Do What’s Right, Not White: Five Reasons to Fight for Multi-Ethnic Churches

Despite what the title may suggest, I really don‘t intend to be divisive or provocative. I simply think recent events have stirred interest and revealed a potential opportunity for the church to be a healing light in a bruised area.

To make it clear upfront, you’re reading thoughts from a seminary student who has more experience in thinking about concepts than dealing with reality. I lack a lot of experiential wisdom. But I have an open ear to the Bible while I watch what’s going on, and I want to share some of the things I’ve been impressed with. This topic of multi-ethnic churches, in my opinion, currently overlaps with 1) what many see as incredibly important, 2) what many see we desperately lack, and 3) what the Bible promotes as a God-glorifying ideal. This overlap tells me that the church has a prime opportunity right now. Racial reconciliation can minister deeply. We have an opportunity to display God’s significance by addressing what is significant on people’s hearts. And, personally, I think that the best way to advocate ethnic reconciliation is through multi-ethnic communities of Christians.

So, let me share with you what I have studied in the context of church planting. These lessons have shifted my personal belief from viewing multi-ethnic churches as important to viewing multi-ethnic churches as so important that they are worth working through the obstacles that get in the way. And, let’s be honest, that’s where discussions about race often go in circles. It’s not ultimately about arguing for the importance of racial reconciliation; we usually just disagree about whether or not it’s important enough to do x, y, or z. 

Well, here’s my five reasons why striving for multi-ethnic churches is worth it.

1. The Current Social Landscape

The reality of America’s growing diversity—and value of diversity—increases the need for multi-ethnic churches. It’s projected that “by the year 2050, White America will no longer be the majority” [1]. This majority-minority demographic means that any mono-ethnic church (consisting of more than 80% of one ethnicity) in an urban area is very likely to be very much at odds with their surrounding community. 

I hope stats and projections like this don’t sound irrelevant to you. I really think it’s important for churches to know because “young people have grown up in diverse social settings, move in diverse social networks, and strongly value diversity.” So, “when young adults join churches, they look for congregations that reflect the diversity in which they live, work, and go to school” [2]. And if postmodernism is still having any effect in America then it’s fairly safe to assume that many people not only highly value diversity but also long for embodied truth. This means if your gospel isn’t being lived out, it’s not being accepted. “Before the faith can be plausibly argued and the very good reasons to believe be accepted… it must first be embodied over time in real people” [3]. In other words, if a church promotes a gospel that tears down hostility between people groups yet lives in segmented groups, “rather than supporting the reasons for faith, the church’s practice… weighs against its being true” [4]. 

For these two reasons—a high value of diversity and a need for embodied truth—it is not surprising that statistics are beginning to show that multiracial churches are growing at a faster rate than monoracial churches [5]. The homogenous unit principle (HUP) is losing its sway; especially in urban America, it’s no longer an effective strategy to only aim for the people who look most like you, think most like you, and do the same things as you. The statistics are running in opposition to the HUP because “the growing presence of Americans who are comfortable with people of all races suggest that it is monoracial—not multiracial—churches that may struggle to grow” [6]. Monocultural churches will lack influence because “an increasing diverse and cynical society is no longer finding credible a message of God’s love for all people when it’s preached from segregated pulpits and pews” [7].

2. America’s Racial History

The reality of racial division, especially many cases of extreme racial prejudice occurring within 50 or 60 years in America, means there is a lingering effect of racism that churches need to take into account. America’s racial past has had a large influence on how our society has gained its current structure. In a chapter titled From Separate Pews to Separate Churches, Emerson and Smith say that “by 1964, as the formally segregated public sphere receded, an informally segregated private sphere began to rise in its place…. Racialization, although it changed in form, remained ever-present” [8]. 

We argue about how much racism remains ever-present, but I think we should at least acknowledged that racism is still experienced. There are open wounds of racism, and I believe multi-ethnic churches are best positioned to administer healing.

Listen to this experience and understand that it’s being told by a generation of people who are still alive today: “Although we [came] with this attitude of worship and hope, we have been met with hate, bitterness, recrimination and hired policemen—evidently ‘guarding’ the ‘church’” [9]. You’re reading the experience of black people being forced away by policemen from a white church because of the color of their skin. It’d be silly to say that those kinds of experiences don’t leave a lasting mark. Those kinds of wrongs don’t quickly heal. Along with that, it can only be expected that those experiences will continue to affect the way the church—specifically majority white churches—will be viewed. Entrenched presuppositions based on real life experiences naturally lend towards interpreting continued appearances of segregation as acts of racism, even if that’s not the intent. 

