Intentionally cultivating multicultural churches

May 3, 2017

There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period that the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society.​

Things are different now. The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo.

–Martin Luther King, Jr., Letters from a Birmingham Jail

These prophetic and powerful words could have been true in any decade of American history. Sadly, this includes today. As a young boy growing up in the Chicago area, and learning of Dr. King’s work in that city, I’ve had a profound respect for him and his commitment to disturb the status quo. His influence has encouraged me to seek to break barriers as a pastor.

Building bridges to racial reconciliation

In 2016, I was called as lead pastor of the Sojourn Community Church Midtown congregation. Sojourn is a predominately white church that is nestled in an inner city with a half-black, half-white demographic. I saw this as a unique opportunity for a vibrant church in the Southern Baptist Convention to model reconciliation and the unity of the Spirit.

The level of intensity and weightiness of this assignment has felt overwhelming at times. However, the Lord is gracious, and so are his people. Together, we press on as ministers of reconciliation and are looking to be faithful and pursue diversity with three goals in mind:

1. Our vision is to present our members “mature in Christ” as Paul preaches in Colossians 1:28. He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. Part of presenting the body mature in Christ is helping them to see that in Christ, “there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythians, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col. 3:11).

This means being faithful to teach that God has already shattered the ethnic and class barriers in and through his Son's body. The “dividing wall of hostility” has been broken down. Multiethnic churches are God’s eternal purpose in Christ, and we must help our members to see that.

To develop a multiethnic, multicultural church, we must operate out of our identities, rather than our preferences.

In August 2009, I was able to practice this when I became interim pastor of a 148-year-old predominately African-American church in Louisville, Kentucky. The church is named Forest Baptist Church because the church’s founders were once slaves who used to gather in the forest to worship Jesus, away from their slave owners, as the “invisible institution.”

During my time there, the Lord brought the pastors of the church under deep conviction to obey the Great Commission by working toward having our congregation reflect the demographics of our community. Though the surrounding area was mostly African-American, it had a substantial Latino population.

Being committed to multiethnic ministry at Forest Baptist Church didn’t come without criticism. While the majority of our members were in support of our desire to reach every ethnic group in our neighborhood with the gospel, some were not. I was confronted by one member who aggressively asked, “Who gives you the right to have this black church welcome all these other people?”

My response was, “Jesus.” Diversity is his idea.

2. We want to build bridges as God’s church while we seek to grow as a multiethnic, multicultural congregation. As a church, we must be unapologetically committed to some core values to accomplish this. Inspired by Leonard Sweet’s Aqua Church 2.0, we’ve developed an acronym to explain what building bridges is all about.

Building into one another as family

Reconciliation is for all who believe

Inclusive corporate worship gatherings

Devoted to the Word

Guided by the Spirit

Empowered witness

Sacrificial servants and stewards

These core values help root us as a congregation and pursue diversity by giving our church a common language and pursuit. It helps us understand that the church isn’t a building—it is who we are.

Understanding who we are as a church is vital to the pursuit of diversity. This acronym is based on the five identities that we believe describe us: family, worshipers, disciples, witnesses and servants. To develop a multiethnic, multicultural church, we must operate out of our identities, rather than our preferences. Our identities are what unify us when our preferences threaten to divide us.

3. We want to be a burning movement. As we see with the church in Acts, we believe that God has called us, not to be stagnant and spiritually scarce, but to continuously sow seeds and look to expand his kingdom. So, pursuing reconciliation means that we reject the temptation to only target people who look and think like us.

We want to be a church on the move that’s impacting all demographics of our surrounding campuses, schools and neighborhoods, even reaching the nations, with the message of reconciliation. This message tears down all –isms: racism, classism, ageism, sexism, consumerism and more.

Pursuing reconciliation means that we reject the temptation to only target people who look and think like us.

If we are going to grow in diversity, we’ll also need to express the gospel in different ways that help people appreciate other cultures. If monoethnic and monocultural churches are serious about diversity, they will have to acknowledge their preferences while embracing new expressions throughout their ministry. This is hard and requires that a congregation that is shepherded with patience and wisdom.

Since Sojourn is located in a white and black area, one of the ways that we specifically model reconciliation is by having our founding pastor, who is white, share the pulpit with me. This gives our congregations a chance to see ethnically different pastors rightly divide the Word.

Since January 2016, we have also been intentional about diversifying our staff by bringing in a Latino worship director and partnering with our non-for-profit ministry to bring on another African-American pastor.

Overcoming challenges

The pursuit of diversity is not an easy path; if it were, multicultural churches would be the norm. The process is painful for pastors and congregants, alike. Not only does it challenge heart-level issues of prejudice, but it challenges lifelong preferences regarding music, expressiveness in services, preaching style and more.

We’ve faced significant challenges in this journey and certainly don’t have all the answers, but here are a few things we’ve tried to do to overcome obstacles along the way:

1. Shepherd your people toward diversity; don’t force it on them. Becoming a multicultural church is a journey. And when it comes to issues of race, people are in different places on that journey. Each person in your church has a story that shapes how they view the world.

For many in our context, the issue of race is only a political issue. Because of that, when we address issues of racism or have a service of lament for injustices going on in the world, we have been accused of “moving away from the gospel” or “becoming a liberal church.” So, in the pursuit of diversity, it is imperative that you gently shepherd your people to understand that diversity is actually at the heart of the gospel.

2. Listen to your people. Part of shepherding your people is having one-on-one conversations with them. The old pastoral adage is, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

I’ve had people send scathing e-mails and threaten to leave the church. But, instead of sending them our theological position paper on racial reconciliation, I’ve invited them to come to my office so I could listen to them. I’ve seen the eternal value in having personal conversations with people about diversity; listening has a way of disarming the hardest of hearts.

3. Ask for grace and forgiveness. Many of the challenges we’ve had to overcome are the result of the man in the mirror. Sometimes, as pastors, we’ve gone too fast or too slow and we’ve spoken too strong and too soft. I’m sure that everyone has been annoyed at some point. I sin and offend members, just as they sin and offend me. We all must depend on the same Savior. Yet, as a pastor, when you hurt people on this journey toward diversity, you should be the quickest to repent and ask forgiveness.


Many stipulate that by 2050, non-Hispanic whites will no longer be the majority in this country. From a pragmatic perspective, our churches must begin to take steps toward diversity now, or in the near future, we will be obsolete. We’ll become monocultural silos.

From a theological perspective, if our churches pray “on earth as it is in heaven,” yet don’t reflect—or worse, don’t care about—the portrait of heaven we’re given in Revelation 7:9, then I fear we will hurt our witness.

On the other hand, one of the greatest apologetics in the next 20 years will be multiethnic, multicultural churches. As cultural divides continue, and likely deepen, I believe people will ask “Why?” when they look at our churches and see blacks and whites, Hispanics and Asians, young and old, women and men, rich and poor, haves and have-nots, standing, living, laughing, weeping, walking— together—and worshipping the King of kings.

These will be the kinds of churches that will be, as Dr. King said, a thermostat that will transform the mores of society. And these are the kinds of churches we must strive to be.

Jamaal Williams

Jamaal Williams is lead pastor of Sojourn Community Church Midtown in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a native of Chicago, Illinois. He received a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University and has a D.Ed.Min. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as the president of Sojourn Network. Jamaal is … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24