irst-time visitors to City of Refuge Church in Houston, Texas, are often taken aback by its diversity. At a time when still only 5 percent of American Protestant churches fit the sociologists’ definition of a multicultural church—one with a racial minority of at least 20 percent—City of Refuge displays an array of ethnicities serving side by side, everywhere from the smiling faces at the front door to the spirited singers on the platform.
As Sunday morning worship begins, Hispanic and African American vocalists and musicians lead “the opening hymn.” An elder, black or white or Asian, welcomes the congregation, leads a prayer, Scripture reading, creed, and announcements. After more praise music, pastor Ikki Soma (ThM, 1999) steps to the podium.
Tokyo-born, California-raised Soma is the third pastor of the twenty-year-old church. The first pastor, a white man, began in 1996 with a group of Christians who commuted from the suburbs to serve people on the fringes in the inner city. The second, a black man, with the support of the originally all-white elders, intentionally integrated the congregation, starting by recruiting his own parents and siblings with their families.
By the time that pastor left to lead another church, the several hundred members and attenders of City of Refuge were solidly biracial, with 45 percent black and 45 percent white. Soma has led the congregation since early 2012. Today the congregation, which has continued to grow, is comprised of 34 percent of European descent, 42 percent of African descent (including 9 percent first-generation immigrants), 16 percent of Asian descent, and 8 percent of Latino descent. Quite a few have two or more ethnic groups in their background—including a member whose heritage is Jewish European and African.
A Global Mission
Soma was drawn to multicultural ministry shortly after he trusted Christ at Valley Church while attending high school in Cupertino, California. “So here was my high school with Asian, Hispanic, black, Samoan, Tongan, and white students, but my thousand-member church a block away was all white, except for one black family and two Asian families. I thought, ‘There is something wrong with this picture.’”
Soma vividly remembers the church’s 1994 summer conference, during which DTS professor Dr. Ramesh Richard compared the Tower of Babel with the church described in Acts 2. Richard called the sermon “Global Mission: Fission and Fusion.” Soma recalls Richard saying, “Whenever we humans try to make a name for ourselves, God scatters us. But whenever we submit to Jesus Christ, he brings us back together.” The church was born on Pentecost with people from around the world coming together in Jerusalem. And Dr. Richard was preaching about it to a church that was 99 percent white. Soma said, “It was both a biblical, theological concept I grew to understand and also the world I lived in.”
“In college, I had one black and two white roommates,” he continued. “We lived together, ate together, studied together, but on Sunday mornings we all went to different churches. That bothered me—that we could live together and share commonality of Christ, but not go to church together.”
A year later, Soma headed for Dallas to prepare for pastoral ministry. He joined a 10,000-member church comprised of predominantly African Americans. Soma went on to serve on the staff as an intern and pastoral assistant. During those seminary years, through his ministry with the STEP Foundation’s Bridge Builders program, Ikki met his African American wife, Tara, as they both mentored South Dallas teens. Today, married eighteen years, they have two teenaged daughters.
One year after graduation, the Somas moved to San Antonio, Texas, and planted a multicultural church. They focused on people. “As America becomes more post-Christian, it’s all about relationships,” Ikki said. “Tara and I, our leaders, and core group built friendships and invited those people to be part of the church. As it grew, those people invited their friends.” The members were diverse racially but alike in their middle-class education and income. Soma lamented the lack of economic diversity.
After nine years of church planting, he joined the staff of a large, predominantly white San Antonio church. He was ministering there to an increasingly multiracial group of college students and young adults when he received the call to City of Refuge in Houston.
City of Refuge
Now Soma leads the church he dreamed of. The congregation is diverse not only racially and culturally but also educationally and economically. Even the theological and denominational traditions of the members differ. “We have new money, old money, no money. That’s what I love about City of Refuge,” he said. The challenge, however, has been in connecting from a music perspective and also from a preaching perspective. “A typical church has a common profiled member who, for example, lives in suburbs, is college-educated, and has a professional vocation.
As the preacher develops a sermon, what he shares and the applications he makes have to be at that person’s level. The cookies are placed on that shelf. But,” Soma continued, “at City of Refuge, my challenge every week is to preach a message that the high-school dropout with a third-grade reading level can understand, but in such a way that the college professor with a PhD will stay interested, with applications and culturally appropriate illustrations everyone will understand—across generations and socioeconomic levels. If I quote Shakespeare, some won’t get it; if I quote rap songs, others won’t get it. That’s why I try to include genuine research, context, grammar, and exegesis, but also use common illustrations and stories that people remember. The challenge is to find applications and illustrations that reach everybody.”
