“Welcome to the Multicultural Church”

Follow.Jesus.2013’s final meeting, a Sunday morning church service, was striking. It followed a Friday evening roast of Ron Sider, the 40-year face of Evangelicals for Social Action, and Saturday’s more academic consideration of the organization’s legacy. The service was a glimpse of moderate evangelicalism’s future: a woman (Heidi Unruh) presiding, a black worship band leading music, and the new faces of ESA—Al Tizon and Paul Alexander (the pair who will be leading the organization using a “consensus model”)—leading communion.

The new look was made all the more striking when the beloved Sider, a middle-aged buttoned-down, low-tech, Swiss-German white guy, commissioned his successors. Tizon, a Twitter-using Filipino-American, and the pony-tail-wearing Alexander. Tizon, an ordained minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church, has extensive experience as a missionary and community organizer, primarily in the Philippines with Action International Ministries from 1989 to 1998. From 1993-98, he served as the founding director of LIGHT Ministries, a Filipino community development organization committed to”empowering churches to empower their communities in Christ’s name. He is the author of Transformation after Lausanne: Radical Evangelical Mission in Global-Local Perspective (Regnum 2008).

Alexander emerged from less likely origins. A child of God-and-country Pentecostalism and a graduate of Baylor, he has tried to move his tradition toward an agenda of peacemaking. He helps lead Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace & Justice and serves on the editorial board of Pax Pneuma. He may have lost his God-and-country vibe, but he sure hasn’t shed his tradition’s charisma. He speaks with a bouncy cadence and carries himself with breathless enthusiasm.

It needs to be said, however, that the new ESA also represents significant continuity. In their mini-sermons, Tizon and Alexander both talked a lot about Jesus, justice, and peacemaking—all long-standing emphases of Sider. Even the theme of globalization is not very new. After all, Ron Sider did write a pretty important book called Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger! Still, the intensity seems to be ratcheting even higher. Talk of the rise of the Global South abounded. The many references to my esteemed co-blogger Philip Jenkins seemed too many to count. As Alexander, who has rebuffed the superpatriotism of his Pentecostal childhood, and Tizon, who embodies a kind of global reflex, presided over the communion service, the persistence of ESA’s global dimensions was palpable.

Significantly, the global mood is not limited to progressive evangelical circles. Andy Crouch, who works for Christianity Today, said it well at a recent Evangelical Immigration Table event:

  • “Churches and institutions have been enriched by generations of immigrants from every part of the world. A lot of pollsters like to break out the opinions of “white evangelicals.” But as you see from the group of leaders gathered here, one of the most remarkable features of evangelical Christianity in the United States is its ethnic diversity. [I venture to say that in any American city, if you look at churches founded in the last twenty years, the vast majority are evangelical or Pentecostal, and a great number are founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants.] And the more you are a leader in this movement, the more you become aware of the strength of that diversity and how much of it comes from recently arrived residents and citizens.”

In many cases, some of that strength comes in the form of livelier—and longer!—worship services. As the morning service wound down, Tizon noted the late hour. He then grinned and said, “Welcome to the multicultural church!”

*For a sample of Alexander and Tizon’s multicultural approach, click here.

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