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This post is written by Dr. Syd Hielema, who serves as co-director of the Canadian Multicultural Congregations learning cohort.

Imagine sitting in a crowded room with 50 people and listening to folks from 16 different Christian Reformed churches each tell their congregational story for 20 minutes – for a total of  more than 6 hours in one day!  

As if that wasn’t bad enough, freezing rain was falling outside, and any attempt to escape that room required taking one’s life into one’s hands while walking across wet ice. 


I can tell you that all 50 people who were in that room were deeply moved by what they shared and heard, and could have listened for much longer than six hours. 


An on-going Pentecost

The gathering was the launch retreat of a 10 month learning cohort for Canadian CRC congregations that have become increasingly multicultural during the past decade. Each one was given 20 minutes to share their own 10 year story with the group, and each story felt like it could have come straight from the book of Acts. Each story described the on-going character of Pentecost. 

Here are some of the patterns that emerged:

  1. Unplanned. Most of the congregations did not plan to become multicultural. A Farsi Iranian couple visited the Willowdale CRC, and, after the husband encountered unexpected medical issues, were dumbfounded when its pastor visited them in the hospital a few days later. Since then, more than 100 Farsi speakers have joined Willowdale CRC. Cornwall and Willowdale. Immanuel CRC in Cornwall, ON developed a robust refugee ministry, and were delighted when several refugee families became active congregants, and one –Joseph Bya from Myanmar – became their worship leader and preached this past Good Friday. (Joseph also led worship for this project’s launch retreat). 
  2. Experimentation. All of the congregations quickly realized that there was no playbook for becoming a multicultural congregation and they were forced to experiment. That powerful phrase  – “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2.12b) – took on a new meaning, because trial and error necessarily includes “error.” What are the best ways to worship when the sanctuary holds several different mother tongues? How does one develop a diverse leadership team when each culture has its own assumptions concerning how leaders act and are treated? Trial and error experimentation requires a lot of grace, humour and patience, as well as gratitude for small steps of success. 

As Hebron CRC in Whitby noted, “Recently we experimented with using a translation app in our staff meeting so that we could better communicate with our Mandarin-speaking pastor. While the app certainly wasn't perfect, it was wonderful to see the joy on Pastor George's face as he followed our conversations on his phone. He participated more than ever before in our meeting, laughing at jokes and contributing comments. It was a real breakthrough!”

  1. A bumpy ride. Inevitably multicultural growth creates bumps. Some longtime members are uncomfortable with the changes and leave for other congregations. Folks can find it difficult to distinguish between “cultural” habits and “biblical” habits, and thus conclude that accommodating cultural differences involves being less biblical (this is not new; see Acts 11: 2-3!). 
  2. Unexpected blessings. Every single congregation participating in this project has experienced unexpected blessings. Listen to some of them:

I wish all CRCs could experience the literal and spiritual colours, both in dress and in person, of all the different nationalities represented during worship in our multicultural congregation.

Recently, we have started to include scripture reading, or call to worship in other languages ( Swahili, Burmese or French). One of our Congolese new Canadians has been blessing us with her beautiful solos in Swahili.  

Recently we celebrated Nowruz (Persian New Year) along with our Persian members and we decided we want to acknowledge special holidays from other cultural traditions as well. So on April 28 we will be celebrating Koningsdag (King's Day) along with our Dutch background members.

I believe that by 2035, the majority of Christian Reformed congregations in North America will be multicultural, foretastes of the great Rev. 7.9 vision. Already a second cohort of such congregations is being gathered, and we’re very grateful that the CRCNA’s Thriving Practices project provides funding for this endeavor. 

And one final note: the project is led by people from four different CRC ministries: Rev. Lesli VanMilligen (Thrive), Gary Timmerman (Resonate), Pablo Kim Sun (Canadian Justice Ministries) and myself (Connections). 

PS. Several project participants shared their experiences in this short video. Enjoy! 

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