Principles of Ministry
Soma’s principles of ministry now guide the church. They are values that cross cultural boundaries:
We must have unity that comes because of a Matthew 28:19 focus to make disciples of all ethnicities. If every Christian were caught up in that task, cultural differences would fall by the wayside. Racial reconciliation and diversity are by-products of preaching the gospel and people coming to faith in Christ. When men and women, boys and girls are vertically reconciled to God, then horizontal relationships with others can also be reconciled.
We love because God first loved us. People need to love and be loved.
Service to the community, to the less fortunate, and to our fellow believers expresses our compassion.
Integrity, living out the gospel we espouse, is inherent in our Christian mission.
We strive for excellence, believing that we must do the best we can with what we have.
Everyone loves a great story, whether a narrative or a parable. The stories may be anecdotes borrowed from listening and reading, from newspapers and books, or personal experience. The Bible is the greatest story.
One of the many books that influenced Soma is United by Faith. Coauthor Curtiss Paul DeYoung writes, “The first-century Christian church grew so rapidly precisely because it was so inclusive. The church inspired wonder because its leaders were able to form a community that cut across the rigid class and ethnic divisions that characterized the ancient Roman world. People said that if Jews, Greeks, Africans, slaves, men and women—the huge divides of that time period—could come together successfully, there must be something to this religion.” They were right.
Characteristics of a STRONG Multicultural Church
Good Location. The church meeting place must be accessible to more than one group, located either in a diverse area or on a boundary between two or more segregated areas.
Tenacious Leaders. Pastors and other leaders who are passionate about multicultural ministry will motivate the church to reach across racial lines.
Diverse Leadership. Both vocational and lay leaders, particularly visible “platform” leaders, should reflect the anticipated racial mix.
Blended Music. The musical mix must appeal to everyone with something familiar from his or her cultural background. Including such a mix as a weekly practice will foster understanding and appreciation of other worship traditions.
Sanctuary. Smaller and/or gender-specific gatherings, such as women’s or men’s groups, can create safe havens that nurture transparency and trust.
Focus Beyond Diversity. Service projects, musical and dramatic productions, and Bible studies advance a common cause while helping to accomplish the church’s mission and allowing friendships to develop.
Patience. A multicultural church will often grow more slowly than a monocultural church because it takes time to develop trust across cultures.
Recommended Resources Build Multicultural Bridges
Building a Healthy Multi-ethnic Church: Mandate, Commitments and Practices of a Diverse Congregation, by Mark DeYmaz (Jossey-Bass/John Wiley, 2007). Ikki Soma considers this the best book on transitioning a mono-ethnic church to become multiethnic or for planting a multiethnic church.
United by Faith: The Multiracial Congregation as an Answer to the Problem of Race, by Curtiss Paul DeYoung, Michael O. Emerson, George Yancey, and Karen Chai Kim (Oxford University Press, 2003). United by Faith builds an excellent biblical foundation for the concept of racial reconciliation. It includes a history of the church in America, making the case for multiracial congregations, the truth of the gospel, and the promise and challenges of multiracial congregations.
Oneness Embraced: Reconciliation, the Kingdom, and How We Are Stronger Together by Tony Evans and Cheryl Dunlop (Moody Publishers, 2015). Another of Soma’s favorites calls God’s people to kingdom-focused unity. This work, written by Dr. Evans, a DTS grad, includes his personal story and explains why we don’t have unity, what we need to do to get it, and what it will look like when we do.
A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together, by Scot McKnight (Zondervan, 2015). With humor and appreciation, a New Testament scholar presents the New Testament cultural underpinning for a multicultural church and outlines the essential qualities of a diverse church.
Cultural Change and Your Church: Helping Your Church Thrive in a Diverse Society, by (DTS professor) Michael Pocock and Joseph Henriques (Wipf and Stock, 2007). Pocock and Henriques explore the phenomenon of multicultural change, related biblical examples and teachings, and effective models of ministry.
The Next Worship: Glorifying God in a Diverse World, by Sandra Maria Van Opstal (IVP Books, 2016). The author makes a case for the broader understanding of God through multicultural worship. Readers can find her one-hour talk on the subject at Urbana 2015 online.
One Body, One Spirit: Principles of Successful Multiracial Churches, by George A. Yancey (IVP Books, 2003). Yancey offers principles for leaders who minister to people from a variety of racial and cultural backgrounds. He explains how churches can welcome those who have been marginalized and give people a sense of ownership and partnership in the life of the church.