God’s Playground: One Doctoral Candidate’s Journey
by Rev. Dr. Lance E. Allen, Pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Ana
In May of 2019, I graduated with my Doctor of Ministry degree from New Theological Seminary of the West. The goal of my dissertation was to produce a set of ground rules for congregations like my own, the First Presbyterian Church Santa Ana, with a diverse, multi-ethnic mix, to grow and engage with one another. Inspired by a Santa Ana restaurant called The PlayGround, I titled my dissertation “God’s Play Ground: Moving from Multi-ethnic to Intercultural”.
The PlayGround, the restaurant, has no set menu. Every morning a team of chefs goes to the local farmers markets and picks out the freshest meats, produce and ingredients; they bring these back to the restaurant and they see what they have and they “playfully” create the menu for the day. Each chef brings his or her own experiences, expertise, and culture to the creation of the menu for the night.
A key theme for my studies was the Lord’s Prayer, in which Jesus instructs His disciples to pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…” If we truly mean it when we pray it, then we must ask, “What does heaven look like?” in order to understand what it is that we are seeking to establish here on earth. According to Revelation 7, heaven looks like a “great multitude… from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” worshipping God together. If that’s what heaven looks like, then we should be seeking to establish that here on earth.
It’s hard to summarize a 250 page dissertation, but let me offer a few insights.
First, God is a God of rich diversity and creation reveals that diversity. When we limit ourselves to one experience and one community and one voice, we limit the full revelation of God’s creation. As one, young, African-American pastor told me, “The Imago Dei (Image of God) is implanted in us all; if we do not welcome all of humankind into our congregations, then we limit the full spectrum of the Imago Dei.”
Second, I realized that terminology is important. The Spring Institute defined terms in a very helpful way. Multi-ethnic refers to organizations that have several different ethnicities represented, but there is a single culture to the organization. Multicultural refers to an organization with several different cultures, but those cultures are siloed, like cliques in a youth group; there is little exchange between groups. Intercultural, on the other hand, refers to several different cultures within one organization, but those cultural differences are recognized, valued and celebrated. All people have an equitable share in the decision-making process and individuals grow and change because of the positive relationship they have with one another.
At the beginning of this academic journey, we were told we would become experts in our field of study. After three years, I have concluded there is no such thing. As soon as we begin to authoritatively proclaim what characteristics a certain people have, we box them in, and we dance closely to the line of racism. No one likes to be boxed in. Therefore, the third lesson I learned was to shut up, stop giving answers, start asking questions, listen, and learn.
Another key lesson is that intercultural community does not just happen. A leader does not just say, “We are intercultural,” and it is so. It must be intentional. All parties must agree to the idea. There needs to be give and take on all sides. And our commitment needs to be regularly reinforced. Also, an equitable set of ground rules must be agreed upon and put into place, which is where my dissertation can be useful.
One more thing I learned is that an intercultural community is fluid. Just when you think you’ve arrived, you hit another pothole in the journey. So I am continually open to learn more. And, in fact, there is joy in the learning. I encourage all leaders to celebrate our cultural differences, value them, and learn from each other.
Soli Deo Gloria!