Multicultural, Cross-Cultural, Intercultural: Theological descriptors or models of church?


Rev Dr Seforosa Carroll

About the Author

Rev Dr Seforosa Carroll is currently Lecturer in Cross-Cultural Ministry and Theology at the United Theological College, School of Theology, Charles Sturt University.



Since 1985, the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) has used three key terms for its self-understanding and identification as a culturally and linguistically diverse church. These are multicultural, cross-cultural, and intercultural. But these terms tend to be more descriptive rather than they are theological. An added confusion lies in whether these terms are applied as terminology or as models of the church the UCA aspires to be.

Writing in 1995, ten years after the 1985 declaration, the late Rev Dr Gordon Dicker, former principal of the United Theological College, stated that despite “official endorsement of the policy, in practice, the Church has not got far with a genuine embodiment of multiculturalism in its own life.”1 Also, “the church had not thought through adequately the biblical and theological basis”2 for the statement.

The Uniting Church has struggled to give a solid theological justification for its ecclesial self-understanding despite making three key statements in 1985, 2006 and 2012. Paragraphs 2, 3 and 11 of the Basis of Union are usually cited as a reference point or justification for a theological basis. The UCA statements (1985, 2006 and 2012) provide pointers and themes to possible theological formulations. Still, these have not led to the development of a theology nor given theological clarity to the three terms: multicultural, cross-cultural, and intercultural. As a result, using these terms has often given rise to confusion, misunderstanding, and delay in implementing changes in ecclesial structure, polity, leadership formation and ministerial practice.

This reflection intends to inspire and provoke thinking on what it means to be a culturally diverse church and to put forward the argument that transforming and sustained changes in our ecclesial structures, polity, regulations, mission, leadership formation and ministry cannot be sustained without a robust theology underpinning our self-understanding as a church. The UCA has several ecclesial self-understandings that tend to contradict each other rather than inform and strengthen.

Key documents of the UCA about cultural diversity

1985 marked one of the key defining moments in the Uniting Church in Australia. It was the year the Uniting Church boldly declared: “We are a multicultural church.”3 Seongja Yoo-Crowe commented that the declaration was “a historic, bold commitment to respond to a new reality.” This new reality compelled both a theological and ecclesial response as increasing migration began permeating the membership of local congregations. As cultural diversity became increasingly visible within the church, it could no longer be ignored. According to Yoo-Crowe, the justification for such a statement was in keeping with the Uniting Church’s intention “to seek to be open to the changes that the Holy Spirit will bring to the church”4 in this instance, through the “creative contributions of people of different racial and cultural groups to its life.”5 Although 1985 marked a symbolic moment for the UCA, the journey and struggle to articulate that vision began several years before and has continued since then with two further statements in 2006 (A Church for all God’s People)6 and in 2012 (One Body, many members: Living faith and life cross-culturally).7

The 1985 statement contained several expectations, including direction for the necessary changes within its ecclesial life to make the vision possible (paragraphs 5-9). Although some of the changes were implemented, they were not sustained across the life of the church. This led to a new and more robust affirmation in 2006, accompanied by the reminder that the UCA is a “Church for All God’s People.” This statement outlined a framework for further development of a theology by providing biblical and theological foundations. Its emphasis was on reconciliation, renewal, and unity – “called to be witnesses to the hope of reconciliation; we renew our commitment to being a Church for all God’s people.” The term cross-cultural was introduced but not explained. The assumption seemed to be that the term was widely understood. The recommendations in the document were framed rather generally and more in an affirmation style rather than a compelling call to action. It was, therefore, not surprising that another statement followed six years later.

“One Body, many members: living faith and life cross-culturally” was a statement embodying many frustrating years of culturally diverse communities feeling that they still existed on the peripheries of the UCA and were still not considered full members of the church despite their many years of membership. The statement sought to move the UCA into action by “giving shape and intent to content” by explicitly naming how and what it means to be “a multicultural church, living its faith and life cross-culturally.” The terms “multicultural” and “cross-cultural” are briefly defined in a footnote.

The term intercultural entered the UCA vocabulary from about 2012 onwards. It is a term very much favoured and used by the VicTas Synod. Intercultural, it is argued, breaks the silo mentality that multicultural cultivates and moves beyond the power dynamics that cross-cultural invokes. Swee-Ann Koh argued that a cross-cultural approach employs the missionary strategy of the colonial era whereby the movement between cultures is usually one way, from a dominant culture to a minority culture.8 Alternatively, intercultural is favoured because of its emphasis on getting all people involved and treating each person equally with respect. The focus is on mutual learning and growing together toward transformation. According to Dev Anandarajan, “being an intercultural Church means a church with “mutually respectful diversity and full and equitable participation of First Peoples and Second Peoples in the total life, mission and practices of the whole Church.”9 The UCA Assembly defines the meaning of an intercultural church as:

“a church that accepts, supports and celebrates each cultural group. It intentionally encourages all cultural groups to engage in intercultural relationships and share in leadership, mission and ministry. An Intercultural church builds on the idea that Australian society and the Church’s membership are multicultural, and it calls on all members, especially those of the dominant culture, to be prepared to live and act cross-culturally.”10

However, although the power imbalances related to race, culture, class and formation are addressed, the emphasis is on commonness rather than differences. This focus on commonness, if left unchecked, can lead to a romanticising of cultures and essentialism that reverts to upholding the values of multiculturalism.

