and multigenerational to reach our communities. Rather than expecting them to just show up and assimilate, we need to find ways to welcome and accommodate people of every culture.

When that happens, churches will look more like their communities. Even better, they will look more like heaven (Revelation 7:9).


This article appears in the Winter 2024 issue of Influence magazine.

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