I think it’s along these lines at a recent conference I attended that David Platt said to a large group of pastors, “We all hate slavery. We all hate Jim Crow laws. Certainly, we cannot be content, then, with churches, seminaries, missions organizations, and conferences that look like time capsules preserving the divisive effects of the past” [10].

3. Displaying God’s Glory

One of the reasons I think striving for multi-ethnic churches is worth it is because the Scriptures clearly lay out that it is a powerful way of demonstrating the glory that God intended to exhibit through the church. Paul says that God’s manifold wisdom is displayed in Christ’s uniting of Jews and Gentiles into one body. So, to echo David Platt one more time, this is why “the glory of Jesus Christ shines most clearly when different groups of people come together and he is the only explanation for why they’re together” [11]. 

Our goal should be to—as clearly as possible—externally reflect the internal reality that Jesus has accomplished in the church. Segregation is “a visible appearance which contradicts the invisible reality…. To maintain the church’s unity must mean to maintain it visibly…. We are to demonstrate to the world that the unity we say exists indestructibly is… a true and glorious reality” [12].

I’m in agreement—this internal reality was meant to be displayed externally, even if we have to deal with tough issues to make it happen. What else could Paul have been thinking when he said that Christians should be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3)?

4. An Effective Missions Strategy

Multi-ethnic churches not only help to 1) successfully love and reach the diverse communities surrounding them and 2) accurately display what Christ has accomplished on the cross (see Ephesians 2:11-22), but they are also 3) better positioned for missions work around the world. 

If a church has an environment where multiple cultures coexist, the inevitable byproduct are bicultural believers. When it comes to missions, cultural inflexibility is a serious problem. The more someone is limited to a single culture, the more we can assume they lack the ability to effectively maneuver other cultures (or even their own). But “bicultural people are far better equipped to minimize this cultural baggage” [13]. Because of its diverse congregation, a multiethnic church will have people who are better equipped to take the gospel across ethnic and cultural lines.

“In fact, the awareness of global needs is one of the more refreshing characteristics of a healthy multi-ethnic church. Indeed, leadership in such a place will not have to work as hard as some to develop or maintain with the congregation a heart for others beyond its walls. Rather, such understanding is inherent in the DNA of a church populated by diverse individuals who have chosen to walk together as one in Christ for the sake of the Gospel” [14].

The church atmosphere is forced away from a mindset of convenience and instead towards understanding and sacrificing preferences in order to serve others. Certainly, ethnicity is important, but multi-ethnic churches create an environment that more naturally identifies people, not primarily by their background but by their community of faith. I like how Romo concisely summarizes these two benefits: “The uniqueness of the ethnic church will enlarge the missionary ‘vision’ of the denomination. It will also provide the denomination with the unique abilities of the ethnic church to carry out the Great Commission” [15].

5. The Example of the Early Church

Lastly, I think multi-ethnic churches are worth striving for because it seems to me that the example of the early church in Scripture points towards multi-cultural churches as the ideal. I say “ideal” not because it is necessary but because it is presented as a worthy goal.

MLK Jr. said, “If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century” [16]. Bold words. But I think he points to the early church because they really did exemplify this.

For good reason, “Acts further reinforces the heterogeneous nature of the early church by telling us about the diversity of the leadership in the church of Antioch (cf. Acts 13:1)” [17]. I’ll admit, I’m not sure how much I agree with that specific point, whether that’s the reason the diverse leadership is listed. For example, the Jerusalem Council makes me think that heterogeneous churches came about very unnaturally. But either way, despite the differences and difficulties between Jews and Gentiles, Paul makes it absolutely clear that creating two different local bodies solely because of cultural differences should not be an option on the table (Acts 15:1-34). He wasn’t about to sacrifice God-glorying unity in the church for the sake of avoiding a culture clash. On the contrary, personal and cultural preferences were sacrificed for a greater goal: diverse unity. Obviously one would have been easier, but the other was more glorious.

This type of thinking wasn’t unique to Paul at the Jerusalem Council. When he addressed the diverse Corinthian church, he “asserts their oneness in Christ and exhorts them to prefer one another and show sensitivity to the consciences of weaker brothers…. The question of separate churches along homogeneous lines is completely foreign to Paul’s thought” [18].

