by Jim Miyabe and Nathan Cherney
Pastor Jim Miyabe:
When I graduated from Asbury Theological Seminary, I was a firm believer in the ethnic church. I started my first assignment here at the Venice Free Methodist Church (VFMC) a predominately Japanese American church in West Los Angeles. There were a few “others,” but otherwise we were culturally and ethnically Japanese American.
Over the years, I came to rethink and refashion my belief in the need for the Japanese American ethnic church for two main reasons: First, I realized that Japanese Americans were being welcomed into other ethnic churches. When I first started pastoral ministry, Japanese Americans only served in churches of our own ethnicity. The need for a Japanese American church was necessary so that we could go where we were welcomed. As the years went by, I saw many Japanese Americans worshipping in the churches of other ethnicities. Additionally, I found that other ethnicities liked to worship at our church. We welcomed them, of course, and a trickle of other Asians and non-Asians began.
Second, I learned that as a third-generation Japanese American, I could drop the label of “immigrant.” My parents and grandparents were considered to be members of the immigrant generations, and their survival meant clustering among themselves to help each other get by socially, emotionally, and economically.
The struggles and the hardships of the immigrant generations had elapsed mainly by the time the third generation became working adults. The Japanese American community had become self-sufficient, and some even became affluent and influential. Since I was no longer an immigrant, it was time to turn the Japanese American community into a community that could bless and encourage people of other ethnicities. The Japanese American community no longer needed the church as a social haven. As a church leader, it became paramount that the Lord wanted us to share His blessings with all people. This revelation was an important change in my way of thinking. God had blessed and watched over us for many years, and it was time for us to bless others.
I share the journey of my change in my way of thinking because it was crucial to leading our church into a new era. That conviction was vital as it was the basis for our change into multiculturalism.
I first started sharing my new beliefs with the church leadership, ministry staff, and lay leaders on the Official Board. Most were very open to my ideas and, I believe, sensed too that God was leading us to minister to our entire community. Then we shared the new vision with our congregation. Most received the new direction well although some did not.
We did some things intentionally:
- Take Japanese words and sayings out of our church conversations. Certain words we used regularly would be known only to someone from a Japanese American background.
- Put people of other ethnicities into positions of responsibility or leadership.
- Consider people of other ethnicities for hired positions in ministry and staff.
- Minister to people outside of the church who are of all ethnicities, and, at times, specifically target areas where other ethnicities or socioeconomic groups mostly populate it.
- Support missionaries to all areas of the world, not just to Japan or other Asian nations.
A third purpose came to light in the last couple of years. There has been much attention on racial prejudice and ethnic bias. Specific incidents in our country in recent years have exposed the need for more racial harmony. It became apparent that our church’s movement to multiculturalism was a step toward racial harmony in our community. While this was not one of the purposes at the beginning of our attempts, it has become an important part of what we are accomplishing.
We are evolving and slowly succeeding in our efforts. Many of our church family are not only not Japanese American, but they are also not Asian American. We want to make more progress, and we are gaining.
Pastor Nathan Cherney:
Gratefully, I was part of Pastor Jim’s vision of hiring ethnicities beyond Japanese American descent. As a Caucasian growing up in Chino, California, I was most familiar with my culture and the predominant Hispanic ethnicity of students at my high school. When my wife, Valeria (who is of Honduran descent), and I first came to Venice FMC five years ago, I realized how little I knew of Japanese culture. I had never heard of spam musubi until I tried it on the camp bus. (If you haven’t had it yet, I would highly recommend it!) While the church had expanded to welcoming other ethnicities, its largest demographic was of Asian descent. Interestingly enough, I was no longer considered the majority but was never treated as an outsider because of the church’s loving and welcoming presence.
The years Pastor Jim spent cultivating a welcoming environment with the intentionality of ministering to all types of people gave birth to an exciting opportunity. The church leadership realized that a high degree of their adult children, upon graduating college, no longer attend VFMC. In several cases, they don’t attend church at all. It is a disturbing trend that churches across America are facing.
With Pastor Jim’s blessing, I was charged to create a place for young adults to call their own — a Christ-centered community where people could go deeper in their walk with God and do life with one another. After gathering a leadership team and working through the details of what this community could be, we were inspired by the woman’s interaction at the well in John 4. Jesus met this unnamed woman, who was considered unworthy and unlovable because of her ethnicity, her lifestyle, and her past choices. Yet Jesus met her where she was — in the midst of the community where people would gather at the well. Thus the Well, a young adult ministry, was born.
Creating a Christ-centered community in Los Angeles is no easy task. The transient nature of young people to pursue their dreams and the cultural pervasiveness of Hollywood grinds against a thriving Christian community. Despite this challenge (including the recent COVID-19 pandemic), God has made a way to have the Well be the most diverse ministry under VFMC. We have a healthy proportion of Hispanics, African Americans, Caucasians and Asians including several young adults who moved from other states as well as those who are Los Angeles natives. Some just graduated high school, and others are in their mid-30s. From new believers (including a convert from Islam) to those seasoned in the Word, young adults from all walks of life —teachers, students, actors, physical therapists, and aspiring professional golfers — have called the Well their home.
Within this backdrop, I’d like to highlight a few principles to consider in addition to Pastor Jim’s points above:
Meet the outsiders. That one person who just slipped in your meeting? Make sure that the person feels the welcoming presence of God through your people. Regardless of whether new attendees are outside of the specific demographic or are not part of the usual social group, they are there for a reason.
We had several young adults come and go, but the ones who stuck around were the ones hungry for community. I soon found out that prior churches had hurt a few individuals, and several felt not part of “the group.” As a result, we intentionally made the group be for them because they wanted to grow in Christian community. This purposeful realignment is crucial because it can be easy to form a group based on tradition, and churches tend to do things the way they have always been done. This leads to my next point.
Break apart cliques. Cliques are dangerous and will keep a ministry small. Why? Only a few individuals have access to be a part of the clique. The rest are automatically on the outside, and when you walk in a room, you can quickly feel that you are not part of the circle. A typical clique involves like-mindedness among peers, including people who look and act the same.
The best way to not have cliques is to create a culture where people have to meet other people. It sounds obvious, but it takes work because a multiethnic group will not naturally transpire. A few practical ideas include:
Mix up people in different small groups. We have discussion time at the end of a lesson. Why does discussion have to be with the same people?
Empower leaders who are social to meet people different than themselves. It starts with the leaders (including you, of course), and what you do will set the standard for the culture you are trying to create.
New persons are to be greeted by at least three other people than who brought them. Take time to train leaders and greeters on how to converse with strangers. It is an art, so make sure the right people are positioned to be the welcoming face of your ministry or church.
Embrace cultural differences. It is easy to walk into a room and know what to expect because they are your people. Yet you know how hard it is to fit in once you step into a different place than what you are used to. With churches, it is the same way. If there is a church that celebrates diversity and champions other cultures, it is easy for those who are different to come.
I have found this to be quite accurate when it comes to food. Young adults love to eat, so why not try a dish from a person in your ministry who is culturally different than what you are used to? Not only could you find new food you love, but people will feel accustomed to the ethnic variation and embrace those who are different from your people group.
As we are becoming more diverse as a society and witnessing the rise of hate toward particular races and ethnicities, it is more important than ever to be the love and light of Christ. Representing Christ includes, like Jesus at the well, meeting others who look, act, and think differently than you or me. I hope you will take the challenge to extend the welcoming hand of fellowship to those who are different and create a culture that reflects that heart. It may not be easy, but nothing ever worth it is. +