Episode 33: “How Can Your Church Draw the Circle Wider?” featuring Jacqui Lewis

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 33: "How Can Your Church Draw the Circle Wider?" featuring Jacqui Lewis

How can we live into a more multi-ethnic vision for our congregations? In this episode we speak with Jacqui Lewis of Middle Collegiate Church about multi-cultural and multi-racial congregations, plus the joys and challenges of being a multi-ethnic congregation.

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How can we live into a more multi-ethnic vision for our congregations? In this episode, we speak with Reverend Dr. Jacqui Lewis of Middle Collegiate Church about multicultural and multi-racial congregations. Plus the joys and challenges of being a multi-ethnic congregation.

Doug Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I’m Douglas Powe, the director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is Reverend Dr. Jacqui Lewis the pastor of Middle Collegiate Church. Our focus for this podcast is leading multiracial and multicultural congregations. Jacqui, I’m so happy you could join us today. I look forward to this conversation. And I want to begin by asking you, how would you distinguish between multiracial and multicultural? I know some people think they’re the same thing. Others think they’re different. I’m curious, what’s your opinion in using this language?

Jacqui Lewis: Thank you. Thank you so much for the opportunity to chat with you today about this. I think it’s ironic that, right now, my staff is going through an anti-racism training. We’re reading “White Fragility” and had a trainer come in yesterday to help us talk about it. I think the truth is that there’s really only one race and that race is human. And so almost every time we’re talking about the difference between culture groups, those who are physiologically different, we’re not talking about race actually.  We’re talking about ethnicity. So, we try to use multiracial though, because the nation still hasn’t caught up to that definition. So, when I think about what a multiracial congregation is, it’s a congregation with more than one ethnicity.

Doug Powe: So, in that sense, then, congregations could be multi-ethnic and at the same time have different cultures.  Or congregations could be multicultural but not necessarily multi-ethnic.

Jacqui Lewis: Exactly. That’s exactly right. Doesn’t that make sense? So, for example, you think way back to “Worship Words” written by Tom Long, you could be in, let’s say an all-white-seeming church, right? Inside that white-seeming church, there are many cultures. There might be Lutheran white folks who worship a certain way.  Or there could be older white people who have different expectations about worship. Or there could be, you know, an LGBTQ culture, right, inside the white church. So many cultures in one church. And, a multi-ethnic church might feel more mono-cultural. It might be say, for example, you’re in a multiracial multi-ethnic church, where all the people are from the DC Beltway, and all of the people work in government, or you know all people make a certain income. You’d have less cultures. But you’d have more ethnicities.

Doug Powe: If you think about congregations and economic difference, or economic similarities, I should say, you could have rich people from various ethnicities together. Would you say, then, that they have a shared culture because of economics in that sense, that could be a driving force?

Jacqui Lewis: I think that’s right.  And you know, what we would analyze is, inside that congregation, one of the cultures, because I want to argue every church is multicultural — but one of the cultures would be class. In that sense, “Oh we have a shared culture because we all are high earners.” And let’s say even “We have a shared culture because we’re all Republican and high wage earners.” Okay, so those are some ways that you can have some similar culture, or same culture, even in the midst of diversity. Does that make sense?

Doug Powe: It makes a lot of sense. And you talk about diversity, and that actually leads into my next question. A lot of congregations talk a lot about diversity and always are saying, “we want more diversity.” What are some things that leaders and congregations can do to actually increase their diversity? And I’m really thinking of established congregations. Because I think once you’re established, and have been established for a while, it seems like it’s harder and harder to become more diverse.

Jacqui Lewis: I think one of the first things a congregation needs to do to increase its diversity, besides buying our book — my husband and I have a book out called “The Pentecost Paradigm: Ten Strategies for Becoming a Multiracial Congregation” — but I think that appreciative inquiry would be a strategy. We could say to ourselves “we already know how to do diversity. Look at the diversity here.” And to be really intentional about noticing, celebrating, affirming, the diversity that’s there. We have generational diversity.  We have worship style diversity.  We’ve got single parents and we got families. We’ve got LGBTQ community and we’ve got straight. So, you start by naming and owning the diversity you have there and ask yourself, “how are we doing this?” “What are the tactics we’re using to make this place a safe place and a brave place for the diversity already in our midst?” And what can we learn from that when we think about then pushing our diversity out? And, if what one really means is, how do I make a multi-ethnic church? Then you have to start asking yourself “what am I willing to give up so people feel welcome?” And that gets you pointed at established places. You know you can’t just say “we’re going to be more diverse.” You gotta shift the way you be in order to invite others in. Worship style? Who leads? Who’s sitting on the pulpit? What kind of songs do we sing?  What kind of music do we do? What kind of instruments do we do? How can we use art to help more folks find their way in, and more portals for people to come in? So, there’s some first thoughts.

