In our chapel service today here at Denver Seminary, we had a speaker who was advocating for embracing a multi-ethnic paradigm for churches. The sermon seemed to get a good response, and he was obviously passionate about this ministry. However, at the risk of critiquing what is undoubtedly a good work of God in his church and others like it, I’m going to play devil’s advocate against his views. I haven’t read the literature produced by this debate in recent years (multi-ethnic versus homogeneous composition of churches—is one more to be preferred than the other?), so these are my own musings, and I’d love to hear comments or opposing points of view.
First of all, to state my position, I would say that this whole debate is not nearly as important as the major advocates on either side make it out to be. Is a multi-ethnic church a better reflection of a biblical paradigm? In some ways. Are homogeneous churches as effective in honoring God? I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t be. In my view, there is no compelling reason why we need to make a general rule that one way is better than the other. Advocates of the multi-ethnic perspective will claim biblical precedent in Paul’s writings about Jews and Greeks, but I think their case is weaker than it seems at first glance.
Anyway, the speaker today went so far as to claim that segregated churches were, in some way, inherently sinful, and that the fact that 92.5% of America’s churches are ethnically homogeneous is deplorable. This is actually fairly simple to rebut, but first let me point out the amazingly positive side of multi-ethnic ministry. In places like urban America, where racial tensions often continue to run high, a multi-ethnic church can be a powerful symbol and tool of the work of God in bringing peace and reconciliation. Further, multi-ethnic churches give us an authentic foretaste of heaven, of bringing together people from every tribe and tongue and nation to worship God with one voice. It is a beautiful work of God. Ministries like this should be applauded and emulated in contexts where such churches are a legitimate possibility.
However, this speaker’s message made me feel that this was a case of rhetoric having gone too far. In attesting to the marvelous work of the Spirit in their midst, some multi-ethnic churches have begun to declare that their way is the best way for the Spirit to work, and that anything other or less than that is somehow lacking or sinful.
There is a remarkable biblical precedent for multi-ethnic churches, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there’s an obligatory mandate. Paul’s concern was largely to keep together churches that were planted as multi-ethnic groups. Jews and Gentiles came to Christ together in his ministry and formed families. When cultural tensions arose, Paul’s emphasis was on keeping those families together. If multi-ethnic churches are planted, they should go to great lengths to stay multi-ethnic. But if homogeneous churches are planted (and almost all the churches planted in the history of the world have been homogeneous), should they be frantically seeking out people of other cultures to join their congregation just so they can match a multi-ethnic ‘mandate’? I don’t think so.
The other difficulty in extrapolating cross-cultural principles from the New Testament context is that divisions between Jews and Gentiles were not merely about culture, but also about perceptions of value. Jews, heirs of the old covenant and the promises, could be seen as devaluing their Gentile Christian brothers if the old Jewish customs weren’t kept. Likewise in 20th century America, most questions of segregation revolve around issues of perceived value. The segregation of schools was an expression of a cultural bias—that white people were somehow better than black people. But none of the homogeneous churches that I’ve been in reflect this value-distinction. The reason churches are segregated is not because white Christians believe they are better than black Christians, or vice versa, but because of cultural differences.
I grew up in one of the few places in America where multi-ethnic churches are still a genuine impossibility. Maine, especially northern Maine, is almost entirely Caucasian—most from English stock, some from French, and some from Swedish. The only other major cultural group, the Native Americans, have been largely absorbed into the New England subculture. So it feels a little silly for me to hear that churches are unhealthy or sinful if they aren’t multi-ethnic. Or consider some of the historic traditions of the faith, whose worship has been shaped by a particular cultural context, such as Eastern Orthodoxy. Would we claim that they are sinful if they don’t abandon those cultural conventions to embrace in their worship services African-American hip-hop praise choruses? Of course not. There is a richness that comes from the gospel fully engaging and fully transforming a single culture.
Only in the past century and still in only a few scattered countries of the world are there a significant number of churches that even have the possibility of becoming genuinely multi-ethnic. I would be hesitant to agree that multi-ethnic churches are an inherent mandate for the Kingdom when most of the churches throughout history have had little possibility of being multi-ethnic.
Further, I don’t think homogeneous churches are ever going to go away, and for good reason. I’m something of a cultural critic, but here I have to pause and tip my hat to the power of culture. I still attend a homogeneous church, even here in multi-ethnic Denver. It’s a little Mennonite Brethren church in the southwestern suburbs, almost entirely Caucasian in ethnic composition. We have a good mix of ages, and we love God and love each other. It’s not that we’re aiming to be exclusive, but we are trying to engage the culture we come from and to worship God in and through that culture.
