Breaking the silos



In 2015, the Uniting Church in Australia will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the 4th National Assembly declaration – “The Uniting Church is a multicultural Church”.

After three decades, it’s reasonable that we pause and take stock of how far we have lived into the declaration and expectations the Church made in 1985.
One of the dominant features of many country towns in Australia is a group of towers called silos. They stand out in the distance. Silos are commonly used for bulk storage of grain, coal, cement, woodchips, food products and sawdust. In short they are big containers.

These silos often remind me of the many silos within our multicultural church – congregations existing side-by-side yet having nothing much to do with each other.

Silo-mentality congregations often remain within their own walls and operate as if they are the only, or most important, part of the Body of Christ. We need each other, for we are the threads, fibres, cords, yarn, filaments, twine, and cables that the master weaver (God) wants to interlace together, not leave as separate strands.

The Body of Christ is greater than each individual congregation or faith community. What can we do to break down the silos within our Church? The answer is deceptively simple: become an intercultural church.

The time has come for us to move from simply declaring who we are (a multicultural church) and focus on becoming an intercultural church.
Before we examine what an intercultural church might look like, let’s clarify three terms that are often used: multicultural church, cross-cultural church and intercultural church.

In a multicultural church we tend to have ethnic groups living alongside one another. Largely the congregations remain in silos. The mono-cultural and ethnic-specific congregations are allowed equal and separate existence, but with neither intention nor vision for interaction.

The image of billiard balls spread on the table comes to mind. In that pluralistic and multicultural setting, various racial-ethnic peoples exist independent of each other with no desire for a larger community bonding – unless you hit one ball to strike another.

They value tolerance. Often there is a superficial celebration of food, dance and music without deep learning. Power differentials are not addressed and engagement tends to only focus on representation.

In a cross-cultural church a dominant culture crosses over her boundary and immerses herself with another culture. This is the missionary strategy of the colonial era, when western missionaries crossed over their Anglo-European boundaries and went to Africa, Asia or Latin America and operated parallel to western socio-political colonisation.

The movement is usually one way – a dominant culture to a minority culture. Often cultures are compared or contrasted with one another, and one culture is deemed superior or inferior to another.

In an intercultural church people still retain their ethnic backgrounds and try to share them with one another. Intercultural churches reach out and build relationships with two or more cultures; they try to bring the strengths of each culture to the table.

There aren’t cultural bunkers or silos. Intercultural churches engage each other meaningfully and develop intercultural competences. The focus is on building deeper relationships between different ethnic congregations.

According to George Lakoff, an American cognitive linguist and author: “Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions.”

Using the phrase ‘becoming an intercultural church’ is not simply ‘pouring new wine into old wineskins’, it is seeking to reframe the way we see and be Church together.

We are a multicultural church. This is who we are. But we are not yet an intercultural church.

The phrase ‘multicultural church’ is often used to refer only to the ethnic part of the church resulting in an ‘us and them’ mentality. Often, predominantly Anglo congregations tend to think they are not part of the multicultural church.

Using the phrase ‘intercultural church’ shifts the focus onto relationships. The emphasis is on the inter-relationship within the diverse body of Christ.

In a world that appears to be more conflicted around ethnic and religious diversity, we who profess to follow the Way can stand in the gap and demonstrate that there is another way to embrace and live and be enriched by diversities. Through becoming an intercultural church we model inclusive communities of grace that mirror God’s acceptance and love for all people.

Let us journey together with God and one another in becoming an intercultural church. However, this is not an end-goal in itself.

Rather, becoming an intercultural Church: “… is to respond to the call to live together in intentional ways that engage in mutual recognition, respect, and understanding of difference and, through intentional self-examination, relationship building, and equitable excess to power, we as the church seek to be fully committed and faithful in our response.” (The United Church of Canada)

KOH Swee-Ann                                                                                                                                         

Director Intercultural Unit
Commission for Mission

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