Doug Powe: So if, and I agree with you that a lot is you have to be willing to give something up or be willing to change something, so congregations that are obviously struggling and declining, in a neighborhood that represents a great diversity, why do you think they’re so unwilling to make those changes?

Jacqui Lewis: I think they’re afraid. I think our identities are so tied to our sense of self and self-esteem, you know. “We are these people. We are white who grew up in this neighborhood. This is our history. This is our culture.” And the changing demographics of the world have the world on fire. The whole world — every white entrenched nation — is afraid of demographic shifts and immigration patterns and migrants moving into their world. So, it’s a fear of loss of power, a loss of identity, a loss of a status quo. And the consequence of that fear is death. And so, you know, not to be strident, but to say “do you want to live?” So, we have to prepare ourselves for a new multiracial, multi-ethnic future. 

Doug Powe: Yeah, I agree. So, staying in that line, as we think about sermons, and, of course, you’re fortunate enough to have a congregation that’s multi-ethnic and multicultural, but for someone who is seeking to move in that direction, how do they prepare sermons that can actually speak to a diverse audience? I mean, because, again, that can become challenging. Your illustrations, the way you think about things, again, probably needs to shift. So how do you help people to make that shift?

Jacqui Lewis: Well that is an excellent question. You know, I think, I would say every clergy in America today who has not put themselves in a study, in a study group, in a lectionary group, in a multiracial group of people talking, needs to put themselves in such a group, if they want to be preaching for the 21st Century. So, can I be in a conversation with a Latinx pastor, and an African American pastor, maybe a Korean pastor, in my neighborhood?  So that, as I begin to exegete the text to prepare for preaching, I’m not only looking at the Bible itself and its historic context right, but I’m also exegeting the world today. And the best way to do that is in conversation with other partners. So, a different thing, like how does a Korean sense of “han” — suffering, struggle — help me to think about, let’s say an African-American sense of hope, and a European sense. There must be particularly an Irish sense of what it means to be “the other,” you know? If we can be in conversation with people who are different than we are as we’re preaching, I think that helps us write a sermon that is multi-ethnic. And the conversation partners are, ideally, live. But also, what commentaries am I’m reading? You know, are we reading Dolores Williams and Katie Cannon? Are we reading James Cone? Are we reading Womanist articles like Eboni Marshall Turman? I mean are we putting ourselves in conversation, also with research, that is more than just white-western?

Doug Powe: So, in your own work, how long does it take you to do this? Because I can imagine that a lot of individuals hear what you’re saying but will say, “that sounds like a tremendous investment to preach for 20-25 minutes on Sunday”

Jacqui Lewis: Yep, it is. It’s an hour per minute. Isn’t that what our professors tell us? If it has to be an hour per minute all in one day, that’s probably actually not your best sermon.

Doug Powe: I think that’s helpful. I wanna shift a little bit and I’m gonna go to one of your older books.  In your book “The Power of Stories,” you share that we are all formed by stories and I think that you’re absolutely correct. My question, though, if my story is the only one I know, it’s the one I grew up with, it’s the one that has shaped and formed me, then how do I expand my story?

Jacqui Lewis: Wow, that’s a great question. I think my first response might be therapy or spiritual direction. You know, we are formed in the stories that are told to us about us, by our parents, by the media, right, by the world. History – somebody wrote that. But I think it’s our responsibility as adults to be always thinking “how do I have a narrative story that is cohesive, that is coherent, that is life-giving?” And we can change our stories! Meaning until we die, we’re writing a story about ourselves. So, let’s just say a girl child was molested by an adult in her life. That is a catastrophic event in a story and she could stay victimized by that story. On the other hand, with research, and writing, and journaling, and a therapist, she finds herself feeling resilient and like a badass, you know, like a powerful person because she survived that, and the ways that she’s led other people to survival. So, I think, stories have a beginning, and a middle, and an end. And our story isn’t over until we die. Therefore, we get to be in the business of rewriting, and making sense of, and making meaning of our story all the way over our lifetime. And therapy, spiritual direction. One of my friends says, “a good friend is just as good as a good therapist.” But to be purposeful, to be intentional about how we want to think of ourselves and how we want others to perceive us, in ways are true.

