This is Part 4 in a six-part series on [cf]’s emphases and distinctives. See Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
Worship team @ winter retreat 2011
We are concerned that students sometimes experience ministry in which they learn nothing about ethnic-specific churches and their role in sustaining ethnic minority communities, or how to relate to them once they graduate, even when these church traditions are their own. We are also concerned when Christian students subconsciously believe that there is only one ‘Christian culture’—their own, mainly—and that Christians of other ethnicities, cultures, and generations should conform to it. We are concerned that some ministries help people adapt to the culture of the ministry, rather than train people to be influential Christian leaders in their own communities. And we are concerned about Christian graduates who believe that the main way to influence culture is to attain positions of power. In combination with our teaching on Christian restorative justice, our view of culture leads us to be culture makers and not culture warriors.
Theology: ethnicity (Greek ethnos) is a biblical category, part of each person’s particularity, and is unequivocally affirmed by God as part of creation. In this, we differ from academic sociologists, who tend to say that both ethnicity and race are social constructs. We recognize that, sometimes, defining ethnicity might feel like defining the Pacific Ocean—we know where it is, even though its boundaries are difficult to pin down. Hence, ethnicity is a centered set concept rather than a bounded set concept.
However, race is a socio-political construct that attempts to group people based on physical appearances; it is not a biblical category and must be dismantled.
Culture is a mixed product of both creation and fall; hence, God is redeeming human cultures, not just individuals, and we expect to see God create a variety of Christian cultures. Some aspects of culture that we have found to be significant are the history of ethnic interaction with Christian faith and church; which religions and worldviews students deal with at home; experience of injustice or privilege; experience of immigration/displacement or not; perceptions of power, leadership, and responsibility; individualism vs. familial culture; the role of parents, family, gender, and age; views on dating and marriage; protocols of speech (quick or slow, loud or soft, direct or indirect, interrupt or not, how to have conflict); what is humorous and fun; perceptions of time and lateness.
Biblical basis: We believe that God wants each person to hear about Jesus in their heart language (Acts 2), and that he honors human language and aspects of culture (Rev.5:9) as he transforms and redeems human beings. Jewish and Gentile Christians maintained cultural distinctives as a part of their witness to the unity Jesus brought about and as a part of their outreach to other Jews and Gentiles (Rom.14 – 15; 1 Cor.8 – 10; Gal.2; Col.2 – 3). Jesus ministered to and taught his disciples to do ministry both to Jews and Gentiles (Mt.8:28 – 34; 14:13 – 18:35; 28:16 – 20). God’s command to spread out over the whole earth (Gen.1) suggests that he wanted and intended human diversity of ethnicity, culture, and language from the beginning. In this light, God’s intervention at Babel (Gen.11:1 – 9) is not a merely curse, but instead is God’s intervention in order to carry out his intentions despite human disobedience.
Practice: Just as each individual has a limited cultural range, each fellowship has a limited cultural range. Because of our understanding of God’s heart, because of our mission to reach the whole campus, and because of our awareness that someone in any given group will always feel more culturally marginalized than others, we have adopted a multiple fellowship strategy. HRCF planted AACF in 1994 not only for the theological reasons above, but because practically, we were predominantly Asian and were becoming less effective at reaching non-Asian American students. HRCF also planted BCF in 2008 to better reach the Black student community.
We feel that a multiple-fellowship strategy best engages people from diverse cultural backgrounds and best allows for Christ’s redeeming action in our cultures to be made known. Thus, AACF and BCF dedicate their time to exploring more deeply the issues that arise within the pan-Asian and pan-African communities, to displaying qualities of leadership from within those cultures, and to helping non-Asian and non-Black students become better able to engage with Asian and Black cultures, respectively.
The fellowship names—Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship, Asian American Christian Fellowship and Black Christian Fellowship—indicate the mission, not the constituency of the fellowships: anyone is welcome in every fellowship. Students have been in more than one fellowship or switched fellowships because of friendships or a changing sense of mission, and we encourage these ways of engaging with our sister fellowships. And HRCF draws on what we learn from AACF and BCF to extend our reach.
We see that the campus in some sense wants a Pentecost of inter-ethnic understanding and reconciliation without the Spirit of Jesus, but instead struggles to understand why tensions still exist. We believe that our multi-fellowship strategy is a better witness to the campus than a single-fellowship strategy. In fact, we believe that our cultural-organizational diversity is better witness to the world than the western university’s enthusiastic embrace of the ideal of diversity.
HRCF is a multiethnic fellowship—and this is not a politically correct term for the leftovers and the White Americans. Our ethnic composition fluctuates every year, so we cannot generalize about who we are in this regard; however, regardless of our current ethnic composition, ethnicity and culture is just as important to us as it is to AACF and BCF. By calling ourselves multiethnic we indicate that we talk about what Jesus has to say about culture and ethnicity, and we each seek to understand and appreciate our own and others’ heritages as a part of our mission.
According to our resources and abilities, we participate in a wide variety of worship styles, and we worship in different languages. We seek to appropriately address different needs and opportunities as they arise in different groups and to honor and develop different types of leadership. We also seek to articulate our own cultural backgrounds in order to help people understand more about us and about God’s heart.
At HRCF, AACF, and BCF, we envision Christian students eager to humbly learn more about how the gospel heals each cultural group. We envision Christians participating in both multi-cultural and culturally-specific forms of ministry, and learning to bridge them. We envision Christians who seek to transform culture wherever they are, whether on their kids’ playgrounds or in the boardroom. We envision churches that produce Christians of integrity who impact at least their own communities of origin. We envision Christians who want God’s glory to be manifested, not merely within the limits of modern politics in a nation-state, but in many languages and many cultures.