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Stewardship and the Ethnic Local Church

God loves wondrous variety. In Romans 12:6, Paul tells us that we have different gifts according to the grace given us. Each of us is gifted differently to serve. God designed the church in a unique way so that the gift mix would not be just one voice, one tone, or one approach. Instead, the church is to be a many splendored thing -- all races, colors, and languages united in Christ in an inseparable and indivisible bond of love and mission.

Our United Methodist Church is blessed with the presence of Native Americans, African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, and Euro-Americans. As Christians, we are challenged daily to recognize, understand, and to be in relationship with the diversity of God's community. This diversity includes the theology of stewardship in the ethnic local church and how that theology is lived out in the daily life of each congregation.

An important part of the process of understanding and clarifying diversity issues is listening to the stories of the stewardship journeys of racial-ethnic people. Some of the questions to keep in mind during the listening process follow:

  • What makes stewardship in the ethnic local church experience different from the majority church?
  • What are the similarities?
  • What are the barriers to finding and fostering common ground in ministry across cultures?
  • How do we process issues involving parity, mutuality, and covenant?
  • As we look at the core process for local congregations—reaching out and receiving persons, relating persons to God and one another, nurturing them in the faith, and sending them out as disciples to make the world more loving and just—we should ask, "What gifts does each cultural group bring to the core process?"
  • What are the difficulties in living out the core process?
  • What are effective ways of interpreting to the church as a whole how faithful stewardship is lived out in the ethnic local church? What are effective ways for celebrating differences?
  • How do we become more familiar with one another? How do we build trust?
  • How can we strengthen and encourage one another?

The sharing of stories can provide significant learning. However, it is important to remember that there is as much diversity within cultural groups as there is across cultural lines. Let's look at the following stories.

African Americans

Because they suffered the yoke of slavery, were considered property, and were used to manipulate the earth's resources, many African Americans viewed resources not as gifts, but as burdens. A dichotomy existed for many African Americans between the exploitation of the earth's resources and the persistent struggle for survival in the midst of affluence. Many African Americans, therefore, stressed survival, not stewardship. Survival is a pressing issue today, not just with African Americans, but with many racial-ethnic identity groups.

Historically, the black church has been the center of black community life. The church helped to preserve important relational values — the corporate sensitivity to care for children, the aging, sick, and distressed. The gift of human relationships is very much a part of the theology of stewardship in the African American church.

Pacific Islanders

A Tongan Church in Salt Lake City has these words (in Tongan) etched across the wall of the educational building: "Let us know how to learn God's will."

Learning and staying in the will of God is an important teaching in the Tongan community. The Tongans believe that the will of God is that we understand that all of life belongs to God. They view stewardship holistically and do not question that it is the congregation's responsibility to maintain the church in all its aspects. They believe that the more one gives, the more one receives.

Japanese Americans

For many Japanese American Christians, stewardship means the desire to serve God out of thankfulness for God's love. Japanese Americans emphasize giving to the community. Families pledge, and the amounts of the pledges are published. To many of us, this practice may appear to be coercive, but an important aspect of the Japanese culture is that the individual must not embarrass the family. Not giving is an embarrassment.

Koreans

Koreans look for ways to give out of gratitude. Thanksgiving offerings are received each Sunday for birthdays and family members. There is no pledging. Members are expected to be committed to a giving lifestyle. Persons may or may not fulfill that commitment, but they believe that pledging limits the ability to give.

Hispanics

Many Hispanics come from a Roman Catholic background, where they never had to worry about how the cathedral would be paid for or maintained. During worship, the poor Hispanics would repent and pay a few coins at confession. If they lit a candle, or if the priest said the rosary, they would pay a few more coins. Protestant Hispanics, on the other hand, have had to be concerned with all aspects of church maintenance. If members don't give, there won't be a church. Maintenance is very much a part of mission.

Native Americans

The Navajos of the Four Corners Ministry in Shiprock, New Mexico, believe in sharing generously with all members of the extended family. They believe that stinginess is a character flaw. Having material possessions does not confer status in the community. Giving is far more important. The values of the community come from Scripture, tribal culture, and tradition. The challenge for the Navajo people — who typically don't distinguish among racial ethnic groups but view all others as outsiders — is to see the need to help persons outside their racial-ethnic identity group. (This challenge, however, is not peculiar to the Navajos.) The Navajos teach tithing and scriptural concepts of giving. The view themselves as a "concrete" people and say that abstract things — such as apportionments — are hard to understand. Native American culture has much to teach us about stewardship of the earth and the significance of all of nature living together, sharing resources, and protecting one another.

• • • •

Begin looking at your own life and cultural background. What values, traditions, attitudes do you continue? What are the roots of your ways of doing stewardship? What assumptions do you have about people who are different from you?

What does cultural diversity look like in your local community, society, and in God's community as a whole? Explore and dispel myths. Recognize issues of styles in conflict and misunderstandings across cultural lines. Become culturally literate.

Share stories of cultural traditions and values passed down through generations. Listen to other people's stories.

Become an advocate for justice, seeking to support the worth and dignity of all humans and working for a better quality of life for all.

Maintain continuing dialogue with church leaders about opportunities for sharing the richness of various experiences and traditions and about opportunities for celebrating differences.

Christian stewardship is a response to God for God's bountiful love. As members of the diverse body of Christ, may we live and serve one another by the standard of agape love.

Helen Davis Bell previously served as a staff member of the Discipleship Ministries. This article first appeared as a 1993 "Celebrate Stewardship" newsletter article.

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