Doug Powe: So, what if my perception of myself negates who you are and I’m okay with that. So how do we help others to see that.  While certainly I have a right to write my own story, but there’s still a shared story when you’re in communities with other people and we have to be able to navigate that shared story.

Jacqui Lewis: Yeah, I think that’s a really important point that you’re making. So, stories don’t just shape, like I think I say in the book, stories don’t just shape individual identity, they shape a shared narrative. And that’s what congregational life is. Congregational life is finding our shared narrative in the story of God at work in the world, right? So we are, all of us, being impacted by, if I can stay in that story trope for a minute, being impacted by having our narratives reshaped by the narratives of others. And that’s why we have conflict, quite frankly, because my story and your story don’t sit well together. You know we have conflict. But if we’re – if we embrace conflict as a healthy part of life I get to be changed when I’m having a conflict with you. Not you, but you know. Like, “what really is that how you think?” So that’s about conversation. That’s about care.  That might even be about confrontation.  But I want to see if our larger identity, our larger story, is the story of the holy at work in the world. If we make that our supra identity, I think that gives us all a chance to lean into a story of hope, and redemption, and healing, restoration and reconciliation.

Doug Powe: And I think that’s powerful. I think, and you can comment, the tricky piece is helping people really to think about focusing on the Holy One in terms of the one who directs our stories ultimately. That often times, we get caught up in thinking we are the ones who ultimately write our own narratives. Do you think that’s fair or unfair?

Jacqui Lewis: Well, I think that’s totally fair. And I think you know, did you ever read Jim Loder, “The Transforming Moment?” I love that. And I’m fascinated that his book about, kind of being in search for a story that has an ending, mirrors the work of Eugene Lowry in “The Homiletical Plot.” And I want to put that on the table right now, to say maybe, as faith leaders, one of our responsibilities is to help people to think “Here’s a story. Here’s a story that is a universe, you know.  It is the beginning of the universe, and the end of the universe being held in the container that is God’s love and God’s intention for humanity.” For me, as a busy pathos-laden, frustrated-with-the-world Black woman, I am finding comfort, feeling like God’s holding us. And I don’t think God’s story for us is a linear, never-to-be-changed story either, just to be honest. But if I think I’m in community with other human beings who are in community with the Holy One, perfecting the universe, right? Healing the universe is the end of our story, the telos of our story. That’s liberating and empowering! And I think if preachers could get clear that that’s our aim — to help our congregants, no matter how they look, no matter who they love, no matter how they are — to cast themselves into God’s story. But that’s what I say to preachers when I’m teaching preaching. Our job is to help people find their way into that story and see themselves as agents, and actors, and powerful people inside that story — able to partner with God.

Doug Powe: Yeah, I know. That is definitely powerful. And this is another follow-up to that. I’m gonna try to bring it down, a little bit more practical. So, how do you, then, help people to act it out practically. So, in your congregation, when you’re dealing with different ethnicities, or different cultures, and conflicts come up, how do you help them to practically remember, “we’re part of this bigger story?” What are some things that individuals can think about in their own congregations to move in that direction?

Jacqui Lewis: Let me start with the corporate, if you will. Those of us who preach, whether once a year or every Sunday, gosh we have this holy, amazing responsibility to do this “storying.” Let’s make that a word.  The “storying” for people.  And each of us is always preaching through our own story.  We have to own that. But let’s just say this, here at Middle Church, the subtext of our preaching is “love transforms.” That’s the theme we’ve picked this year. We’re looking at the lectionary through “love transforms.” We’re doing Bible study through “love transforms.” You’re preaching through “love transforms.” So, all of the people, the 350 people in that worship, the 150 people in that worship, everybody online that’s watching, all have a shared text through the lens of “love transforms.” That’s part one.