The reason why I’m an advocate of cultural homogeneity is that culture is something we can’t entirely get away from. It shapes who we are. It shapes how we think. And it also shapes how we worship. I’m not simply speaking about the way we use music in our services. I’ve found that preaching the Gospel within a homogeneous culture is much more powerful and effective than trying to continuously preach outside of and around and across cultures. Why is it that mission agencies are now realizing that native missionaries, or those with similar cultures to the target group, are more effective than Western cross-cultural missionaries? Because the Gospel can be given deeper insights by someone within a culture speaking to others who are also in and who understand that culture. Why, while I was in Angola, was it better for the Angolan pastors to preach on Sunday mornings than it was for me? Because I didn’t know the culture, and the other pastors did. They could speak to the people’s hearts in a way that I couldn’t. As a missionary, I know that the Gospel can and must be presented across cultural boundaries. However, as a preacher and as a lover of the English language and Western thought, I also know that the Gospel can be infused with much richer insights and applications if I am speaking to those of my own culture rather than to those of another culture. But that is not to say that homogeneous churches should not embrace cross-cultural fellowship and dialogue. I’ll deal with that more fully below.
I would also claim here, though this is more difficult to substantiate, that having homogeneous churches allows for the full and robust development of theology within specific cultures. The early church did not stay homogeneous for long. Jewish cultural influences were rapidly absorbed into the broader Greco-Roman milieu. But the incredible thing is that that largely homogeneous Greco-Roman church produced from within the resources of its culture the thought-forms and the creeds that have shaped and driven Christian orthodoxy for millennia. Likewise, if we were to demand that African Christians and Western Christians join completely in worship and life together, we might be muting some of the genuine African impulses and end up short-circuiting the development of an indigenously African Christian theology. The insights that arise from African and Asian and Muslim-background churches do not arise because they mixed cultures in their worship, but because they had the freedom to engage their own cultures and see the Christian story through that lens.
I should also say a word about comfort. It has become spiritually fashionable of late to bash the pursuit of comfort in our worship, and especially to bash the ‘church-shopping’ phenomena of searching around for a body that fits one’s own interests and tastes. These reactions stem from good motivations, but probably go too far. American Christians as a whole are too comfortable and too self-centered in how they see worship, but that doesn’t mean that comfort is bad and that we should take no regard for our own tastes in worship forms. Church should be a place where we can, more often than not, be comfortable in the worship of God and relate to him in ways that are meaningful to us. Church is about what honors God, and what honors him is people being able to connect with him in powerful and meaningful ways. Different sorts of people have different ways of connecting with God. Therefore, because God is honored when people desire to connect with him, I see nothing wrong in churches forming from groups that all enjoy connecting with him in similar ways. My suspicion is that the people who remain in multi-ethnic churches are often those who are more predisposed to enjoy cross-cultural worship forms and who generally feel comfortable within that context.
Discomfort can be healthy in the Christian life, because we can learn a lot when we’re outside our comfort zones. But it doesn’t make us more spiritual to be constantly outside our comfort zones. It sets us up for emotional and spiritual disaster. Furthermore, the kind of discomfort we should be prodding people towards is not necessarily cross-cultural discomfort. There is nothing spiritually meritorious in being thrust into culturally uncomfortable situations. Rather, the discomfort we need to encourage is discomfort with sin. Culture is not the issue, sin is. I have no problem with people enjoying worship forms that they’re comfortable with, but I do have a problem with people finding churches that leave them comfortable in their sin. So my advice is: be wary of church-shopping, but don’t bash it too much. It is important to find places where we can worship God comfortably and authentically from within the cultural forms that engage us.
Having said all this, I should also note that I think it’s very important for congregations to have fellowship with brothers and sisters of other ethnicities and cultures. The reason is not that we’re biblically mandated to do it—plenty of churches have never even had the opportunity, and I believe God was honored through their worship just the same. No, the reason is that cross-cultural fellowship is simply mutually beneficial. We learn to embrace and love those unlike us, to learn their unique cultural perspectives, which often shed light on our own. My wife’s home church in Pennsylvania is a good model of this. They’re pretty much homogeneous in culture and ethnicity, but they are good friends with a nearby Hispanic church. The two churches don’t often worship together, simply because they enjoy different ways of connecting with God. But they do fellowship together somewhat regularly, and continue to build relationships of friendship and love that are mutually edifying.
In sum, then, I don’t think one model is better than the other. Both have very positive aspects that we should consider and embrace. More than anything else, context will drive whether a church is multi-ethnic or homogeneous. If you’re planting a church in an urban area, it might be a very good idea to plant it as a multi-ethnic community. If you’re pastoring a church in a place that doesn’t have many other ethnicities around, then engage your own culture as fully and fiercely as you can with the power of the Gospel. God is honored in both.