Foster's research focuses on Christian education and diversity

p> Echoing the changes in their neighborhoods and communities, more and more church congregations are striving to reflect more cultural and ethnic diversity. But how can churches struggling with these developments draw from the strengths of established multicultural churches? Charles Foster, professor of Christian education at the School of Theology, has several ideas.

Foster, whose research focuses on Christian education in "culturally diverse" settings, has looked at church congregations in cities around the United States that seek to embrace cultural diversity as part of their identities as churches. He has confined his research to mainline Protestant congregations, he said, "because they are struggling very hard to deal with cultural diversity in their memberships."

Foster has discovered several common characteristics of ethnically and culturally diverse churches:

* The congregation's primary focus is on service to the community. "When people work together on something, they are able to honor differences more readily than when creating a common relative identity," Foster said. "The presence of difference makes function more important."

* The congregation is countercultural in its intense commitment to strong intergenerational and intercultural ties. "For example, the children know the adults in the congregation," Foster said, and members make a special effort to include traditions of various cultures and ethnic backgrounds in worship services and social activities.

* Worship in these churches has a lot of vitality, and attendance at services is high. Also, worship in these churches tends to be highly interactive, with lots of member participation, which allows for the incorporation of different viewpoints into the pastor's overall sermon or teachings.

* Laity in multicultural churches take a hands-on approach to worship and church leadership, which serves as a stimulus to attend services and take responsibility for the church's successes or failures.

While a successful incorporation of diversity into a church's congregation may have its rewards, the differences themselves pose challenges, Foster said. "Each congregation struggles with teaching in the church. With varying cultural perspectives, the congregation needs to find some way to talk about these things together." Ministers can play a powerful role in creating community out of diversity, he said, by using teaching as a way of developing a "common language" through hymns, prayers and ritual practices that provide expression and celebrate diversity within the congregation.

"Any congregation is more diverse than any pastor has recognized already," Foster said. "Some churches may look homogenous, but they aren't. The pastor has the responsibility to honor diversity and look at issues of gender and generation. Multicultural congregations provide a clue to celebrating diversity in every congregation."

-- Elaine Justice

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