So what? And there’s always a “so what” if love transforms? You’ve got a broken-hearted friend, bring them to church, you know. If love transforms, teach your child the power of standing up for the vulnerable even now. Since love transforms, our little people are staying in worship so they can overhear us. I’ll tell you a particular story. Yesterday, we were preaching, my colleague and I did a duet, and we were preaching out the baptism of Jesus.  And let’s say our core message was, Jesus was already a child of God. Baptism didn’t make Jesus a child of God. It’s like simple design and baptism is an ongoing process of becoming the people of God and helping other people become the people of God. That was pointed to. And so, at the very end of the sermon, I’m saying “do you know why we give each other a kiss during the passing of the peace?” I say “in a way that’s a baptism. The early church ordained leaders by kind of doing the kiss of peace, which is about blowing God’s love on each other.” But before I answered that question, a little eight-year-old girl, when I said “do you know why we give each other a kiss?” She raised her hand like she was in Sunday school and I was like “come over here and tell me!” Eight-year-old Josie: “We kiss because we love each other. We’re loving each other, the people of God.” And though she was heavy I picked her up to put her on my hip and I said, “Every kiss that we share is a baptism into the love of God.” And that little girl kissed me on my lips. And I thought I was going to lose it. I almost dropped her. She got that! An eight-year-old got it. So, an eight-year-old white girl, let me say, got that. So, the preaching project, the worship project is to have our children, our seniors, all of us overhear and take deeply in how much we’re a part of the story is one thing.

I think the second thing is in multi-everything contexts, inevitably there’s strife. And we have to, as leaders, not be afraid to call somebody out. “That’s not the loving thing. That’s not how. That’s not what that looks like. That’s not the story that God’s writing for us.” And although you are welcome just as you are, as you come to the door, when you get in here there are norms and values of what it means to be human. So, we had a conflict with one of our old Jewish guys – we have old Jewish guys at the church! And he’s in conflict with us not because he’s old and Jewish, but because he’s behaving badly.  And it’s my responsibility as a leader, who leads with love, to even still say “Unh-uh, baby, that is not how we do it.” To take it on. To keep the whole community safe. So that’s two things. Public proclamation consistently. This is the story of God and this is how we fit in it.  And privately, or sometimes in small groups, saying “when we’re not acting loving, we don’t get to be here in the community.”

Doug Powe:Yeah, that’s helpful. I know you’d like Howard Thurman.  From reading “The Power of Stories” again, you talk about Thurman’s use of imagination, and that Thurman could imagine a different society based on his grandmother’s love of God, even though what he experienced was different. And I think imagination is powerful. Powerful for leadership because when we can help people to imagine something different, it then helps us to take a journey towards that which is different. How can we help more people engender that type of imagination, even though their experiences may be different?

Jacqui Lewis:That’s such a good question. That’s such a great question. It’s like it’s an act of liberation or an act of play, maybe.  I want to say something on both. And I’ll do liberation first. You know, that story of Howard Thurman and how the church didn’t want to do his dad’s funeral because he wasn’t going to church. But how the grandmother just held out for him a picture of a preferred reality, like she was this vision caster, right? I think if we teach our young people and remind our old people, kind of in that Joel scripture way, “but we will dream dreams, will see visions.” It’s liberating to think, though the world that we live in isn’t how we want it to be, we can dream a world – you know that poem “I Dream a World.”  We can dream a world and if we dream it, if we see it, we can do it together. Without it, without a vision, people perish. So, I think, it’s liberating to use education, to use our sermons, to use our mentoring, to say: “what are you dreaming about?” “What do you do and how is your dream located in God’s dream?” And I think that’s both our personal dreams and our dreaming for the world. It’s liberating. It’s a gift. It’s a liberating gift.

And how do we do it? We have to be intentional. We have to use language, use dream language, use vision language. Every year we have a congregational meeting and we just are asking people to tell us what they’re dreaming about. My staff does one-on-ones with people and the question we’re always asking is “what are you dreaming about?” I don’t have to remind my staff to ask that question any more. It’s just a part of who we are. And we try to take those dreams and play them back out. Some of you are dreaming that we’ll start a school.  You know, stuff like that.