All I’m saying—and what the Bible is saying—is that cultural differences are worth working through in order to maintain unified bodies of believers. If it was a good idea to create separate local churches where cultural preferences would not have to be sacrificed, then Paul’s decisions in these passages make little sense.  

“On Earth as It Is in Heaven”

I can’t leave out John’s testimony of heaven—all tribes, peoples, and languages worshipping the Lamb together (Rev. 6:9). How can we detach this image from our prayer for God’s glory, reign, and will “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:9). While there will always be a major discord between how we live before and after Christ’s return, we are still seeking to live and reflect what Christ will ultimately usher in for eternity—total reconciliation between both God and man (Col. 1:20-23).

The best destinations require choosing a difficult road. The first few steps are often the most inconvenient, but the question isn’t’ whether or not it is hard but whether or not it’s worth it.

Keep the Ring On

I hope this short appeal was persuasive. I’m hoping you see why deliberate, difficult steps are worth the goal of multi-ethnic, multi-cultural churches. And yes, both multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, because we’re not about to just force a bunch of ethnicities to sit through a white service. That’s not the kind of ideal unity I’m talking about. Everyone sacrifices.

But before you finish reading, I want to leave you with a marriage analogy. Pretend a college student comes up to you and starts talking about how he doesn’t want to get married simply because he doesn’t want to deal with the struggles that come with making a marriage work. You’d probably think that’s a shallow reason—and I do too. Whatever difficulties come with marriage, the joys of marriage overshadow them. But do you see how that parallels multi-ethnic churches? God’s glory compels us through whatever obstacles will be in the way. It’s one of the best ways to love our community and display our God. We’d seriously be missing out—and perhaps be pretty shallow—if we avoid such an amazing opportunity simply because it will be inconvenient.

If you’re already part of a church like this, here’s a quote I think will motivate you to stick with it.

Keep the ring on. This is a phrase that we all embraced early on in anticipation… of misunderstanding. Indeed, we recognize that cross-cultural relationships are often as difficult to navigate as the relationship of a man and woman in marriage: two demonstrably different people, two different personalities, two perspectives, and two pasts. Like partners in a healthy marriage then, people in a multi-ethnic church must will themselves to stay engaged relationally with one another, especially in those times when every voice within them begs to leave or return to a more comfortable environment” [19].

And if this doesn’t describe you or your church, I encourage you to consider the value of “putting the ring on.” God wants to display a special weight of glory through your church. And it’s a goal worth working for.

I have some practically steps/principles that I can share. Let me know if you’d be interested in that, and I can either share it with you personally or share it on here if there’s enough interest. But fair warning, that’s where the gap grows between my etherial beliefs and experiential wisdom.

[1] Garces-Foley, Kathleen. Crossing the Ethnic Divide. Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 35.
[2] Ibid., 11-12.
[3] Murray, Stuart. Planting Churches in the 21st Century. Herald Press, 2010, p. 44.
[4] Morey, Tim. Embodying Our Faith: Becoming a Living, Sharing, Practicing Church. InterVarsity Press, 2009, p. 40.
[5] Yancey, George. One Body One Spirit: Principles of Successful Multiracial Churches. InterVarsity, 2003, p. 35.
[6] Ibid., 34-35.
[7] DeYmaz, Mark & Yancey George. Mosaix: Foundations.
[8] Emerson, Michael O. & Smith, Christian. Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 48.
[9] Quoted by Stephen R. Haynes in “The Last Segregated Hour,” p. 128.
[10] Platt, David. Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters: Racism and our Need for Repentance.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Stott, JohnThe Message of Ephesians. InterVarsity Press, 1971, p. 152.
[13] Boyd, David. You Don’t Have to Cross the Ocean to Reach the World: The Power of Local Cross-Cultural Ministry. Chosen Books, 2008, p. 30.
[14] DeYmaz, Mark. Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church: Mandate, Commitments, and Practices of a Diverse Congregation. Jossey-Bass, 2007, p. 23.
[15] Romo, Oscar I. American Mosaic: Church Planting in Ethnic America. Broadman Press, 1993, p. 149.
[16] King, Martin Luther Jr. Letter from Birmingham Jail: “Why We Can’t Wait.”
[17] Sequeira, Aubrey. Re-Thinking Homogeneity: The Biblical Case for Multi-Ethnic Churches.
[18] Ibid.
[19] DeYmaz, Mark. Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church, p. 90.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s