We Need More Multiethnic Churches

Photo by Spenser on Unsplash

“Don’t go downtown tonight. Lots of protests planned.”

This is not an abnormal sentence for life in our corner of Central Asia. This time however, it was spoken about our home city in the US, where we are currently on medical leave. Like dozens of other cities, ours has been rocked by protests this week, sparked by the horrific killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Much ink has been spilled rightly lamenting the patterns of sinful injustice along with the sinful responses to these developments. Situations like this, with their impossible complexity, highlight the depths to which all sides are grievously affected by the curse. It all seems like a horrible Gordian knot. We desperately need the servant of the Lord from Isaiah 42 to untangle it, to bring justice in the gentle and supernatural way that only he can.

A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth.

May he come quickly.

However, should he tarry, I want to advocate for the goodness of multiethnic churches as one key part of moving forward in race relations in the US, and even all over the world. Or did you think racism is a uniquely American problem? Sadly, it’s not. Racism is a global cancer; America is just comparatively public and loud about its racism issues (which is something to be commended). Many other nations, for face-saving reasons, do not air their dirty racism laundry, but oh, it is there, sometimes with twisted roots which are thousands of years old.

The problem with fallen humanity is that we self-sort by default. Despite our best intentions, most naturally ooze in the direction of those most similar to ourselves. This dynamic has been well-documented recently for political orientations, leading to our current situation of Democratic cities surrounded by Republican suburbs and countryside. But it also happens along ethnic and linguistic lines. In missions circles we call it the homogenous unit principle. The gospel flows most quickly along previously established blood and relational lines – the so-called “Bridges of God”. People tell their family and friends about Jesus and then ended up worshipping Jesus with mainly their family and friends. And in one sense this is only natural. It’s so natural that many question the need for multiethnic churches at all. After all, what’s the big deal with white folk wanting to worship in their culture and black folk wanting to worship in their culture? Don’t we believe in the goodness of a church for every people group in the world? Doesn’t God get glory from each unique cultural and linguistic expression of church? Doesn’t he preserve these differences such that they are still visible in eternity in prophetic passages like Revelation 7:9? Yes, there is a strong biblical case to be made that the gospel is for every language and for every culture. It uniquely redeems and honors each of them and should be uniquely expressed through each of them, like an opal displaying a thousand flaming colors within. God really does turn Babel on its head, turning the curse of many languages and peoples into a display of eternal glory. This is a truth worth dying for among the remote unengaged people groups of the world.

Yet alongside the gospel’s power to redeem every language and culture stands the biblical truth that the gospel is powerful to unite diverse cultures. To miss this is to miss one of the main themes of the New Testament, that the gospel is reconciling the previously irreconcilable – the Jew and the Gentile. Because the gospel was preached to both Jew and Gentile, many New Testament churches were multiethnic, a hodgepodge of Romans, Greeks, Palestinian Jews, and Hellenistic Jews. Hence the many issues that provoked passages like Romans 14. Paul labored until the end of his life to maintain the unity of these early multiethnic churches against the barrage of cultural and theological issues that threatened to divide them, issues such as food differences and the observance of sacred days. Though not mentioned explicitly, one can easily imagine the many history-related interpersonal issues that could arise between the Jewish believers, the oppressed, and their Greco-Roman brothers and sisters, the historical oppressors. After all, put in modern terms, the Greeks and the Romans were both repeatedly guilty of genocide against the Jews, alongside many other forms of oppression.

While monoethnic and monocultural churches proclaim that the gospel uniquely redeems a given ethnicity and culture, and such churches may at times be necessary or all that is possible, multiethnic churches return to the apostolic milieu, displaying the radical power of the gospel to reconcile those from different races and cultures even as it redeems each one individually. This display alone is worthy of the hard work it takes to establish and maintain these kinds of churches. And it is hard work, harder than ever in the age of Trump. However, along with this, multiethnic churches accomplish something very simple and practical. They supernaturally push back against human self-sorting and help diverse believers to actually know and hear one another.

Multiethnic churches provide a context where people from different races and cultures can deeply know one another, through the mutual bonds of covenant community. Communication differs tremendously from person to person, as every married person in the world will readily attest. How much more then does it differ from ethnicity to ethnicity and from culture to culture? If two people from the same culture are struggling to understand one another, the best thing they can do is to spend more time together and keep on communicating. Sooner or later they will learn how to get on the same frequency, they will come to understand what the other person actually means when they speak certain verbal constructions. The exhortation to “Pay attention to what he means, not what he says” is only possible after a certain degree of personal knowledge. But if believers self-sort, and don’t find themselves in contexts where they can know and be known by those different from them, then how will this communication threshold ever be reached? How will white and black believers ever be able to understand what the other actually means if they don’t spend abundant time together working for the kind of friendship where there is deep mutual understanding? Respectful distance will not be enough. Respectful distance will only lead to more misunderstanding and division. What is needed is a spiritual family, one committed to speak and listen to one another in biblical ways.

American Christianity remains remarkably segregated. There are reasons for this. On a practical level, it is very deflating to be repeatedly misunderstood, and those most likely to understand us are those most like us. So we drift toward worshipping with “our people” whether by default or by discouragement. Yes, we are all speaking English, but my contention is that white and black believers in this country aren’t really hearing and understanding one another. How can they when they remain so separate? Even if they worship together, most majority-culture believers are not awake to the real cultural and communication differences that underlie different American subcultures. But these differences are present and active nonetheless, a more present reality to those from minority cultures who must navigate between their culture and majority-white culture on a daily basis.

What do these points have to do with the protests spreading across America right now? In short, we cannot address the root issues of injustice in our society if we cannot truly understand one another. After all, a cultural and perhaps linguistic divide led to injustice even in the early church, which led to the establishment of the office of deacon (Acts 6). As one who lives in the daily challenges of cross-cultural (mis)communication, I believe that such failure of understanding and communication is a major element of racial issues in America, though because of the assumption of a common language it often escapes notice. As a Christian and member of a multiethnic church, I know that only in the church do we possess the spiritual resources necessary to truly unite those from different ethnicities and cultures. Yet American churches are highly segregated, because self-sorting is what naturally happens. It doesn’t have to be this way. In the midst of a divided nation, multiethnic churches can be seedbeds for inter-racial and cross-cultural understanding. And not just understanding, but even friendship and love. That’s why we need more multiethnic churches.

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