I think the other thing, there’s a really beautiful book by Donald Winnicott called “Playing and Reality.” And that’s in my “Power of Stories” book. I was deeply impacted by his writing when I was in a Ph.D program. But he’s like, “everything in life is play.” And, as a psychologist of religion, I think he’s helped me to think that the life of worship is to rehearse God’s name so let’s turn that into some playful language. How do we play together? How do we rehearse like that? How do we?  So, our children serve communion. When you walk up to a little kid and bend down and take communion from that kid, that’s like playing, in the reality that we hope for.

Doug Powe:You’re right. It gives you a different picture of the kingdom. As we come, to the end, having you sort of dream a little bit. In five or ten years, how will mainline congregations, in your mind, differ from today? Do you think they actually will become more multi-ethnic? Or will we continue down a path we are currently on where you find a few places here or there where you have truly multi-ethnic congregations?

Jacqui Lewis: I’m dreaming of a world where — I mean this is 2020 almost – scary! But, I’m dreaming of a world in 10 years — I’ll do 10 so we have a little more time to get to my dream — where congregations have recognized the joy and beauty of being with the so-called “other.” That we actually, if we really believe we’re created in the image of God, that we really don’t know as much about God in a segregated space as we do in a multiracial, multi-ethnic, multicultural place. We learn texture.  We learn vulnerability.  We learn joy.  We learn, you know, how to navigate problems. We learn about the Holy rubbing shoulders with someone who’s not like us, in the most profound way. So, I’m dreaming that there is, that in 10 years there has been, a movement for multiracial, multicultural congregations that is blooming. And it isn’t for survival, you know, but it’s for joy. And that’s because people come to our conference in April and get catch a vision. Or the people who are doing this — the other church that are doing this around the country and showing it in the social world, in the eco space that is social media, “Do you see this?” “See what this looks like! This is beautiful.”

We were on CBS on Christmas Eve instead of Stephen Colbert.  And some of the notes we’ve gotten back from people are like “is that really how a church looks? Or did you cast it?” Like no, that’s really how it looks! I think that we yearn for a healed world. I think we want there to be an end of racism and discrimination. So, more multiracial congregations flourishing, out of joy, not survival. Because we’ve seen it can happen, enough of us. And we were learning how to do it. And, quite frankly, I’m dreaming of the Universalist spaces. I’m a Christian, like I follow Jesus. But Jesus was a Jew.  And I can only imagine a God, like I only can believe in God, who speaks more than one language. Who is speaking to Jews, and Muslims, and Buddhists. To Humanists and Unitarians in the language that they need to hear. That’s in that book, “Power of Stories” — a multivocal God. So I’m dreaming of more spaces where the worship is multiracial, and multicultural, and multi-ethnic, and interfaith. I’d love to be the pastor of a giant multi-faith church, where I share space with a rabbi, and an imam, and a sensei, and we’re all taking turns preaching and, you know, leading the world toward love. Yeah, those are my dreams.

Doug Powe:Well it is a powerful dream and I really appreciate your taking the time be with us a day. This has been wonderful!


Announcer: How can congregations imaginatively use their space? In the next episode we speak with Bob Jaeger, President of Partners for Sacred Places about reimaging the space in your building.

Bob Jaeger:  For an older historic church, yes, you’re right, there can be that assumption that you know we’ve been here for 50, or 100, or 150 years, so certainly people must appreciate our importance to the community. And, indeed, if we need some help to take care of this place, surely they will respond. And that is often, a false assumption. So I think what we do is to try to help congregations, test those assumptions and really just get out there and talk to their neighbors. And get a fresh new idea on how they’re viewed and invite the community in.

Announcer:  Thank you for joining us and don’t forget to subscribe free to Leading Ideas at churchleadership.com/leadingideas


Related Resources


About Author

Jacqui Lewis

Dr. Jacqueline J. Lewis, PhD, is a public theologian and the first Black or female senior minister at Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan. Middle Collegiate Church is co-affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the Reformed Church in America. She is the author of Fierce Love: A Bold Path to Ferocious Courage and Rule-Breaking Kindness That Can Heal the World (Harmony, 2021), available on Cokesbury and Amazon.

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is also co-editor with Jessica Anschutz of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024) and coauthor with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation (Fortress, 2022). His previous books include The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020); Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations; New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations; Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith; and Transforming Community: The Wesleyan Way to Missional Congregations.