America’s history is filled with racism, segregation, and slavery. Too often the church has been on the wrong side of issues as they have been debated in the public square and the boycott line. In light of this dark past, the recent trend of majority culture Evangelicals like myself becoming aware of the need for multiethnic churches is encouraging. But, as we celebrate tremendous progress, we need to be careful that in our desire to live out a Biblical picture of the church we don’t swing the pendulum too far.

We need to be careful that we’re not overstating the Biblical mandate on multiethnic churches.

The Multiethnic Mandate

Over the past decade, various popular (White) evangelical pastors have begun to awaken to the need for multiethnic churches. While ethnic minorities have been saying this for far longer, it is still to be celebrated that we in the majority culture are starting to listen to our brothers and sisters of color and come on board. But, in their zeal for diverse communities of faith, some pastors are overstating the case for the multiethnic church. In answering the question, “Should all churches be multiethnic?” they respond [emphasis added]:

  • “I recognize that a true biblically functioning community must include being multiethnic.”1
  • The hope to ethnically diversify all churches finds its power in the gospel but it’s roots in the triune nature of God.2

Other leaders who have long championed the multi-ethnic church movement before it became popular and helped it come to the beautiful place it is today make a similar case for all churches to be diverse [again, emphasis added]:

  • “Pursuit of the multi-ethnic local church is, in my view, not optional. It is biblically mandated for all who would aspire to lead local congregations of faith.”3
  • “The biblical mandate for diversity, coupled with the fact that diverse people are literally right on our doorsteps, makes it difficult to justify non-diverse churches.”4

Denouncing Ethnocentrism

Ethnocentrism is defined as “the belief in the superiority of one’s own ethnic group.” It’s easy to see that after centuries of ethnocentric churches in America where (most often) the majority culture church viewed itself as superior (although seeping with racism and segregation), the desire would be to see that all churches become diverse and multiethnic. Advocates of multiethnic churches rightly denounce the prevalence of ethnocentrism in America’s churches. They desire for the Church in America to be a place where ethnocentrism no longer thrives, but where diversity and cross-cultural relationships thrive. In an effort to move away from ethnocentrism, many (including those quoted above) declare that the only real solution is for all churches to become multiethnic.

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But giving the option of having only ethnocentric or only multiethnic churches is a false choice, or at least not a complete one. There are more options for the body of Christ to live out it’s witness in the world.

A Middle Ground Between Ethnocentric and Only Multiethnic

Multiethnic churches are biblical and a needed part of the kingdom of God. But I believe a compelling case can be made for Ethnic Specific Churches, communities that are mostly homogeneous in ethnic makeup and living out specific cultural expressions of faith. Thinking theologically about this, Richard Mouw says:

One of the more fascinating proposals which has been made in theological discussions of the biblical notion of “the image of God” is that this image has a “corporate” dimension. That is, there is no one human individual or group who can fully bear or manifest all that is involved in the image of God so that there is a sense in which that image is collectively possessed. The image of God is, as it were, parceled out among the peoples of the earth. By looking at different individuals and groups we get glimpses of different aspects of the full image of God.5

An Ethnic-Specific Church is a gathering of believers mainly from one ethnic background who are living out faith in Christ through their special cultural expressions. As a result, they have a homogeneous membership. For multiethnic church advocates, this would be negative and need to be remedied.6 But I believe there is tremendous value and beauty in seeing specific cultural-specific expressions of the body of Christ, just as there is tremendous value and beauty in seeing multiethnic expressions of the body of Christ.

A fantastic example of this is the video “Ethnicity Matters“, created by IVCF’s 2100 Productions to talk about the need for both ethnic-specific and multiethnic ministries.7 There’s a powerful quote at the end:

We need places to focus and we need places to integrate. Both are good. Both are needed. And both are biblical. – James Choung

Just like multiethnic churches, ethnic-specific ministries have a solid Biblical basis. When God chose the Israelite people, He chose to create an ethnic-specific expression of what it meant to follow Him. Jesus Himself led an ethnic-specific group of followers during His ministry. Both the Israelite nation and the Disciples were called to be a blessing to all peoples, creating multiethnic expressions as a result. But it didn’t make their ethnic-specific groups less God honoring or Biblical. When God was angry with them, it was often because they had slipped back into ethnocentrism and were no longer being an ethnic-specific or multiethnic expression of the Kingdom.

Diversity in Expressions of the Church

The major danger for ethnic-specific churches is that they will become ethnocentric and fail to live out the ethnic-specific opportunity God has given them. The multiethnic church movement is right to condemn ethnocentric expressions of the church, there is no place for them in the kingdom. But can there be a middle ground where we aren’t forced to choose between ethnocentric and all multiethnic? Could we have space for both ethnic-specific and multiethnic churches to flourish alongside one another, both seeking the good of the other. Could both be beautiful expressions of the multiethnic mandate for the global church?

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As demographics shift in America more and more churches will awaken to the need for multiethnicity (even if only because they seek their own survival). All the more reason for us to have a truly Biblical understanding of ethnic-specific and multiethnic churches. If many people new to the conversation mistakenly think that an ethnic-specific church is not biblical, we could see unnecessary harm done to the local and global Body of Christ.8

Join with me in seeking to create multiethnic ministries and churches. Let’s share the biblical vision for multiethnicity. Let’s have the hard conversations necessary for racial reconciliation. Let’s support and platform those who are leading the way for the multiethnic church. Let’s multiply millions of multiethnic churches around the world in the process. But let us also affirm the beautifully necessary role of ethnic specific churches within the global diversity of the body of Christ. Both are needed. Both are biblical. And neither should prohibit the biblicality of the other. Let us be people who live in the tension rather than the comfort of either extreme.

Photo courtesy: Fady Habib

  1. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/april/23.36.html []
  2. http://bit.ly/1iMRR8K []
  3. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0787995517 , p. xxix. []
  4. http://bit.ly/1iMn389 []
  5. When the Kings Come Marching In []
  6. To be fair, multiethnic church advocates often allow for ethnic-minority specific churches. http://bit.ly/1iMn389 But only on a temporary basis and only for minority groups. []
  7. Disclaimer: I recently joined staff with InterVarsity. []
  8. As a minister within an ethnic-specific ministry myself, I fear that many will see our ministry as unbiblical. []