When I planted a multi-ethnic church in Portland, Oregon, in 2006, I received many discouraging comments from church-planting organizations and denominations. Comments like:
You are doing a disservice to the gospel.
This can never work.
You have to pick a specific people group; stop trying to have a church that ministers to completely different ethnicities and cultures. You will reach fewer people, and that makes you a bad steward of the church God has entrusted to you.
I really don’t understand why this is so important to you. If it happens, great. But why would you put so much effort into something that’s so difficult to do and so slow to grow?
In the 11 years since, planting multi-ethnic churches has become more accepted, and multi-ethnic churches themselves have become sexy in many ministry circles. I see multi-ethnic churches as both the New Testament norm and the most powerful evangelistic tool the American church has today, so I rejoice over their growing acceptance and popularity. But as one who knows what planting and pastoring such a church requires, I worry that we may be pursuing the right thing in the wrong way.
Specifically, I worry about three things.
1. I worry that many who desire to lead multi-ethnic churches continue to live mono-ethnic lives.
I’m regularly contacted by white pastors and planters who desire to have a multi-ethnic church and are seeking counsel on how to get there. I consider such requests a personal honor and a wonderful opportunity to serve. Yet at the same time, I consider them to be evidence of a larger problem. In nearly every case, the fact that they’re contacting me, another white pastor, reveals that they don’t have many relationships of trust with people of color.
This is concerning because becoming a multi-ethnic church isn’t like becoming a church that does Sunday school. It’s not a program change; it’s a whole-life change. If your life isn’t multi-ethnic it will be difficult, and potentially damaging, to try to lead a church to be multi-ethnic.
Becoming a multi-ethnic church is not a program change. . . . If your life isn’t multi-ethnic it will be difficult, and potentially damaging, to try to lead a church to be multi-ethnic.
Sociologists like Michael Emerson define a multi-ethnic church as a church with a minimum of 20 percent of members who don’t identify with the dominant racial group. I would apply the same rule to the life of the pastor. If a minimum of 20 percent of a pastor’s personal relationships don’t consist of people of another racial group, he’s unable to effectively lead a multi-ethnic church. (By the way, I should add that not every multi-ethnic group is truly multi-cultural. The kind of multi-ethnic community I’m envisioning in this article is one that represents not just various colors but also various cultures coming together under the banner of Jesus Christ.)
2. I worry that many who desire to lead multi-ethnic churches continue to listen to mono-ethnic voices.
Effectively leading a multi-ethnic church doesn’t just require diverse relationships; it also requires leaders willing to listen to diverse voices. This can be much more difficult than it sounds when all of one’s theological education and ministry training have come from a monolithic background. We often confuse our cultural understanding of theology with truly biblical theology, and thus we’re unable to honor the perspectives of those with a different cultural lens.
A pastor cannot have a healthy multi-ethnic church so long as he primarily listens to mono-ethnic voices. To pastor a healthy multi-ethnic church, he must labor to ensure that the pastoral team reflects the desired diversity of the congregation. And this team must share equal authority, with each member willing not only to listen but also to submit to different perspectives on how to apply their shared theology to real life.
3. I worry that many who desire to lead multi-ethnic churches confuse having people of color present in the church with being a multi-ethnic church.
I’ve often heard pastors say that they never set out to have a multi-ethnic church, yet God has granted it to them. This comment reveals a misunderstanding of what a multi-ethnic church is. I believe a mature multi-ethnic church is not just a collection of people of differing skin tones gathering in the same building once a week. I believe a mature multi-ethnic church is a family of people of different cultures learning to confront and destroy barriers that the world has placed between us. This work requires that leaders acknowledge the unique experiences and challenges of each group and lead the church to understand one another and carry the particular burdens of their brothers and sisters.
In the United States, there is no more visible and inexplicable unity than unity across racial and cultural divides.
This is what the apostles did in Acts 6:1–7. Hearing a report that one cultural group in the church felt its needs were being neglected, they intentionally appointed seven Spirit-filled men from within that same group to ensure its needs were no longer neglected. If a pastor isn’t intentionally pursuing and caring for the unique needs of a multi-ethnic congregation, that pastor will naturally build the church around his own cultural preferences and values.
This doesn’t mean people of differing skin tones will never attend, but it does guarantee that those who do will be forced to choose between assimilating into the dominant culture or absorbing the pain and frustration of knowing that the church isn’t intended to serve them. It also means the church will be robbed of the glorious opportunity to know and learn from other cultures and marvel at the incomparable power of Christ to authentically unite people and cultures who appear un-unitable. In other words, if we aren’t building our multi-ethnic churches with thoughtful intentionality, we’re building them wrongly.
In John 17, Jesus prayed for the unity of his people with the conviction that our unity would convince the world of his true identity. In the United States, there is no more visible and inexplicable unity than unity across racial and cultural divides. For that reason, I’m exceedingly grateful that multi-ethnic churches are becoming more commonly accepted and more frequently pursued. I pray that these churches will be led by pastors who live multi-ethnic lives, who listen to multi-ethnic voices, and who intentionally cultivate multi-ethnic unity and not just multi-ethnic attendance.