As a child, I spent each Sunday morning attending a Chinese church with my family in Westchester, New York. My Christian friends and I always joked about how “Asian” our church was: at least 90% of our congregation was of East Asian descent, services and Sunday schools were conducted in both Mandarin and English, and the church body always heartily feasted on Chinese food after the service. Most members of my church connected with each other very well culturally, and this rootedness undoubtedly contributed to the overall social cohesion of my church’s congregation. I loved being a member of my church growing up; it was a setting where I felt included, appreciated, and accepted by others.
When I was exposed to different faith traditions and practices in college, I found myself doubting aspects of my home church that I had previously been so fond of. If God desires cultural diversity, what good comes from labeling a church as one that is “Chinese”? Was it wrong that my home church sometimes felt just as much like an ethnic community as a religious one? Is there a role for mono-ethnic churches in Christianity?
It is easy to argue that Christianity demands all religious communities to strive for diversity as much as possible. Rooted in scripture, there is an inherent need and moral imperative for inclusive, diverse, and multi-ethnic groups of believers in the world. The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Church in Colossae, outlines the necessity of inclusivity in the Christian community: he writes that Christians “have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Colossians 3:10-11, NIV). Additionally, the book of Revelation describes the gathering of God’s people “from every nation, tribe, people, and language” (Revelation 7:9, NIV).
These passages make evident that multi-ethnic Christian churches and fellowships are an inevitable manifestation of the need for unity among all believers, regardless of background. Indeed, in his article “A Multiethnic Model of the Church,” pastor Russell C. Rosser writes on the multi-ethnic church’s unique potential as a tool for uniting communities, explaining that it “[adopts] the challenge of biblical justice and mission in the context of cultural diversity, racial tensions, increased pluralism, and multiple linguistic and cultural complexities to build… harmony between diverse groups.”[i] In other words, such diverse religious communities highlight the reconciling power of Christianity: for many Christians, individuals’ personal relationships with God bridge the gap between different cultural groups in a meaningful way.
For critics of mono-ethnic religious groups, the homogenous nature of many churches and fellowships (along with a lack of a desire within these groups to become more inclusive or diverse) makes ethnicity into a divisive difference among believers when such an attribute should not be a distinguishing factor. When one’s identity is rooted in religious beliefs, he or she should firstly understand others in terms of his or her relationship with God. Since all Christians ought to be united through their belief in and love for God, the separation of Christians into different religious groups based on ethnicity could appear to be arbitrary and contrary to God’s ultimate plan for humanity.
Likewise, in his article “Mono-Ethnic Ministries and Multi-Ethnic Churches,” pastor Mark DeYmaz asks, “if the kingdom of heaven … is not segregated along ethnic … lines, we must ask ourselves the question, Why on earth is the church?”[ii] In other words, should all Christians remove themselves from their “cozy ” ethnic groups and seek to make their spiritual communities more ethnically diverse? After all, shouldn’t Christians learn to accept all people for who they are, integrate, and then love every person no matter where they are from?
Such questions deserve thoughtful reflection, even if there are no clear-cut answers. On one hand, diverse churches and fellowships play an important role in reconciling different cultural groups with one another. All Christians who believe in the authority of Scripture thus ought to actively surround themselves with a variety of believers and nonbelievers alike who come from different backgrounds. Moreover, mono-ethnic churches and fellowships do have potential practical pitfalls. Most notably, it is easy for a believer from a mono-ethnic church to only feel comfortable in a setting in which others comes from the same background. This reality may be due to the psychological proclivity to assimilate with those who share the same values and culture--it is easy to understand one another if we have common principles. Yet, through this commonality, members of such Christian communities run the risk of shielding themselves from unfamiliar cultures, a practice contrary to what we’ve already seen in scripture.
However, while some Christians use the Bible to gloss over the issue of ethnicity, holding up God’s described ultimate intent for all believers to be one body in Christ (Ephesians 2:19-22, NIV), they wrongly assume that ethnicity and mono-ethnic communities have no place in religion whatsoever. To understand why ethnic religious communities may play an important role in Christianity, one must first acknowledge that an individual’s ethnic background lays the groundwork for his or her upbringing, life experiences, and overall worldview. For example, while I personally do not consider myself defined by my identity as an Asian-American, I cannot deny the way my upbringing in an Asian-American household has shaped my perspective on family, relationships, morality, and politics. Because of my ethnicity, I am faced with pressures and advantages that are shared by many fellow Asian-Americans. Importantly, however, ethnicity is something to be embraced as a Christian: so much of being a Christian is understanding the way in which one’s faith affects the way one views, understands and acts within his or her culture. In this regard, each ethnic group has a set of experiences, values, customs, and struggles unique to their particular community. To claim that Christians ought to ignore ethnicity is to sweep these issues under the table, ignoring the crucial interplay of faith and culture that is detrimental to both.
The black church’s role in the African-American community throughout the history of the United States is a clear demonstration of the unique power and value of ethnic-specific expressions of faith. In his article, “Why the Black Church Has Always Mattered,” Professor Peniel E. Joseph outlines how the black church has a history of attending to the needs, struggles, and trials of the African-American population in ways that other secular groups could not. He concludes that, at its best, the black church provides “material benefits, community organizing and spiritual renewal for a community that remains scarred by a secular world that remains stubbornly resistant to the idea of black citizenship, let alone black humanity.”[iii] Thus, the mere fact that diversity is a necessary aspect of Christianity does not exclude the potential for healthy and meaningful mono-ethnic communities to exist at all. Churches and fellowships tailored to particular ethnic groups do have a place in Christianity: there is a level of connection, openness, and understanding with regards to the experiences of individual within ethnic groups that can only be achieved in the context of a mono-ethnic ministry. Yet these ministries face a particular challenge: to battle unintentional exclusivity while providing a safe space for a common culture. The beauty of Christianity provides individuals with a new lens through which one can examine and re-evaluate both a) the way in which one’s faith impacts one’s culture, and b) one’s relationship with members who come from wholly different backgrounds.
Lastly, in the article, “Should All Churches Be Multiethnic?”, Eric Robinson explains that “there is tremendous value and beauty in seeing specific cultural-specific expressions of the body of Christ, just as there is tremendous value and beauty in seeing multiethnic expressions of the body of Christ.”[iv] Christianity makes space for both mono- and multi-ethnic communities of believers, and neither type of church can be deemed as more necessary or sufficient than the other. It is possible to find one’s ultimate identity in Christ and still embrace one’s own ethnicity. Just as I see immense value in Christianity as a religion that brings all kinds of individuals together, I also see incalculable value in groups like the Asian-American congregation that I am a part of back home. Both are wonderful, and both are beautiful expressions of what Christianity is all about.
[i] Rosser, Russell C. "A Multiethnic Model of the Church." Direction, vol. 27, no. 2, 1998, pp. 189-92, www.directionjournal.org.
[ii] DeYmaz, Mark. "Mono-Ethnic Ministries and Multi-Ethnic Churches (Part 2)." Christianity Today, 2010, www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2010/august-online-only/mono-ethnic-ministries-and-multi-ethnic-churches-part-2.html.
[iii] Joseph, Peniel E. "Why the Black Church Has Always Mattered." The Root, 19 June 2015, www.theroot.com/why-the-black-church-has-always-mattered-1790860217.
[iv] Robinson, Eric. "Should All Churches Be Multiethnic?" Minister Different, ministerdifferent.com/all-multiethnic/