The 2006 and 2012 statements can be argued to be extensions of previous documents seeking either to affirm, give clarity, or provide future direction. Each statement articulated a vision of the church, of what the UCA could aspire to be, but has yet to be fully realised in structure, polity, leadership, mission, and ministry.

Challenges & Opportunities

The terms multicultural, cross-cultural, and intercultural reflect the diversity of our church and the stages at which different parts of the church engage. Although sometimes used interchangeably, multicultural, cross-cultural, and intercultural have different intent and meanings. In the context of the UCA, multicultural is a term used to define and describe the cultural and linguistic reality that characterises Australian life that permeates through the membership of our churches. This was certainly the context leading to the 1985 statement. But life together as the body of Christ means engaging in the pain and joy that encounter brings. Cross-cultural engagement asks us to break down barriers and build meaningful relationships with individuals, communities, and congregations from diverse backgrounds. Crossing boundaries involves a willingness to make an effort to do so, sometimes placing ourselves in spaces outside our comfort zone. The Cross of Christ is our anchor, our meeting and crossing point, and a poignant reminder that Jesus crossed cultural boundaries and effected transformative change. Cross-cultural provides a theological basis and framework for becoming and being the church God calls us to be. The 2012 Assembly statement, “One body many parts”, describes cross-cultural as our “calling by God in Christ … to live our lives in respectful relationships with one another across and between cultural boundaries and divides always under the cross of Christ, guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit.” Intercultural denotes intentionality and practice of giving shape and content to our theological intent. The Uniting Church National Assembly states, ‘Intercultural church is a church that accepts, supports, and celebrates each cultural group. It intentionally encourages all cultural groups to engage in intercultural relationships and share in leadership, mission, and ministry.’ In summary, multicultural describes a reality; cross-cultural is a theological rationale; and intercultural is intentional ecclesial practice.

Ecclesial self-understanding through metaphor or terminology is not unrelated to the theology (ies) that may be embedded in them. We must, therefore, be critically engaged with and aware of the terms we use, why we choose to use them and the theological meanings we attach to them. In some instances, the theological meanings of the terms may need to be recovered and redeemed. The 40th meeting of the NSW/ACT Synod in September 2023 resolved to adopt a sixth direction – “Living cross-culturally as a multicultural, intercultural church.” The theological implications of this phrase remain to be unpacked and teased out. But this work presents an exciting opportunity for deeper theological exploration and is well within the bounds of giving “shape, content and praxis to intent.”

Future Work

The question that looms large for me is whether the three terms better serve as theological descriptors or models of church. This is a question the UCA will need to ask itself and wrestle with. Second, the three UCA statements on culture are weighted very heavily toward race and ethnicity. Yet, the definition of culture encompasses a broad range of meanings. Is there room for broadening the definition of culture to include LGBTIQ, disability and other forms of diversity? Third, in wrestling with what it means to be multicultural, cross-cultural, and intercultural, we must be sensitive to and aware that this theologising happens on land; most or all of us who do this work are guests. Covenanting with First Peoples must remain central and key to our formulations. Fourth is the commitment to the ongoing development of the UCA’s diversity and ecclesial identity theology. Fifth, investing in theological education and leadership formation of both lay and ordained that is culturally sensitive, leading to building and strengthening cross-cultural and intercultural competencies. Sixth, transformation and change cannot be merely cosmetic. Words are too easy and never enough. Deep and fundamental transformation comes from structural and policy changes. Intentionality is essential to change. Finally, there is a need to develop frameworks and intentional spaces for difficult conversations like racism.


The Uniting Church has struggled since its inaugural statement in 1985 to define and settle on a theological and ecclesial identity that reflects the diversity of the church. But, given our diversity, embodying the three terms with theological clarity might be the light needed for the future ahead.


  1. Gordon S Dicker, ‘A theological perspective on multiculturalism’, unpublished report, 1995. ↩︎
  2. Ibid. ↩︎
  3. UCA Assembly, The Uniting Church is a Multicultural Church, 1985. ↩︎
  4. Seongja Yoo-Crowe, ‘Life with members of different cultural traditions of twenty years since union’ in Marking twenty years: the Uniting Church in Australia 1977-1997, edited by William E. Emilsen and Susan Emilsen, UTC, 1996, p.104.
    5. ↩︎
  5. Ibid. ↩︎
  6. UCA Assembly, A Church for all God’s People: Vision Statement, 2006. ↩︎
  7. UCA Assembly, One Body, Many Parts: Living Faith and Life Cross-Culturally, 2012. ↩︎
  8. Swee-Ann Koh, Breaking the silos,, 2014. ↩︎
  9. Dev Anandarajan, Being an intercultural church,, 2021. ↩︎
  10. UCA website, UCA Assembly. Living as an Intercultural Church. ↩︎