Should every church be multiethnic?
A couple of years ago, I spent several glorious weeks teaching an intercultural leadership class at a local seminary. During that time, I guided the students through the biblical and theological foundations for ethnic diversity, the argument that the multiethnic church is the answer to the problem of race in America, and a mountain of data suggesting that increased diversity on a national scale should impact local church diversity. While many of the students in the class were curious and willing students, a white student who hailed from a small town in Maine wasn’t convinced that this class was relevant to him. As someone with a passion for ministry in small, rural Maine towns, he didn’t believe that ethnic diversity in the church was an important topic, much less a mandated goal. Each week, he returned to class, saying that God had given him a heart for rural Maine people and that he couldn’t help the fact that rural Maine people also happen to be white. I wasn’t necessarily discouraged by his stance. (God loves white people too.) But I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was missing something – like maybe God wanted to open his eyes to really see the body of Christ in Maine (à la Peter’s “conversion” experience in Acts 10-11). So I prayed that God would give him a similar experience. (In all honesty, I spend more time praying for heart transformation amongst my students than I spend prepping for class.)
A couple of weeks later, the student approached me before class and told me that while he was praying about his call to his rural Maine hometown, he had a sobering realization. It occurred to him that he had spent the entire class dismissing the content as irrelevant to his call because he believed that his town was all-white. But he had completely forgotten about the First Nations reservation located just ten miles outside of his town. As someone who had attended an all-white church and school growing up, it never occurred to him that the people on the reservation were a part of his community. Ethnic diversity had been sitting right under his nose for his entire lifetime and he simply hadn’t seen it.
This realization marked a turning point for this student. He repented for being blind to the diversity around him and began studying the history, customs and language of the local Maine tribe. He’s now planning to return to Maine with a revised call: to plant a multiethnic church that will work towards healing the divide between whites and First Nations people.
So many of us are like my seminary student. Ethnic diversity is sitting right under our nose but we can’t see it. We’ve been so accustomed to homogeneity in church that we can’t see that the America around us is becoming more and more diverse. So we think that homogenous churches are just fine.
But they aren’t.
In my lifetime alone, ethnic diversity in the United States has increased at warp speed. From 1980 (the year I was born) to 2010 (the year I turned 30), 97.8 percent of metro areas, 97.2 percent of micro areas, and 95.6 of rural areas experienced an upward shift in ethnic/racial diversity.[i] The landscape of American evangelicalism is changing too. Recent data on global migration patterns from Fuller Theological Seminary professor Jehu Hanciles predicts that in the near future, American evangelicalism will be predominantly non-white.
I meet pastors all the time who insist that their homogenous church simply reflects the homogeneity of their community. However, when they examine their community’s census data, they discover that there are significant numbers of diverse people all around them. (Want to know the racial/ethnic make-up of your community? Go here.)
Although there are exceptions to the rule[ii], the biblical mandate for multiethnic churches is clear:
- We are called to participate in the reconciling work of the cross, that tore down racial, gender and class divisions (Galatians 3:28).
- We are called to love our neighbors regardless of whether they look, think, talk or worship like us (Matthew 22:34-40).
- We are called to expand our culturally-limited notions of brother, sister, neighbor and friend to include all members of the diverse family of God (Matthew 12:50).
- We are called to multiethnic, multinational, multilingual worship (Revelations 7:9).
- We are called to humble cross-cultural interdependence (1 Corinthians 12:12-27).
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. Are we going to cling to our blindness, insisting that our homogenous churches are an accurate reflection of our communities? Or are we going to ask God to gives us new eyes for our community (as God did for my student) and call us to renewal, reconciliation and the pursuit of the multiethnic church.
The diverse kingdom of God is at hand. We need to reach out and grab hold of it.
This article is cross-posted at IVP's Online Pulpit. Mosey on over there for some great resources!
[ii] In a perfect world, the redeemed body of Christ would be a holy and whole reflection of the diverse world. Oh how I wish this were true! Given that historically-oppressed groups such as African-Americans and immigrant groups have been and continue to be marginalized by the “mainstream” Evangelical church (and the broader American society), culturally homogenous churches composed of these groups serve as invaluable refuges for diverse people. These churches can and should go on until the mainstream church is ready to engage in mutually-honoring relationships with diverse people.